The story of the Tuskegee Airmen was one that almost didn’t get told. The crew of African-American fighter pilots in World War II had been given the television movie treatment by HBO in 1995, but director George Lucas spent nearly 25 years trying to get a major feature made. By funding the film himself, Lucas was finally able to produce the movie he’d always dreamed of making. One of the original Tuskegee Airmen, 89-year-old Roscoe Brown, notes the importance of that project: “Red Tails.”
“Young people don’t know about segregation,” Brown says. “When I give speeches and tell young people that I applied to be a pilot at Eastern Airlines and that the staffing manager told me to my face, ‘we don’t hire negroes here,’ it causes them to just gasp because that would never happen today. And the reason it wouldn’t happen today is because folks like us and Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt changed the world, so I like to see it as a world-changing experience.”
One of the stars of the film, R&B singer Ne-Yo, notes that the airmen, who broke color barriers by engaging in direct combat with the Germans, rather than only assisting on tertiary flight missions, took on the unwieldy tasks at an extraordinarily young age — between 17 and 25.
“If you didn’t know and you were told about what the Tuskegee Airmen accomplished, you’d instantly think these were men who’d lived lives, had families, in their upper 30s, 40s,” he says. “The amazingness of these individuals — it wasn’t about how old they were. It was about, ‘we’ve got a job to do and we’re going to get it done.’”
Their story so affected Cuba Gooding Jr., who appeared in the HBO film on the subject, that the actor fought to be a part of this project as well.
“They’re not telling these stories very much in Hollywood,” Gooding Jr. says. “This was the first time I’d read a script where these men empowered themselves. I loved ‘Glory,’ but they didn’t need Matthew Broderick‘s [character] in this movie. They did it on their own. These are black men, doing for themselves.”
Back in time
The actors who portray the tight-knit Red Tails crew got a wallop of authenticity by living in a training camp for several weeks before production. Ne-Yo likens the experience to a time-warp:
“It was bootcamp for 1942, meaning there was no music that wasn’t from 1942, there was no food that wasn’t from 1942,” he says. “No cell phones, nothing. It was snowing, and we were in tents.”