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Red tails: Finally flying to the UK

Black history on the big screen: The cast of the film depict the story of America’s famed Tuskegee

TO SAY Red Tails was a long time in the making would be an understatement.

A passion project for Hollywood heavyweight George Lucas for almost two decades, the film was finally brought to life when the Star Wars director used almost $100 million (approximately £63,800,000 pounds) of his own money to make it. But then came the second hurdle. After creating the film – which tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American fighter pilots in the United States armed forces – Lucas, who serves as the film’s executive producer, struggled to find a studio to distribute his project.

Apparently – to put it bluntly – Hollywood wasn’t convinced that a film with a predominantly black cast would be of interest to an international audience.

Quite ironic really, considering the film itself highlights similar racial prejudice that was faced by the Tuskegee Airmen, as they fought to prove their ability to their racist white superiors during World War II.

Still, after 20th Century Fox stepped in as the US distributor, the film was released in the States in January this year. And after proving its worth across the pond, Red Tails finally makes it to UK cinemas this week, through Momentum Pictures.

Marking the directorial film debut for US TV director Anthony Hemingway, the film stars Hollywood actors Cuba Gooding Jr and Terrence Howard, alongside British star David Oyelowo, US actor Nate Parker, and R’n’B star Ne-Yo.

For Gooding Jr, being a part of this film was an honour, not least because it gave him the opportunity to teach his own children about the heroism and contribution of the Tuskegee Airmen – something he admits he knew nothing about until his late teens.

“One of the things that frustrated me was that I first heard of the Tuskegee Airmen when I’d finished my education,” explains the actor, who stars in the film as Major Emanuelle Stance. “I didn’t go to college but I graduated high school and I knew nothing about black people in World War II or any major American conflict. The fact that I didn’t know that p****d me off.

“So now I have an opportunity to teach my kids this story through cinema,” the father-of-three continues. “I can teach them that President Obama wasn’t a mistake – it was a natural progression of things. People all over the world don’t know how he was able to become President because stories like Red Tails haven’t been in abundance. So it was an honour to be a part of this movie.”

While Gooding Jr is one of the film’s bigger-name stars, it’s Brit boy David Oyelowo who really has the leading role as dare-devil pilot Joe ‘Lightning’ Little. He too admits that he knew “nothing” about the Tuskegee Airmen – who were dubbed the Red Tails after they painted the tails of their aircrafts red – until he became involved in the film.

“To my shame, I knew nothing about this story,” says The Last King Of Scotland star. “I think there are probably a lot of people who don’t know that black people participated in any of the wars, both here [in the UK] and in the States.

“So to find out that these guys weren’t only fighter pilots, but they also had the best bomber escort record of any air squadron in World War II, it makes you wonder, ‘why on earth am I not seeing plaques and statues dedicated to these guys?’ I didn’t know anything about this story, but at least I have the excuse of being British. But even in America, a lot of black Americans aren’t aware of the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, which is why it’s fantastic that this film has been made.”

In addition to the more traditional forms of historical research, the cast and crew also benefitted from the wisdom of some of the Tuskegee Airmen, who were on set during filming. Now in their 80s and 90s, the surviving pilots made an immense contribution to the film by reliving their experiences.

“They talked to us about so many different things,” says Gooding Jr. “And when they recalled their experiences in the war, you could see the pride in their eyes. I remember I asked [former squadron commander] Dr. Roscoe Brown: ‘Did it ever freak you out to know that you might not make it back alive from one of those missions?’ He said, ‘Yes and no. We all looked at it that if we died over the skies of Berlin in a plane, we’d die as heroes. But if we go back to the States, we’re still second class citizens.’”

This is another element of history highlighted in the film. While the airmen demonstrated bravery and heroism, fighting for their country in the war, with America still racially segregated at the time, black Americans – even war heroes – faced racial discrimination on a daily basis.

“They called it the Double Victory campaign: the fight abroad and the fight at home,” says Oyelowo. “Their [the airmen’s] theory was, ‘if we fight really well abroad, maybe it will help people at home to perceive us differently.’

Unfortunately for them, that wasn’t the case. They came back home to a segregated America and for them, especially those who lived in the South, it was a real slap in the face to have gone overseas to fight for your country and then come back to still be treated like second class citizens.

“But what’s so inspiring about their story is that they chose not to let their experiences embitter them. They just chose to remain excellent and believed that time would change the tide. Ultimately, they were right.”

With several of the surviving airmen having watched and enjoyed the film, this was heart-warming for director Anthony Hemingway.

“It was gratifying to watch them as the action scenes came on and they grabbed their imaginary controls, as if they were right back there flying the planes,” recalls Hemingway. “It brought tears to my eyes because it was them that I really want to please with this movie."

“This is an important story for many people, but on a personal level, this is a story that I used as inspiration when I was growing up. These men were my heroes. Growing up as a New York city kid in the projects and wanting to get out of that, these guys were my blueprint.”

And while the film highlights the achievements of the famed all-black military squad, Hemingway says he doesn’t see Red Tails as a black film.

“Clearly, the studios saw it that way, which is why they didn’t wanna invest in it,” he says. “But I think it’s everyone’s story. And having shown it to many people of varying ages and cultures, I know that many people can relate to it. So I am truly thankful to be a part of bringing this story to life.”

Red Tails is in cinemas from June 6 through Momentum Pictures

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