Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. have experience playing members of the Tuskegee Airmen. In addition to their roles in the new film “Red Tails,” a story of the famed African-American pilots of World War II, they have each played airmen before– in “Hart’s War” and in the HBO film, “The Tuskegee Airmen,” respectively. These actors dressed up as airmen, spoke like airmen and learned the basics of flight training as the real Tuskegee Airmen did.
Of course, these actors can never know what it was really like to be a pilot in the first completely African-American aerial unit in the military. Only an actual airman could know and the “Red Tails” producers were smart enough to bring in experts like Dr. Roscoe Brown—one of the original Tuskegee Airmen—to work on this production.
Patheos spoke to Dr. Brown and the cast of “Red Tails” in Washington DC about their work in the film and their efforts to tell this important story.
Written by John Ripley and Aaron McGruder, the film tells the story of a group of anxious young African-American pilots during World War II hoping to engage in more combat. These pilots have been trained and are ready to fight but are often passed over for the toughest assignments because the color of their skin overshadows the extent of their ability and patriotism.
Nate Parker, David Oyelowo and Tristan Wilds portray some of these young pilots while veteran actors Howard and Gooding Jr. play their commanders. These commanders fight against the establishment—personified by the uptight Colonel William Mortamus (Bryan Cranston)—and eventually get the pilots an opportunity to prove their skills in the air.
As Dr. Brown was quick to note, he has been working with other members of the Tuskegee Airmen for about “30 years to get this project off the ground.” He said that several of these veterans “wrote a script back in the 70’s that we thought was going to be portrayed” but then “the head of a studio got fired” and the project was dropped. Thankfully, legendary producer George Lucas was interested in the subject and visited a Tuskegee organization about twenty years ago, putting the project back on track.
In addition to that early visit, the Tuskegee Airmen were involved in the actual film production with four airmen serving on set to make sure that the story was accurately portrayed. And the actors themselves were eager to tell this story. Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr.—who has played military officers in films such as “Pearl Harbor” and “Men of Honor” —said that he jumped at the chance to do the film: “I like to say that this is my love letter to the armed services no matter what branch you’re in.”
The airmen, Brown argued, were not simply fighting a war against the enemy but against prejudice as well. “[The Unit] felt as African-Americans that if we did well, the larger society would recognize the stupidity of segregation and desegregate.”
These men fought valiantly with their lives and as British actor David Orelowa—who learned about the Airmen by reading the script itself—stated, “So many of the incredible things you see in the film…were based on things that actually happened.”
The actors and the director of this film had good intentions in telling this story onscreen. Unfortunately, the story never measures up to the interesting subject material. With action sequences that lack excitement and characters that lack intrigue, it’s difficult to truly enjoy “Red Tails.” The film is a reasonable effort to tell a remarkable true story and should be credited as such. As a movie, it leaves moviegoers disappointed and knowing that the airmen deserved a stronger tribute than this patriotic—but ultimately underwhelming—film.
“Red Tails” is rated PG-13 for scenes of violence and combat.