Tuskegee Airmen to be subject of George Lucas film

June 17, 2008

The black airmen whose lives will be the basis of a George Lucas movie know the picture will highlight their record of successfully escorting thousands of U.S. bombers in World War II.

They also feel it should tell of the trials they encountered stateside, like seeing German prisoners of war being treated better and afforded rights that were withheld from black American citizens.

Now that "Red Tails" is in preproduction, some of the airmen say they are excited their story is coming to the big screen but torn over how much it should devote to each of their two historic fights against Adolf Hitler abroad and Jim Crow at home.

Lt. Col. Eldridge F. Williams, 91, wants the film to recount the discrimination they had to overcome in their own country. Williams, who served in the military from August 1941 to November 1963, said a white doctor's false diagnosis of an eye condition kept him from achieving his dream of being a pilot, though he became a navigator.

"I think the story that has not been told is stories like mine in which the home battle that was waged ... shall we say, helped open the door so that the unit could enter combat and demonstrate its capabilities and be successful," he said.

Col. Herbert Carter, who also was with the airmen in the '40s, said the racism the men encountered should definitely be mentioned but not dwelled upon in the Lucas film.

"So many want the movies to focus in that sense and that's bitter history that has been thoroughly emphasized and publicized," the 88-year-old said in an interview.

He said the real story is how they blew apart the notion that blacks could not fly planes in war.

Producer Rick McCallum said both elements are addressed in a script by John Ridley that "balances difficult and painful issues with what is, at its heart, the story of men with a dream to fly and serve their country."

Lucas hopes to begin shooting by year's end or early 2009, McCallum said. The movie's title refers to the color of their fighter planes' tails, which were distinctive and allowed U.S. bomber crews to know they were being escorted by the aggressive Tuskegee Airmen.

"It is a story of incredible adventure and enormous courage," said the producer, who's scouting locations for "Red Tails" in Prague, Czech Republic, and Italy. "I think the story will speak to anyone who has ever wanted to succeed at something others told them was impossible."

At first called the "Tuskegee Experiment," the first aviation cadet class began with 13 students at the Tuskegee Army Air Field, about 40 miles east of Montgomery, in July 1941. Black people weren't allowed to fly in the military at the time and the "experiment" was to see whether they could pilot airplanes and handle heavy machinery.

Over the next four years, the airmen went on more than 15,000 combat trips throughout Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa.

Nearly 1,000 pilots were trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field before its 1946 closing, after which the men from the all-black units were sent to an air base in Ohio. President Truman's 1948 order to desegregate the country's armed forces eventually led to a racially mixed military.

The men have been the subject of several documentaries and books. But a 1995 HBO movie "The Tuskegee Airmen," starring Laurence Fishburne, was the film that jump-started much of the attention the airmen have received in recent years, said Christine Biggers, a park ranger at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.

The HBO movie "was about 50 percent Hollywood, but it gave a good overview and got the word out. People all over the world saw it and it whetted their appetite to want to know more," Biggers said.

Lucas plans for the movie to be based on the historic record that brought the Tuskegee Airmen fame, drawn from their own accounts.

Carter was one of several airmen who were invited to Lucas' Skywalker Ranch a few years ago to record their oral histories, which will be used in developing the film.

Carter tells of the constant adjustment of being respected as a soldier on base, then having that dignity snatched away once off-base, where they were "just another Negro in Alabama in the eyes of the civilian population."

But he said the real story is how they overcame an environment that said "they didn't have the ability, dexterity, physiology and psychology to operate something as complicated as aircrafts or tanks."

The black airmen's response was "train me and let me demonstrate I can," Carter said. "We said the antidote to racism was excellence and performance and that is what we did."

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