By Tonya Pendleton
“Red Tails” may have had one of the longest gestation periods of any Hollywood film, considering that its producer is legendary Hollywood filmmaker George Lucas, who brought the world the iconic “Star Wars” saga. Still, Lucas told USA Today that it took him 23 years and $58 million of his own money to get “Red Tails” made.
PHOTO: Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Benjamin Davis.
Part of the delay was competing versions. The Tuskegee Airmen story has been told in two film productions already – one in 1995 on HBO, with Larry Fishburne and “Red Tails” star Cuba Gooding, Jr., and partially in 2002’s “Hart’s War,” starring Colin Farrell and Terence Howard, who is in the cast of “Red Tails” as well. But a major part of the long time it took to get made was Hollywood’s inability to see that there was any audience for the movie. Appearing on “The Daily Show” last week with Jon Stewart, Lucas joked about the lengthy wait saying, “This has been held up for release since 1942 since it was shot, I’ve been trying to get released ever since…It’s because it’s an all-black movie. There’s no major white roles in it at all…I showed it to all of them and they said no. We don’t know how to market a movie like this.”
“For those of us in my group of filmmakers, like Steven (Spielberg) or Ron (Howard) or Marty (Scorsese), we want to make movies that enthralled us when we were little,” Lucas says. “For me, ‘Red Tails’ is like ‘Flying Leathernecks.’ It’s corny. It’s über-patriotic. And it’s a really exciting action-adventure movie. As for the racism in our story, it’s embedded in the material, so we just had to be careful not to overdo it.”
PHOTO: Captain Edward C. Gleed, right, Original Commanding Officer, 302nd Fighter Squadron, Class SE 42-K (10 Nov 42). Hometown, Lawrence, Kansas.
(The National Archives, College Park, Maryland.)
The movie, helmed by African-American director Anthony Hemingway and shot in the Czech Republic and Croatia, was also delayed by a year of special effects overseen by Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic company, which pioneered special effects in film. It took a year for the special effects part of “Red Tails” to be done, something that Lucas hoped would bring a new facet to the flying sequences only hinted at in earlier versions of the story.
PHOTO: Captain Erwin B. Lawrence, in photo above, Commanding Officer, 99th Fighter Squadron when it joined the 332nd Fighter Group, July 1944. Class SE 42-F (3 Jul 42). Sitting in his P-51 Fighter aircraft, Killed in action, Oct 44.Hometown, Cleveland, Ohio.
(The National Archives, College Park, Maryland.)
The Tuskegee Airmen were an all-black squadron of fighter pilots trained at what was then Tuskegee Institute. Their planes were notable for their red-colored tails, thus the movie’s title. The Airmen were developed partially because of an attempt by the then segregated military and the U.S. War Department to restrict black pilots from the air by instituting restrictive criteria for combat. This ended up creating an elite class of eligible black pilots that met those steep requirements, ensuring success for the Tuskegee Airmen, as the flight program there was already training pilots.
The 996 men trained at Tuskegee have taken on almost legendary status as they were pioneering blacks in both aviation and the military, and their success almost certainly contributed to the end of segregation in the military in 1948.
Despite this history and Lucas’s track record as a filmmaker, most studios flat out turned him down, which forced him to finance the bulk of the movie himself.
“My girlfriend [Financial investment exec. Melody Hobson] is black, and I’ve learned a lot about racism, including the fact that it hasn’t gone away, especially in American business,” Lucas told USA Today. “But on a social level there’s less prejudice than there was. So I figured, let’s put another hero up there. These guys are part of American history, not a side note.”
Lucas also mentioned the possible repercussions the movie would have for current and future black filmmakers. “I realize that by accident I’ve now put the black film community at risk [with Red Tails, whose $58 million budget far exceeds typical all-black productions],” he said. “I’m saying, if this doesn’t work, there’s a good chance you’ll stay where you are for quite a while. It’ll be harder for you guys to break out of that [lower-budget] mold. But if I can break through with this movie, then hopefully there will be someone else out there saying let’s make a prequel and sequel, and soon you have more Tyler Perrys out there.”
The “Red Tails” cast includes Gooding Jr., Howard, “Friday Night Lights” star Michael B. Jordan and singer Ne-Yo and opens in theaters on Friday, Jan. 20th.
Huffington Post contributed to this story.
About the film “Red Tails”
Red Tails is a 2012 action drama film directed by Anthony Hemingway, from a screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder. The story, written by Ridley, is inspired by true events. George Lucas serves as the executive producer for the project. It is based on the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American U.S. service members during World War II, and is the first Lucasfilm production since Radioland Murders (1994) not associated with the Indiana Jones or Star Wars franchises. This movie stars Cuba Gooding, Jr., who previously starred in another movie about this group of men called The Tuskegee Airmen on HBO and Terrence Howard, who portrayed a Tuskegee pilot in Hart’s War.
A crew of African American pilots in the Tuskegee training program, having faced segregation while kept mostly on the ground during World War II, are called into duty under the guidance of Col. A.J. Bullard. As the war in Europe continues to take its toll on Allied forces, the Pentagon brass has no recourse but to consider unorthodox options—including the untried and untested African American pilots of the experimental Tuskegee training program. Against all the odds these intrepid young airmen take to the skies to fight for their country.