Navigating Unfriendly Skies

Cuba Gooding Jr. portrays a pioneering aviator in ‘Red Tails’

January 19, 2012

Cuba Gooding Jr. has played a Tuskegee Airman twice — once in the 1995 HBO movie named for the unit of African-American pilots, and now in “Red Tails,” a new, George Lucas-produced World War II aerial adventure. But that doesn’t mean Gooding likes planes.

“You gotta have a stomach for that,” he says. “I have a weak stomach.” He recalls being taken up in a vintage plane while making “Tuskegee Airmen” and nearly blacking out. “I’m not looking to get my pilot’s license — let’s put it that way,” he says.

Gooding and “Red Tails” director Anthony Hemingway made a stop in D.C. to promote the film, in theaters Friday. One advance viewing here was particularly special.

“We had a screening at the White House,” the Gooding says, “and everybody was moved. We had real Airmen who couldn’t speak afterwards because they were so emotional.”

The film follows a fictionalized crew of Tuskegee Airmen — the first African-American aviators in the U.S. military, who fought both American racism and the German air force.

“Red Tails” is a group effort, but the money is all Lucas’. He put an estimated $100 million into the project, developed over more than 20 years without Hollywood studio support. Gooding says the long delay actually benefited the movie, which features about 1,600 visual-effects shots.

“George likes to say it couldn’t have been made till today,” says Gooding, “because it needed the technology he has now. So people would actually feel like they were in the dogfight scenes.”

Hemingway admits that he wasn’t a “Star Wars” fan as a kid, and both he and Gooding cite Westerns as their model for “Red Tails.” The director says that years of watching cowboy movies helped him focus the story on a small band of fighters who tackled both physical peril and cultural adversity.

“When you try to go too large, it becomes confusing,” Hemingway notes. “There are so many men, so many stories. It took time to scale it down.”

The characters are all composites, Gooding explains, because Lucas preferred mythic figures. “He didn’t want to make a movie about victims,” he says. “He wanted to make a movie about heroes.”

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