(This interview was originally published on September 26, 2011 at The Rogers Revue. Photographs by Michael Parsons)
There has been much talk about the upcoming Lucasfilm production “Red Tails”, an adventure story based on the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. The airmen, made up of the 332nd Fighter Group and 477th Bombardment Group, were the first squadron of African American pilots in U.S. history, and considered to be some of the best in the world. In 1941 Tuskegee Alabama, racism was prevalent and the U.S. military was segregated in accordance with Jim Crow Laws. These soldiers had to face adversity both at war and at home, and the Double Victory campaign encompassed the endeavors of these men who fought both for their country and for their civil rights as Americans.
The documentary “Double Victory”, as well as an extended trailer for “Red Tails”, was screened at the Annual Legislative Conference for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation this past week in Washington DC, hosted by BET news anchor Ed Gordon. Lucasfilm produced the documentary in support of the Tuskegee Airman this Veteran’s Day and to promote awareness of the film, which stars Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard and is directed by Anthony Hemingway. “Red Tails” is set for a January 20th, 2012 release date, the week of Martin Luther King’s birthday.
After the presentation we were able to sit down with the actors to talk about the film, but first had the privilege of hearing a firsthand account of history from two surviving Tuskegee Airmen, Dr. Roscoe Brown and Mr. Charles McGee.
Mr. McGee flew 6,100 hours in 30 years of active duty, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He has a BA in Business Administration and is now Director of Real Estate and Purchasing for ISC Financial Corporation. McGee was the President of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. from 1983-1985.
Dr. Roscoe Brown was a professor of education at NYU for 27 years, and is now the Director for the Center of Urban Education at CUNY.
(Tuskegee Airman Dr. Roscoe Brown – Photograph by Michael Parsons)
“We were as good as anybody, often better,” said Dr. Brown, who flew 68 long range missions with the 332nd. “We just needed an opportunity to show it. Many of us had studied aviation and wanted to be pilots. We made model planes, talked about Charles Lindbergh and Eugene Bullard (the first and only black pilot who flew in World War 1). So we had the confidence that we could do this. When we looked back 65 years and said ‘what did we do?’, we did exactly what we had expected to do. We practiced, we selected the best combat people and we had the discipline of General Benjamin O. Davis Jr. who was the real hero of the Tuskegee Airmen.”
Dr. Brown talked about his friendship with Jackie Robinson, the first ever African American Major League Baseball player, and how he changed the game.
“Jackie Robinson was a great friend of mine,” he said. “I remember when he came to visit and we’d get together. He did it and he did it well. Well, we did it and we did it well. And as I said in the documentary, we were cocky, but we were also good. Because of that we did exactly what we needed to do, which was to protect those bombers. Unfortunately it took decades for us to get recognized…but we know what we did, and now thanks to Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard and George Lucas, everybody will know about us. Hopefully with this movie, everybody will see just how good we were.”
Telling the story of the Tuskegee Airmen has been a passion project of George Lucas’ for many years now, an effort that he had to fund independently after being turned down by all seven major studios. “They kept saying that they didn’t know how to promote the movie,” said Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. who plays Major Emanuelle Stance in the film. “George said, ‘fair enough, I’ll promote the movie myself like I did with “Star Wars”.”
Oscar and Golden Globe Nominee Terrence Howard, who plays Colonel A.J. Bullard in “Red Tails”, also addressed issues concerning funding for African-American filmmakers and whether it’s easier to get money for biography- based pictures.
“I don’t know if it’s easier,” he said. “It’s often a draw of luck and ingenuity. You have to have a funding resource, and if the person you’re attempting to portray in a film is noteworthy then there’s a better chance of having some funding. That’s where there seem to be a lot more biopics. But there are a lot of black people writing great fictional stories and because the studios do not buy them and the producers do not option them, the black writer and black story seem to disappear.”