Path to make Tuskegee Airmen movie ‘Red Tails’ carried a lot of cultural freight

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that the Tuskegee Airmen flew nearly 2,000 missions. They flew thousands of sorties — one combat flight by one plane — but hundreds of missions, which involve multiple planes. This version has been updated.

January 20, 2012

Sometimes it’s all a black filmgoer can do to keep from throwing popcorn at the screen.

You’re not seen.

Or you are seen, but you’re stupid or violent.

Or maybe there’s not an angry bone in your body and instead you’re a saintly prop for complicated white characters to work out their kinks.

The net effect of Hollywood’s disregard shows up in a pile of waaay ethnic characters and stories — “Booty Call,” “Big Momma’s House,” “Madea’s Big Happy Family.”

The problem is not that the movies are lowbrow. It is that Hollywood seems to have decided that black movies should be lowbrow only. It is in this context that the black filmgoer heads into the theater and hopes against hope. Even as we keep our popcorn hand strong.

It’s an odd rush of thoughts to have in the middle of watching the new George Lucas film, “Red Tails,” inspired by the true World War II story of the nation’s first African American aerial combat unit. But a few minutes in, when it’s clear you’re seeing a big-budget action film that aims for all the universal notes of heroism, almost entirely through an African American cast, it feels almost like a big-ol’ tens-of-millions-of-dollars hug from Hollywood. The result may be uneven, but that’s a lot of cultural freight to carry and still entertain.

There’s the challenge of giving the airmen their due. It’s “what the black fighting man has never had,” says “The Boondocks” cartoonist Aaron McGruder, who co-wrote the film with John Ridley. “He’s never been elevated to larger-than-life superhero status.” Black characters are mostly second fiddle or sidekicks, he says — rarely the alpha male. Or when they are heroic in films like “Glory,” it’s gotta go through the Matthew Broderick, white narration.

“We got a black president before we got a black action movie.”

Ask Tuskegee Airman Roscoe C. Brown Jr. if he’s happy with the film, and he says, “Does the sun come up?” It’s been an evolutionary process, he says. Some of the airmen have been trying to get this kind of movie made for more than 30 years. “The black community knew who we were, but the black press has faded. We want the young people to know that we did accomplish this. That we were cool — and smart.”

African Americans were barred from military flying before World War II, and the Tuskegee Airmen battled the privations of racism before ever getting airborne. They fought in Europe and — over hundreds of missions — destroyed or damaged more than 400 enemy aircraft. They were awarded nearly 100 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

The story has been a personal passion for Lucas, who for decades tried to bring it to the big screen and developed close relationships with many of the airmen. He had difficulty finding a distributor, self-financed the production and has said he wanted to make it inspirational for black teenagers. He also produced the “Double Victory” documentary about the airmen on the History Channel.

Commenters, on blogs and Web sites focused on black cinema, are imploring audiences to support the movie to reward Lucas and to encourage more varied and thoughtful forms of storytelling through an African American lens. “I am writing regarding the new movie Red Tails. This movie was 23 years in the making. . . . Please make a date with someone and see it the first weekend.”

But some are also decrying the notion of “movies that black filmgoers are commanded to go see as a sense of duty and obligation.”

The real trick, say those who made “Red Tails,” is to feel the history and expectation but not get trapped by it. It’s a story “made for the big screen,” says David Oyelowo, who stars as flying ace Joe “Lightning” Little. Lucas “had to go the the nub of a story that would cross over.”

McGruder, whose father was in the Air Force and who first heard of the Tuskegee Airmen as a kid, says, “These guys were like heroes to me.” He wanted that sense of them to translate to the screen. “Which one is Obi-Wan? Which one is Han Solo? Luke Skywalker? Which one is the funny guy?” It’s doable, he says, “if you can step back from the enormity of the historical importance of it.” Which, of course, makes for a delicate, almost schizophrenic balancing act cinematically.

“It’s heavy,” says director Anthony Hemingway, who previously directed episodes of television’s “Heroes,” “The Wire” and “Battlestar Galactica.” “We can’t be preachy because no one is going to listen” or want to see the film. Instead, he says, “let’s celebrate, let’s have some fun, let’s have some swagger.”

Although the action sequences are thrilling, Hemingway has heard from people disappointed by other aspects of the film. It’s visually arresting that “Red Tails” has no black female characters, and Hemingway says that people have asked him why. There was footage he says — at one point, R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan had a small part — “but the story was layered, and not everything could make the cut.”

“There were battles I lost,” Hemingway says candidly. “I’m doing my first film, and I’m doing it with George Lucas, you know? Maybe I didn’t get a chance to do everything I wanted to on this film, but I hope that it empowers me to be able to tell more stories.”

It’s a streak of pragmatism he shares with others in Hollywood: finding the very best options in what can feel like a wilderness.

If black filmgoers can feel like throwing popcorn, try being a black actor, says Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. Gooding jokes that he would have been on the craft-service crew just to be attached to a big-scale George Lucas film with self-empowered black actors. Hemingway had a prohibition against using actors who’d been in other Tuskegee Airmen projects (Gooding was in the HBO movie “The Tuskegee Airmen”) but made an exception for Gooding, who plays Maj. Emanuelle Stance, whose gravitas and authority help center his squadron of young pilots who can’t wait to fight.

Gooding is an ice hockey fan and wants to tell the story of slaves on the Underground Railroad who escaped to Canada, were taught to skate by Native Americans and later formed all-black hockey teams. He wants to do a movie about “Black Herman,” arguably the inspiration for the famed magician Houdini. But the main champions who fight to make these movies are directors and producers — and some actors if they have enough cachet, he says, noting that Will Smith got “Ali” made.

“We have to be auditioning for ‘I’m Gonna Git You Sucka’ at the beginning of our careers,” says Gooding, “then you get to the point where people say, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ and you tell them. And they say, ‘That’s great — can you be “Thug Number 4,” or can you put on a dress?” You ask us what we really want to do? We want to do stories where our kids are like ‘I get it, I get it,’ ” says Gooding.

Also, “we want to shoot some folks,” he adds, laughing.

PG-13. At area theaters. 120 minutes

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