By Julie Hinds, Detroit Free Press –
DETROIT — From “Sands of Iwo Jima” to “The Hurt Locker,” there have been too many war movies to count.
Yet little screen time has been devoted to the Tuskegee Airmen, the pioneering World War II African-American aviators who fought a two-front battle: against the Germans overseas and against racism at home.
But starting Friday, America will get to see a “Top Gun”-style version of the Tuskegee Airmen story in “Red Tails,” a major action movie executive produced by “Star Wars” creator George Lucas and paid for with his own money.
“I think the movie should get maybe four or five Oscars, at least,” said Arthur Green, president of the Detroit chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., who has seen an advance screening.
For the real-life Tuskegee Airmen, who are now in their mid-80s to mid-90s and include pilots, bombardiers, gunners, mechanics and support staff, “Red Tails” has a much bigger mission than entertaining or spreading the word of their valor.
It’s about inspiring young people, said Harry Stewart Jr., 87, of Bloomfield Township, Mich., who flew 43 combat missions in Europe.
“It shows, ‘Hey, look what those guys did. If I work and I really want something like this, I can go ahead and do it, too,’” Stewart said. “I think it gives the kids pride and encouragement.”
For too long, the Tuskegee Airmen were an unknown chapter of World War II.
“We were being left out of history,” said William Horton Thompson, 92, of Detroit. “We weren’t necessarily talking about it. We were busy trying to make a living.”
When Stewart got back from the war and would mention black fighter pilots, he often got the same response. “People would look at me and basically say, ‘Who were they?’”
The Tuskegee Airmen succeeded despite the attitude of the U.S. military, which was then segregated and had many commanders who didn’t think African Americans should or could fly planes in combat.
Now, about 70 years late, these pioneering members of the greatest generation are getting the action-packed war movie they deserve.
“Red Tails” is as exciting and patriotic as “Captain America.” Only it’s inspired by the real deal, not a comic book character.
“To portray these modern-day heroes, these are superheroes,” said “Red Tails” co star Elijah Kelley at a recent advance screening in Birmingham, Mich., attended by several Tuskegee Airmen from Detroit.
Lucas has been on a 23-year journey to get the movie to the big screen. In a recent interview with USA Today, he talked about approaching a half-dozen major studio heads about a financial partnership, but they were concerned about the film’s marketability. So he spent $58 million of his own money to make it.
Although the Tuskegee Airmen have a lengthy history that stretches back to a small program at the Tuskegee Institute, “Red Tails” focuses on the exploits of the 332nd Fighter Group based at the Ramitelli air base in Italy.
It follows the pilots as they escort bombers on vital missions in enemy territory, shoot down German aircraft and strafe targets such as trains and ships whenever possible. The movie’s title comes from the distinctive red tails of their P 51 Mustangs.
The movie has a mostly African-American cast: Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. and a number of rising young actors play fictional versions of the pilots, mechanics and commanding officers of the 332nd. It’s directed by Anthony Hemingway, whose credits include acclaimed TV series “Treme” and “The Wire,” and is co-written by John Ridley (“Three Kings,” “Undercover Brother”) and “Boondocks” creator Aaron McGruder.
Unlike HBO’s groundbreaking 1995 movie “The Tuskegee Airmen” starring Laurence Fishburne, which was more of an overall history, “Red Tails” offers the thrills of an old-fashioned action movie and the state-of-the- art special effects of 2012.
“Yes, it’s a war movie, but this is like ‘Avatar,’” said Gooding, who appeared in “The Tuskegee Airmen” and plays a pipe-smoking major in “Red Tails.” “Visually, you really feel you’re in these cockpits. Some of the dog fights in this movie really feel like the same thing that we had in ‘Star Wars.’ I think the only difference is that all of the actors in the cockpits are black, except for the Nazis, the Germans trying to shoot them out of the sky.”
Like the rest of the cast, Gooding has been touring the country to spread the word about “Red Tails.”
Instead of a hero’s welcome after the war, the Tuskegee Airmen met the same discrimination they faced before it. Stewart, who also was at Ramitelli, flew 43 combat missions and later was part of the winning team at a 1949 Air Force gunnery meet, was turned down when he applied to two airlines. One rejected him without explanation. The other offered a reason through one of its employment officers. “He said, ‘Well, can you imagine the confidence of the people in the airplane if they should see you walking down the aisle?’ “
Stewart went on to become a top executive at ANR Pipeline.
Though “Red Tails” crunches several years of adventures into a couple of hours, it gets the spirit of the Tuskegee Airmen right, said Dr. Brian Smith, director of the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum.
“I think what it shows is a superhero, and that’s what America needs to understand about these men, that they actually did superhuman things during the war,” he said. “Tie that together with the racism they had to suffer. They were out there fighting for people who didn’t even like them, much less love them.”
The pilots are sticklers for detail when it comes to depictions of themselves.
Alexander Jefferson, 90, was at Ramitelli and flew 18 long-range combat missions before being shot down by the Germans and sent to POW camps. He said the commanding officer of the 332nd never would have allowed the dramatic conversations that take place over the radio between cockpits in “Red Tails.”
“He would have killed us,” he joked, explaining how radio communication was kept calm and brief.