Flying High

Red Tails tells the historic story of the heroic Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American fighter pilots

January 20, 2012

P-51 Mustang planes from World War II soar in a scene from Red Tails.

History is filled with groups of unsung heroes. Until recently, one group that had been largely ignored was the Tuskegee Airmen. They were the first group of African-American fighter pilots in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Their success and heroism helped pave the way for ending racial segregation in the military.  The new action-adventure movie Red Tails, produced by George Lucas, is based on their story. It follows a group of Tuskegee Airmen as they receive their first combat mission. “We’re proud of this story and this part of American history,” says actor Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays Major Emmanuelle Stance in the film.

It is a story that Star Wars director George Lucas has wanted to tell for 23 years. He enlisted filmmaker Anthony Hemingway to direct. Hemingway admits that figuring out what parts of the story to tell, and how to balance the action and drama, was a challenge. “It’s been a long journey that thankfully was supported by George to really get it right and to a place where it stands on its own,” Hemmingway said during a press event with the cast and crew earlier this month. “It makes a statement and we can walk away being proud of it.”

Tuskegee Airmen attend the Red Tails premiere on January 10, in New York City

Tuskegee Airmen attend the Red Tails premiere on January 10, in New York City.

A Change in History

The characters in the movie are fictionalized, but the story behind them is real. The Tuskegee Airmen began as an experiment by the Civil Aeronautics Authority at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. The Authority trained African-American soldiers to become combat pilots. Up until then, African Americans had been allowed only to be ground soldiers in segregated troops. About 450 soldiers became the original Tuskegee Airmen. (Click here to read a Kid Reporter’s interview with an original Tuskegee Airman)

The airmen faced racism and a lack of support in the military. Military personnel considered the airmen second-class citizens. Some military personnel held ignorant views. They did not think African Americans had the intelligence or skill to fly fighter planes. When the Tuskegee Airmen were finally given a chance, they proved their critics wrong. They performed with courage and skill. During the thousands of missions the airmen flew, they did not lose any of the bombers they escorted. The airmen shot down more than a hundred enemy aircraft.

The name “Red Tails” comes from the distinctive paint the airmen added to their P-51 Mustang planes. That mark eventually brought them respect from fellow Air Force pilots. “When they found out how good the Tuskegee Airmen were at saving their lives, their attitudes changed,” said Dr. Roscoe Brown, an original Tuskegee Airman and a consultant for the film.  “These guys were rock stars,” actor Nate Parker, who plays Marty “Easy” Julian, said. “They were celebrated in the black press. These were men who aspired to excellence in every element of their life, and they flew fighter planes. What’s cooler than that?”

Lessons on Set

Brown and other surviving Tuskegee Airmen were regular visitors to the film’s set in Prague, Czech Republic.  “I would always find out another interesting fact about their accomplishments. Every day was eye opening,” Gooding said of their visits.

The pilots in Red Tails use nicknames while communicating up in the air. Seen here are Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker), Leon "Neon" Edwards (Kevin Phillips) and Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo).

The pilots in Red Tails use nicknames while communicating up in the air. Seen here are Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker), Leon "Neon" Edwards (Kevin Phillips) and Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo).

For the actors, it was hard to imagine how young the airmen were when they flew the planes. Many of the airmen were just 18 years old. “I’m learning that these teenagers were something more than we could have ever imagined,” Terrance Howard, who plays Colonel A.J. Bullard, said. In the movie, his character has to argue with the military brass in Washington, D.C., to earn opportunities for the airmen.

Red Tails is packed with in-flight action scenes featuring P-51s and other military planes. According to the cast, the scenes are true to the maneuvers the airmen made during their missions. “The P-51s were the racing car of the time. It was sleek, it could turn, it could dive, it could climb,” Brown said. “It was the best fighter plane ever made.”

 To prepare for their roles, the cast went through a boot camp, got piloting lessons from the original airmen, and had the opportunity to fly in military planes. The actors experienced the loops, turns and forces the pilots were up against. Elijah Kelley, who plays Samuel “Joker” George, described his amazement at the strength the pilots needed to operate the planes. “They were superheroes, literally,” Kelley said.

The film, rated PG-13 for scenes of war violence and strong language, opens in theaters today. Watch the video below to see the cast meet with some of the original airmen.


Current subscribers log in/register for 

Registered Users Log In

Forgot Password?
Register Now for FREE
Subscriber Benefits
Do it now to get all this:
  • Access to Interactive Digital Editions
  • Online Archives of Past Lessons & Teachers' Guides
  • Interactive Teacher Community
Website Login Page