Such is the fate of a little-known band of airborne iconoclasts about whom Hollywood has finally taken notice. Red Tails, opening today, is Star Wars creator George Lucas’ 23-year labor of love. It tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black American fighter pilots, created to fail — but destined for greatness — in an experiment by a segregated U.S. military during World War II.
In a recent interview with USA Today, Lucas talked about being shot down by numerous studios and his ultimate decision to spend $58 million of his own money to bring his vision of Red Tails to the screen.
“For me, Red Tails is like Flying Leathernecks,” he said, referring to the 1951 John Wayne film. “It’s corny. It’s über-patriotic. And it’s a really exciting action-adventure movie. As for the racism in our story, it’s embedded in the material, so we just had to be careful not to overdo it.”
The movie focuses on the exploits of the 332nd Fighter Group based at the Ramitelli Air Base in Italy, following the pilots as they escort bombers on vital missions in enemy territory, shoot down German airplanes and blow up targets such as trains and ships whenever possible.
The movie stars a mostly African-American cast, featuring Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. and several young actors who play fictional versions of the pilots, mechanics and commanding officers of the 332nd.
And while Lucas’ film addresses the issues of racism, his larger goal was simply to tell the story of the Airmen in a way that would make a younger generation take an interest in their little celebrated achievements.
“I have only one agenda, and that’s for a lot of young people to see this movie,” Lucas told USA Today. “I think kids who see this, be they black or white, will walk out thinking (the Airmen) were cool.”
In fact, the Tuskegee Airmen were heroes, never losing a single bomber to enemy fighters during escort missions over strategic targets in Europe.
The success of the Airmen on more than 15,000 sorties and 1,500 missions proved to the world that black men could be brave aviators and eventually led to the integration of the armed forces in 1948. Pilots often referred to the Airmen’s missions as “Double V,” meaning a victory over Adolph Hitler and his Nazi regime as well as a victory over racism at home.
In 1939, the U.S. government created Civilian Pilot Training Programs to provide a surplus of pilots in case of a national emergency; African-Americans were allowed to train, although trained at segregated facilities such as Moton Field in Tuskegee, which has since become a national historic site. In time, this experience became known as the “Tuskegee Experience” — a term that was adopted and characterized the period of 1939-1949.
It took 36 weeks to become one of the Tuskegee Airmen, making the transition from aviation cadet to certified military pilot. And while their skills at home may not have been recognized, the Red Tails — so named for because pilots painted the tails of their P-47s red — were respected by the German enemies who referred to the fighter pilots as the “Schwarze Vogelmenschen” (Black Birdmen).
By the end of the Tuskegee Experience, it was obvious that the military’s plan to prove black men couldn’t fly was a colossal failure. The numbers speak for themselves — 965 black men graduated from the pilot training program with 450 of them serving overseas. Nearly 900 awards were earned by the Tuskegee Airmen, including one Silver Star, one Legion of Merit, 95 Distinguished Flying Crosses, two soldiers medals, 14 Bronze Stars, eight Purple Hearts and 744 Air Medals with Oak Leaf Clusters.
Though Red Tails reduces 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 in an article for the Detroit Free Press.
“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.”
Contact Brett Bucker at firstname.lastname@example.org.