HIGHER GROUND: Pilots of a Tuskegee Airmen unit, circa May 1943, likely in Southern Italy or North Africa. The Airmen were the first African American military aviators in the United States armed forces. (Photo: Wikipedia)
This week’s observance of Memorial Day, along with the recent release of the film Red Tails (now available on DVD and Blu-ray), brought back memories of a highlight from my life and career. Two years ago, I had the honor of interviewing four extraordinary men for a local paper in San Antonio: Buck Sergeant Warren H. Eusan, Mr. John “Mule” Miles, Lt. Colonel Gene Derricotte, and Lt. Colonel Granville Coggs. I was noticeably nervous going in, knowing that I’d be interviewing a part of history — a remnant of the illustrious Tuskegee Airmen.
The men, all well into their eighth decade, looked distinguished and refined. I was captivated by their profound stories. With every question I asked, the reality of just how special they were began to unfold. As the first African American aviators in the U.S. armed forces, their courage and success during World War II helped open doors to military service that were once off limits to certain minority groups. Their experiences spoke of a confidence born of great achievement against enormous odds. Indeed, after they took flight, the whole world watched, with everyone, for the most part, believing they would fail.
Although at times life as an airman seemed insurmountably difficult, 90-year-old Eusan, who later became a public school teacher, recalled: “It made us stick together, and there was a pride in all of us that said we had to make it.”
LIVING LEGENDS: Surviving Tuskegee Airmen (from left) Warren Eusan, Gene Derricotte, Granville Coggs and John Miles continue to meet as the San Antonio, Texas, chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. (Photo: Wanda Thomas Littles)
I was transported by their remembrances to the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in 2007, when they and more than 300 other Tuskegee Airmen or their surviving family members stood to witness the ultimate words that they had longed to hear — their names called as collective recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor some 65 years after all the victory celebrations, parades, and ticker tape joyfully lavished on other soldiers had faded away. It was an honor way overdue.
Lt. Colonel Coggs, now retired from the army said, “The honor and recognition we are now receiving is unimaginable … I just wish that those who died without seeing it could be here.”
As we moved on, my questions to them referenced the unabashed racism they faced as young airmen near Tuskegee, Alabama, and I could sense an agreement in spirit that said they had survived and had overcome the harsh reality of an America that was unwilling to regard them as intelligent and capable human beings.
However, these men didn’t allow the mistreatment and disrespect to outweigh the greater mission, for which the fate of the whole of Black America hinged. Although all of them at times thought about it, and probably came close to laying out more than a few white antagonists who taunted them with racist epithets, they did not.
FLY BALL: John 'Mule' Miles played baseball in the Negro League following WW2.
Eighty-eight year old Miles said, “The key to not retaliating was my faith in God; because if it had not been for the Lord on my side, where would I be?” Miles would go on to play ball for The American Negro Baseball League in Chicago after the war.
The Tuskegee Airmen fine-tuned the art of restraint through another type of courage called self-control. And through this restraint, through remaining strong under unthinkable pressure, they proved the whole world wrong about their capabilities.
The most outstanding part of being a Tuskegee Airman was the position they took that said, “No matter how hard they make it, we can take it. There is no room for failure. We must succeed.”
And succeed they did.
Being totally on one accord at every level, from ground to air, this unity of purpose was truly their greatest contribution in destroying the myth that African American men did not have what it took to hold positions of responsibility.
The Tuskegee Airmen, who actually saw battle as fighter pilots, flew 15,553 combat sorties and completed 1,578 missions, providing fighter escorts to strategic targets in Europe. These were men who served with distinction over North Africa, Italy, and Germany. White bomber crews ultimately called them “Red Tailed Angels” because of the red paint on their tail assemblies; but most importantly because they protected the white pilots on their missions. Under the leadership of then-Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, who trained the first black pilots at Tuskegee Institute in a unit called the 99th Squadron, the Tuskegee Airmen showed the world what a people who had been written off as intellectually and mentally deficient were capable of.
After nearly 30 years in the shadow of obscurity and lies, the truth was finally told. With the founding of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. in 1972 in Detroit, Michigan, 50 chapters sprung up all over the U.S. and the record was set straight. Now the organization’s collective aim is to help further the education of young men and women of all races in math, science, and aviation through scholarships and a variety of programs to honor of the Tuskegee Airmen.
OFFICER & GENTLEMAN: Lt. Colonel Gene Derricotte.
Lt. Colonel Derricotte, the youngest of the group at age 84, who served in both the Army and Air Force before becoming a dentist, explained, “Essentially no one knew there was such a thing as the Tuskegee Airmen. Now when I speak at schools, and in the community, people tell me how sorry they are for the way we were treated and tell me how proud they are of me — of us.”
The Tuskegee project, according to the men, began when a law passed by Congress allowing African Americans to train in civilian life as pilots was passed. After this bill took effect, an experimental Negro branch of pilots in the Army Air Corps was formed. To date there are roughly 278 Tuskegee Airmen living, with about 90 having been pilots; however, no one knows for certain how many of the estimated 19,000 “Tuskegee Experience” participants are still alive today. What we do know is that they all played an important role in the war. While men like Lee Archer, one of just three Tuskegee pilots with four “kills,” and Roscoe C. Brown, who flew over 79 missions in his career, were making remarkable history in the thick of battle, the men and women back home were building a legacy by following the precedent established to maintain superior support of the men abroad, outstanding deportment, and high achievements in flight should they have to deploy.
PROUD SOLDIER: Buck Sergeant Warren H. Eusan.
The NAACP, the black press, and even then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who flew with a black pilot at Tuskegee, worked hard to get the Tuskegee project off the ground and to support its development. These men and women were the cream of the crop from black colleges and universities across the land. They were men and women who’d studied to be doctors, lawyers, educators, even aviators, who jumped at the opportunity to serve our nation. They were salutatorians, valedictorians, and men and women who were in the upper tenth of their class. They were men and women who were simply the best.
Miles said, “We worked hard all day and went to school at night.”
Even now, the bond forged between them is strong. The men joked, bantered, and reflected on their past lives and Buck Sergeant Eusan asked, “Did you know Derricotte was a student of mine that I trained to master the instrumentation on our planes?” When asked by Derricotte what kind of grade he got, Eusan said, “You’re here right now, aren’t you? You must have gotten an A.”
SKY'S THE LIMIT: Lt. Colonel Granville Coggs.
They laughed — a beautiful thing to hear, which speaks of the resilience of men who turned disrespect, bigotry, and injustice into an occasion for something positive.
Lt. Colonel Coggs reflected, “The only way you could describe the Tuskegee Airmen is that we were a cut above.” And they were, because President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order ending segregation in the military after seeing just how far above the racist labels and stereotypes they were.
It’s interesting to note that all but two of the San Antonio chapter members thought that George Lucas’s Red Tails was the best, most accurate film to date on the Tuskegee Airmen; and they’ve seen them all. The two dissenting Airmen felt the film underplayed the intense racial struggles that they faced in favor of a more glamorized “Hollywood” tale. Nonetheless, earlier this year the seven San Antonio Airmen celebrated the film made in their honor by signing autographs and sharing memories with the local press at San Antonio’s Rialto Theater. Inside the theater, after being introduced as members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, they received a standing ovation from moviegoers and staff.
Vintage photos courtesy of the San Antonio Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.
There’s been plenty of buzz surrounding Red Tails, the George Lucas blockbuster action picture depicting the daring exploits of the 332nd Fighter Group of World War II, more commonly known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Strictly by the numbers, it’s been considered an initial success, grossing $19 million in a strong opening weekend. Anecdotally, my Facebook and Twitter feed are both testifying to its popularity. People are talking about it.
And if I were strictly a PR flack for Lucasfilm, I’d be focused primarily on trying to find out what people are saying about it.
But as a critical thinker, I have to get beyond the question, “what are people saying?” and get to the bigger question — what should people be saying?
I realize that’s an inherently presumptuous question. People are entitled to their own reactions to any piece of art or commerce. But anytime there is a popular movie or television show that captures the collective attention of a sizable group of people, most of the responses tend to be polarized. Yet, discerning viewers need to be able to give and receive more feedback than just, “it was great!” or “it sucked.”
The truth is, no matter what you thought about the film itself, there are great lessons to be learned in the wake of this Red Tails phenomenon, and we’d all be better off if we could dig deeper and find them.
Lesson one: Before we decide if it’s good or bad, let’s be grateful Red Tails was made.
I know it’s obvious, but really … this can’t be repeated enough: it is amazing that this film ever got made. George Lucas deserves a lot of credit for putting his money on the line to make this film. No disrespect to the well-done mid-’90s HBO version, but Red Tails is the kind of movie that kids and teens might actually want to see, instead of being the kind of movie that they dutifully sit through to please their parents.
When you get right down to it, Black history is American history. But this particular chapter in American history has been so overlooked for so long that it takes a film with a big budget, decent writing, excellent sound design, and other Hollywood perks to get a wider array of people to pay attention and give these heroes their due.
So whether or not Red Tails is a great film is, in my view, mostly irrelevant. It doesn’t need to be great. It just needs to be legit … to have the air and cachet and buzz of a major blockbuster motion picture. And on those grounds, it has succeeded.
Strictly as a piece of WWII-era entertainment, Red Tails is a mixed bag. It’s not as good as, say, last summer’s Captain America. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow more than I liked Red Tails, despite the fact that it flopped pretty badly at the box office.
Which just goes to show you that critics aren’t always a great indicator of what people will flock to.
No, Red Tails isn’t going to set the world on fire … but that’s fine. Neither did Pearl Harbor with Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett. But they’re both historical films that inform our broader American culture about important people and events in our nation’s history.
And by the way, the fact that George Lucas had to put so much of his money into it to make it happen is the main reason why he’s getting all of this love. It’s not because it’s such a great movie, or because Lucas is a such a greatfilmmaker (more on that in a bit).
It’s because it’s such a great thing for the movie to have been made in the first place.
To resurrect a tired-but-appropriate illustration:
Bankrolling a Big-Budget Blockbuster With An Ensemble Cast And Top Rate Special Effects, as well as Bankrolling the Promotion and Distribution For Said Film when the Big Hollywood Studios Wouldn’t Touch It: $60 Million.
Honoring the Story of A Neglected Subset of American Heroes and Inspiring Black Boys In Ways That Other Films Have Never Done Before: Priceless.
Lesson two: Stop giving George Lucas all the credit — or blame.
Because of the cult fandom of Star Wars that played out through the ’80s and ‘90s, George Lucas developed a near mythical persona — that is, until he released the trilogy of Star Wars prequel films, and then he became a rhetorical punching bag for disillusioned fans of the original films.
FROM SKYWALKER TO TUSKEGEE AIRMEN: 'Red Tails' producer George Lucas. (Photo: Nicolas Genin/Wikipedia)
Ever since, George Lucas has had a polarizing effect on people. And depending on whom you talk to, he’s considered either a rarified genius or a no-talent hack.
Here’s what a lot of folks are forgetting, though — George Lucas did not direct Red Tails.
That honor went to Anthony Hemingway, notable for his TV work on HBO’s The Wire and Treme. And so should some of the praise — and the blame — for the way it turned out. Many of the people who automatically take aim at Lucas don’t necessarily understand the role of a producer, and how it differs from that of a director.
It probably hasn’t helped that Lucas has done all of the high-profile press and television appearances by himself. Not only might it have helped to elevate Anthony Hemingway’s profile as a young, up-and-coming African American film director, but Lucas might have more easily avoided flirting with a White savior complex.
Lesson three: It wasn’t just money that turned this idea into reality; it was also passion, humility, and relationship.
Being a historical film, Red Tails is a fun ride, but it doesn’t have too many surprises (SPOILER ALERT: the Germans lost the war.)
The biggest surprise for me about Red Tails was in the credits — that alongside main screenwriter John Ridley was none other than Aaron McGruder, creator of The Boondocks comic strip and animated series.
(*cue the sound of needle scratching record*)
Yes, this is the same Aaron McGruder who, through the voice of his protagonist Huey Freeman, took shots at George Lucas and the Star Wars prequels on a regular basis — especially for the character Jar Jar Binks, who was widely considered to be an annoying galactic caricature of Black stereotypes.
It’s no surprise that he would branch out into feature films, but seriously … raise your hand if you foresaw Aaron McGruder teaming up with the man he so thoroughly and publicly lambasted. (Now put those hands back down, and stop lying.)
The truth is, it would’ve taken a lot of humility for George Lucas to invite Aaron McGruder into the collaborative process, and just as much for McGruder to accept that invitation. But that’s also where the passion part comes into play. Both Lucas and McGruder grew up in awe of the Tuskegee Airmen, and as McGruder explains in this clip, everyone who collaborated on the film had a real desire to honor them as heroes, and tell their story the right way.
Then when you factor in Lucas’ romantic relationship with Mellody Hobson of Ariel Investments, and how that might have bolstered his sense of connection to the Black community at large, it’s clear that George Lucas did not see Red Tails as simply another commercial investment or even routine altruism. It was a labor of love with a significant emotional investment.
* * *
This is the point that Christian leaders need to really understand. So much energy is spent in dissecting all of the problems in our country … racism, poverty, political rancor, you name it. As much as we need solid cultural analysis and biblical exegesis regarding these matters, being engaged from a distance will only get us so far. What we need is leaders who can speak to these issues with the conviction and gravitas that can only come from being personally invested.
It’s no surprise, for example, that of all the high-profile White pastors and/or Christian leaders, the one who most recently released a definitive biblical exploration of the race issue in America (Bloodlines, available here as a free download) is John Piper, a man known primarily for his role as author and pastor, but who also cherishes his role as an adoptive father of an African American teenage girl. It’s one thing to pontificate in theory about how Blacks and Whites can and should live in unity. It’s another thing to try to walk that out in your own household, day by day.
And maybe that’s the biggest lesson that Christians can extract from the story of Red Tails — that in desperate times, history celebrates the ones who are willing to forego safety and security in order to bravely take on the task at hand.
As a young, educated, and professional Black woman, I stand on the shoulders of giants. I was able to graduate from the United States Naval Academy and serve as an officer in the United States Marine Corps thanks to heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen who paved the way before me. That’s why I’m thankful that the next generation will be able to experience glimpses of their story in this weekend’s opening of the movie, Red Tails.
Red Tails is inspired by the true story of the Tuskegee Airmen, who served as America’s first black aerial combat unit. This movie took nearly 23 years to complete and it’s a story that needs to be told. The reality of bringing this movie to the big screen is due in no small feat to the tenacity of producer George Lucas (Star Wars), who financed the project with $93 million of his own money.
Lucas started out consulting with 40 Tuskegee Airmen and that number has now dwindled to seven. Lucas was determined to get this project to the big screen before all of the Tuskegee Airmen died. Thanks to his work with director Anthony Hemingway, they have produced what has been labeled a World War II action movie with the most special effects of any film of this kind. The special effects in Red Tails are on par with films such as Lucas’ most recent Star Wars films and James Cameron’s Avatar, which means it doesn’t get much better.
LUCAS and LEGENDS: George Lucas (far left) stood with surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen last fall as they were honored during a University of Southern California football game. Lucas consulted with 40 different Airmen during the making of "Red Tails." (Photo: Tony Leon/Newscom)
What do you have to look forward to? For the first time ever, this is not an action movie with one token person of color. Lucas and Hemingway have lined up an all-Black leading cast, including longtime fan favorites Terrence Howard (Col. A.J. Bullard) and Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. (Major Emanuelle Stance), with R&B singer Ne-Yo (Andrew ‘Smoky’ Salem) even taking a role. Rounding out the crew is Nate Parker (Marty ‘Easy’ Julian), whom you may remember from The Great Debaters; British actor David Oyelowo (Joe ‘Lightning’ Little); Michael B. Jordan (Maurice ‘Bumps” Wilson); and Elijah Kelley (Samuel ‘Joker’ George). Besides being talented actors, these men are also easy on the eyes, ladies.
Producing this movie was an uphill battle, as Lucas fought against the grain. Hollywood continued to reject the viability of selling a “black” action movie. But this is not just a Black movie that appeals to Black people; this is an American story about American patriots, military servants, and heroes who happen to be Black people.
Unfortunately, so many of the stories of Black history have been lost or rewritten over the years, allowing others to take credit for our work and contributions to this great country. We need to remind Hollywood, the media, politicians, and other leaders of what we have done. It’s not okay to narrow the focus of contributions of African Americas to a select few leaders who have changed the history of this country and made it what it is today. The foundation for much of America’s success as a nation was built on the backs of Black folk.
Now is an opportunity to celebrate our contributions. George Lucas’ vision for this project is to provide real heroes for young African American boys. I share his vision, and it is my hope that this movie rekindles conversations for our young boys and Black men about what they can be and do.
I hope this movie presents another opportunity to reinforce the importance of self-respect, goal setting, character building, persistence and hard work, and prioritizing education. This movie puts the names of real heroes on the lips of our children so that they go to the books and read the true stories. We have to stop the cycle of youth solely idolizing ball carriers and musical artists — some of which have spent more time in jail or tattoo parlors than they ever did in school, at home with their kids, or honoring the women in their lives. All athletes and artists aren’t bad, but we certainly need to expose our children to more engineers, doctors, entrepreneurs, and military servants (those who continuously give of themselves to make other people’s lives better).
Now is the time to show Hollywood that your money is green. Show Hollywood that great movies telling great stories that feature a predominately African American cast can explode at the box office during their opening weekends, and Tyler Perry does not have to produce them.
Red Tails opens tomorrow in theaters everywhere. Let’s get out to the theaters this weekend and show Hollywood that Black America wants more films like this! Take your friends, family, congregations, and kids. (Note: This movie has a PG-13 rating for some war violence.) See the movie once, twice, or three times, and then talk about it! Also be on the watch for Lucas’ two-hour documentary about the Tuskegee Airmen on The History Channel.
Let us know your thoughts on Hollywood’s claim that Black moviegoers will not support this type of film. Then let’s prove them wrong.