Tales of American History
by Kimberly Bailey-Tureaud
With an impressive $19 million at the box office in its opening weekend, “Red Tails” is making a serious impact in Hollywood. The film centers on the courage displayed by the legendary Tuskegee Airmen of the 1940s, as the all-black corps of fighter pilots battled not only the forces of Nazism during WWII, but managed to stand tall at home and abroad under the crippling weight of Jim Crow-era discrimination.
Executive-produced by George Lucas and directed by rising African-American director Anthony Hemingway, the story has been embraced by movie audiences around the world. That is thanks in to its cast, which captures the brotherly camaraderie that gave the Tuskegee Airmen an indispensable advantage in battle. That cast includes some of the finest African-American actors working today: Terrence Howard (Col. A.J. Bullard); Cuba Gooding Jr. (Maj. Emmanuel Stance); Nate Parker (Marty “Easy” Julian); Tristan Wilds (Ray “Junior” Gannon); Marcus T. Paulk (David “Deke” Watkins); Elijah Kelley (Samuel “Joker” George); David Oyelowo (Joe “Lightning” Little); and Las Vegas native Ne-Yo (Andrew “Smokey” Salem).
With its release well-timed for Black History Month, the film focuses on the pilots’ heroic exploits in the air. However, the backstory of the Tuskegee Airmen is equally important to understanding the fortitude they displayed while fighting two separate wars: one against the Nazis, the other against a racist power structure that believed, against all evidence to the contrary, that African-Americans were unfit to serve their country in meaningful ways.
The Tuskegee Airmen were born when the historically black Tuskegee (Ala.) Institute hosted a Civilian Pilot Training Program in 1939, after the U.S. Census Bureau showed there were only 124 licensed black pilots in the entire United States. Alarmed by those findings, several black activist leaders — including Walter White of the NAACP, labor leader A. Philip Randolph and Judge William H. Hastie — demanded the formation of an aviation program that would increase the numbers of black pilots in the air. Soon after, Congress appropriated money for the program.
Given the times, it came as no surprise that this initiative was met with opposition. But the Tuskegee program received a needed boost when first lady Eleanor Roosevelt — who had visited Tuskegee in March 1941 to inspect the aviation program — took a flight piloted by a man trained there. Impressed by the pilot’s skills, she was instrumental in securing $175,000 to expand the program, and it wasn’t long before the Tuskegee Institute began referring trained and licensed fighter pilots to the United States military.
Between the years of 1941 and 1946, 996 pilots went through the Tuskegee aviation program. Of them, 445 were deployed overseas, 66 were killed in action and 32 fell into captivity and became prisoners of war.
In “Red Tails,” Terrence Howard portrays the black pilots’ highest-ranking advocate inside the Department of Defense. He is depicted as working tirelessly, and shrewdly, to convince Pentagon brass that the Tuskegee Airmen deserved an opportunity to prove their mettle in the war. Up to that point, they had only been called upon to perform relatively menial tasks in support of their white counterparts.
“My character is like the Martin Luther King Jr. of the Air Force,” said Howard. “He is responsible for keeping the Tuskegee Airmen in a position of high integrity. George Lucas and I spoke about three years ago, and he said he was thinking about doing this film. For him to stand behind this movie when no one else would — and to select a black director — is fantastic.”
Howard added: “Upon meeting some of the original Tuskegee Airmen before we started filming the movie, they shared with us incredible stories and … corrected us on how we wore our belts and hats, and how we stood at attention. These men had so much integrity, so much depth and discipline. I am very thankful that they persevered. All the things they fought for has [brought] us where we are now.”