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Tuskegee Airmen movie "Red Tails" a hard sell in Hollywood

 

By Amber Payne and Christina Caron
NBC News

More than two decades in the making, George Lucas’ passion project “Red Tails” hit theaters today after a long search to find a distributor that wanted to market an expensive film with an all-black cast.

Lucas spent $58 million of his own money to produce “Red Tails,” an action movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-African American aerial combat unit that paved the way for the integration of the U.S. armed services.  It was a risky venture by Hollywood standards, and one that director Anthony Hemingway said carried enormous responsibility.

“I went to Tuskegee, Alabama and actually had the chance to look into the eyes of living history and when I looked into their eyes and connected with them it really it -- it registered and the weight of the world was on my shoulders at that point,” he said. 

Hemingway told “Nightly News” it was “a struggle” to get the green light from a studio, but that didn’t come as a surprise.

“It’s not a shock that the system or Hollywood didn’t want to tell the story,” he said. “We’re thankful that George [Lucas] did what he did and had the passion to … help tell this story.”

Actor Terrence Howard, who plays Col. A.J. Bullard in the movie, told “Access Hollywood” “half” of the distribution studios rejected the movie, telling filmmakers, “No, we don’t know how to market it.”

“And it's like 'Why?'” he asked. “You just market it, it's an action movie. It’s an all black cast. And the white guys are the bad guys. And it's like, you market it. It's just a movie.”

Eventually 20th Century Fox signed on as a distributor. Writer and filmmaker Tyler Perry, best known for his top grossing movies “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” and “Madea’s Family Reunion,” threw his support behind the film, posting a statement on his website that read, “Unfortunately, movies starring an all-African American cast are on the verge of becoming extinct.  THAT’S RIGHT, EXTINCT!” 

Perry saluted Lucas, writing, “George decided to take a huge risk by entirely funding the movie and releasing it himself.  What a guy! For him to believe so strongly in this story is amazing.”

Although Perry raved about the film, saying he “loved it,” critics have blasted everything from the writing to the combat visuals. A review in the Christian Science Monitor called the movie “blatantly inauthentic” and a blog on the New York Times Magazine website said the film “starts off promisingly enough” but “the script seems afraid to just let the action do the work, instead filling every scene with macho banter and bluster of the most generic kind.” 

But Nate Parker, who plays Marty 'Easy' Julian in the film, told “Nightly News” the fact that Lucas bankrolled the film “speaks to his understanding that everyone needs to tell their own stories.”

Parker added, “One of the things George[Lucas] told me, before we started filming, he said, ‘When I wanted to do ‘Star Wars,’ no one wanted to help’ …. and even when I finished people watched and they said, ‘It’s not going to work,’ and then it became Star Wars, he said, ‘You know, you’re doing something right when everyone tells you, ‘You can’t do it.’”

Before shooting on location in Europe, Hemingway and producer Rick McCallum put the actors through a rigorous boot camp to simulate preparation for war and build the brotherhood. 

Parker joked about the bonding experience.  "If you can imagine several African American men in the Czech Republic, you know, in the snow, in tents, in military garb, eating rations every day, no cell phones uh, it was --  I still haven't forgiven them for it," he said. 

“Red Tails” certainly isn’t the first film about the famed Tuskegee Airmen, but according to Roscoe Brown, a former squadron commander in the 332nd Fighter Group, it’s the first to move beyond the well-told story of racism that led to the group’s formation, and focus instead on the combat mission,

“[George Lucas] takes us right to Ramitelli, Italy, where we did most of our flying,” Brown told “Nightly News.”

The former fighter pilot, now 89, served as a consultant on the film and can still recall war stories as though they happened yesterday.

The “penultimate mission” of the 15th Air Force, he said, was on March 24th, 1945: a 1600 mile round trip mission to Berlin and back to Italy to bomb a German factory that produced tank parts. 

“When I got close to Berlin, I saw these jet planes coming up.  And because of the instinctive work that we'd done in practice, I said, ‘Drop your tanks and follow me,’” he recalled.  “I came away from the bombers, the jets were coming up here, and I then made a hard right turn and caught the jet-- in my lead with my electronic gunner, brr-- boom.  And that was it.  He bailed out-- that was the first jet that was shot down over Berlin, although some had been shot down before.  So I'm very proud, I'm one of 15 pilots in the whole Air Force that shot down jets in World War II.”

“Red Tails” tells the real-life war stories of Brown and his squadron mates, as they battle the Nazis over Europe, and racism at home.

“In my generation, every day was a fight to prove yourself,” Brown said. “You had to strive for excellence every single day.  I come from that generation where the black press would say, ‘First black to do this, first black to become a professor, first black to be in opera.’”

The filmmakers, like the real airmen, know what it’s like to want to prove their detractors wrong.: In this case, Hollywood and its doubts about a black action movie.

“We did everything we could have done to make this the best film that it can be,” Hemingway said. “We all want it to succeed but it’s in God’s hands at this point and we really hope everyone comes out and supports it.”