Real Tuskegee Airmen Helped 'Red Tails' Take Flight

Jan 25, 2012
Originally published on January 26, 2012 1:56 pm

The World War II saga Red Tails exploded across the big screen last week with action-filled scenes of aerial gunfights waged by the Tuskegee Airmen. Amid the battle scenes, the movie also depicts the fight for recognition waged by America's first all-black air force fighting group.

The film was inspired by real events, and the actors got instruction from real Tuskegee Airmen — some of whom are nearly 100 years old.

"The best thing we got from them was being around them," says David Oyelowo, who plays Joe "Lighting" Little in the movie. He tells Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More, about one instance when Roscoe Brown, a former captain in the 332nd Fighter Group, tightened his belt and pulled down on his helmet before he started a scene.

"When you get in a cockpit [with] a real Tuskegee Airman having just been, effectively, your costume supervisor, you really feel like you're in that role," the British-born actor says.

Learning From Living Legends

Brown says he is grateful to have shared the rich history of the first black military aviators. "I'm glad to have been able to have done it," he says.

Like many of his fellow airmen, Brown's determination continued after he left combat, or even after the so-called "Red Tails" were honored with a Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. After serving in the military, Brown went on to get a doctorate degree from New York University. He is now the director of the Center for Urban Education Policy at the City University of New York.

Brown says the near-impossible missions assigned to the Tuskegee Airmen offered them self-assurance at a time when blacks were largely seen as inferior to their white counterparts.

"We did things that sort of defied imagination," Brown says. "You came close to the ground, you cut the grass, you pulled up, you did things like that. That's why we were so confident."

As shown in the film, the group strove to prove themselves — knowing that it was more than just their lives on the line. The now-revered aviators were battling for the country as well as for equal footing in society.

"Excellence was our mantra — that's what we were taught to be," the 89-year-old veteran says.

But it hasn't been easy to make people believe in the Tuskegee Airmen.

Selling The Story

Red Tails was a tough sell, even with a stamp of approval from George Lucas, the movie's executive producer.

It took the film mogul 23 years and $58 million of his personal fortune to make the movie happen, but he still got a frigid response from Hollywood studios.

"I showed it to all of them," Lucas told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show earlier this month. "And they said no, we don't know how to market a movie like this."

"It's because it's an all-black movie," he explained. "There's no major white roles in it at all. It's one of the first all-black action pictures ever made."

Unlike in the film Glory, Lucas says, the movie's black characters aren't sent to certain death by white generals. In Red Tails, they fight for the right to serve for their country — and, in doing so, win one of the first battles in the civil rights movement.

"This is not a movie about victims. This is a movie about heroes," Lucas said, which Oyelowo says the producer often told the cast and crew.

"He felt like the ideal person to, Moses-like, take us into the promised land, in a sense, because he's noncompromising," Oyelowo says. He attributes disinterest from studios to what he calls a Hollywood "syndrome" that relegates black actors to peripheral and token roles.

Box Office Appeal

But, like the Tuskegee Airmen themselves, the movie is faring much better than expected.

Red Tails opened in second place at the box office last weekend, raking in nearly $19 million despite many unfavorable reviews.

Oyelowo says he thinks Red Tails' success comes from audiences' desire for a valiant narrative, and from its appeal to people beyond those who are interested in niche historical films.

"In a world in which we all go see Iron Man, Superman, Spider-Man, whatever, these were superheroes who saved the world, and there wasn't a cape in sight," he says.

But what does Roscoe Brown, the real Tuskegee Airman, think of the movie?

"I'm happy — tremendously happy. I want people to come back this weekend, [and] sit in that seat, because when you sit in that seat you feel like you're in that airplane."

Brown adds, "It just shows that excellence will overcome obstacles."

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, Happy New Year - Lunar New Year, that is. The celebrations are underway, mainly in Asian countries, but around the world, and parades, food and fireworks are on tap. We're going to take a look at how one multicultural family that includes two American-born parents and four adopted Chinese daughters celebrates the holiday. That conversation is just ahead.

But now we want to take a look at a film that's bringing new attention to a largely unsung group of American heroes. There have been hundreds of books and dozens of films devoted to the greatest generation, those Americans who fought in World War II, but few of those stories have depicted the experience of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, the U.S. military's first black aviators.

That is changing. There have been some documentaries and made-for-TV films, but now the story gets the blockbuster treatment with the movie "Red Tails." It's in theaters now.

The story is set in World War II Italy, and its dazzling special effects recreate dog fights between the all-black air unit and their German enemies.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Come on, slip just a little.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Congratulations, captain. You are the first negro to shoot down a German. Woo!

MARTIN: Between battle scenes, though, the film touches on the battles the pilots had to fight on the ground to prove that they had the right stuff at a time when high-level public officials and average citizens believed that black people were inferior. The film, despite the challenging material, brought in more than $19 million when it opened last weekend, number two at the box office on opening weekend.

Here to talk more about this is David Oyelowo, who plays Joe "Lightning" Little, one of the stars of the film. Also with us is Roscoe Brown, a former Tuskegee Airman who served as a squadron leader and flew missions during World War II in 1944 and 1945.

I welcome you both. And, Mr. Brown, of course, I want to thank you for your service.

ROSCOE BROWN: Of course. I'm glad to have been able to have done it. One of the things that a lot of people don't realize, just how rigid segregation was at that time. People could tell you to your face that you couldn't do this. You couldn't go into a theater. You couldn't buy a house. You couldn't get in the Air Force. So therefore, what we did helped to break those barriers.

MARTIN: David, you know, you grew up in Britain. Did you know about - had you heard about the Tuskegee Airmen before the film?

DAVID OYELOWO: To my shame, I knew nothing about the Tuskegee Airmen, but I like to say that at least I had the excuse of being British. But when I read the script and became obsessed with the idea of being part of telling the story, it was a shock to me that so many Americans, both white and black, didn't know about them, either.

MARTIN: What did you like about your role? What drew you to it?

OYELOWO: Well, for me, Joe kind of typifies the audacity of youth. He's completely fearless, that kind of fearlessness that we all remember - those of us who are older - when we were, you know, in our teens and early 20s, that feeling of invincibility. The idea of mortality is very, very far away from your thoughts. And, you know, what was so great about getting to spend time with Dr. Brown and Lee Archer and Bill Holloman - who were with us when we were shooting the film - is that even they were saying at times we can't believe we did the things we did. And, you know, when you watch the film and when you read about these guys' exploits, it takes a feeling of almost super hero-like invincibility to do what they did.

MARTIN: Was there a real life Joe Little, or a Joe Lightning on whom you modeled your character?

OYELOWO: They often tell me that - when I've been with Tuskegee Airmen, apparently, I remind them a lot of an airman called Wendell Pruitt. I don't know if you remember him, Dr. Brown.

BROWN: Yeah, I definitely do, yeah. He was a pretty hot pilot.


MARTIN: A hot pilot?

BROWN: The fact is that we were all hot pilots. That means you're a great pilot who does really great things, come close to the ground, turns the plane upside down, does all those really fantastic things. And that's what we called a hot pilot. Wendell Pruitt was a hot pilot. Lee Archer was a hot pilot. I was a hot pilot, and we did things that sort of defied imagination. You came close to the ground. You cut the grass. You pulled up. You did things like that.

That's why we were so competent, some people said arrogant. And I think we were very cocky, is a word I like to use. We really felt we could do it because, see, we come from a generation of African-Americans where we knew we had to be better than white people in order to even break through. Excellence was our mantra. That's what we were taught to be, and we were very competitive among each other. And some of that shows in the film between Easy and Lightning, the competitiveness to see who's going to be the best.

MARTIN: You know, you've given me a lot that I wanted to talk to you both about. And just to remind people, you served as a squadron commander of the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group. And, as we mentioned, there are lots of sequences in the film that depict these battle scenes, but also what these men were fighting for.

And as David mentioned, you were consulting on the film. Can I just ask you: What was some of the advice that you gave to the actors to bring them into the head space that you had to be in at the time? Because you talked about the fact that you were cocky, but you know what? You were in a time when cockiness could get a black man killed.

BROWN: Well, one of the things that I did was to show them how we stood, how we'd talk, how our shoulders were back, how our uniforms were fixed up. And the other thing is I showed them how fighter pilots sitting in a cockpit moved. You don't move with jerky movements. You moved with smooth movements, but you're quick. You're looking around. You're alert all the time. And I taught them that, and when you see those pictures of David and Easy and all those guys in the cockpit, they moved like we did. They did a good job, and I think I did a good job of teaching. Isn't that right, David?


OYELOWO: Yes. You did a very, very good job...

MARTIN: No cockiness there.


OYELOWO: ...Dr. Brown. You see, for my character, I didn't need to go very far at all. I just needed to hang with Dr. Brown to get the cockiness going.

MARTIN: That's it. Well, what was the best piece of advice that you think you got from Dr. Brown and the other consultants, the other pilots?

OYELOWO: Well, to be honest, the best thing that we got from them was being around them. You know, you can read about these guys. You can watch documentaries, but to be literally able to go up to Dr. Brown or Lee Archer and say, what did you guys eat? How did you guys feel about what was going on back in America? What was it - what did it feel like? Those blankets you used to lie on. Were they itchy? Were they comfortable? You know, just those little details that you can't read in books and often aren't going to be in a documentary.

I remember one day approaching Dr. Brown, about to get into a cockpit and he ended up tightening my belt, you know, showing me how my shoes weren't quite right, pulling down on my helmet. And, you know, when you get in a cockpit, you know, a real Tuskegee Airman having just been effectively your costume supervisor, you really feel like you're in that role. So just having them around was such a blessing for us.

MARTIN: We're talking about the film, "Red Tails." It's in theaters now. It tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. It's a fictionalized account, but it's based on, you know, real events and real characters. And we're talking with one of the film's stars, David Oyelowo. He plays Joe "Lightning" Little.

Also with us is Roscoe Brown. He flew missions in World War II. Mr. Brown also served as a consultant, you know, on the film.

You know, Mr. Brown, you brought up a number of important points, which is this idea that you had to be - you know, the saying goes: twice as good to get half as far. And the film's executive director is the famous George Lucas, who financed the film with his own money. Of course, you know, quite successful due to the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones," you know, franchises. But he was on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" earlier this month talking about, even with his reputation, how hard it was to get the film made. I'll just play that clip.


GEORGE LUCAS: Twenty-three years. Twenty-three years. We finished it. I financed it myself, and I figured I could get the prints and ads paid for by the studios and that they would release it. And I showed it to all of them and they said, no. We don't know how to market a movie like this.


LUCAS: It's not green enough. There's no major white roles in it at all. It's one of the first all-black action pictures ever made.

MARTIN: So, David, I have to ask you this question: What do you make of that? And did you know about this as you were participating in the project? Were you ever, you know, worried that your time would be for naught?

OYELOWO: Well, I didn't worry that my time would be for naught because we had George Lucas, and that's the difference this time around. The syndrome that he's talking about is one that every black actor, you know, working in Hollywood is very, very cognizant of because, you know, often, we are relegated to peripheral roles, token roles. Very rarely are you allowed to be the center of the story.

The excuse that is often leveled is that, you know, a film which has a black lead will not have legs abroad, despite the fact that the biggest movie star in the world is Will Smith, despite the fact that we have Denzel Washington, these excuses are still leveled. So that was one of the exciting things for me is that I knew that with George Lucas, even - I mean, I didn't anticipate the challenges even he faced, but I knew that this was a man who - he made "Star Wars" when no one else was doing sci-fi. He broke ground with "American Graffiti" with no-name actors in a film that went on to do huge box office.

So, you know, for me, he feels and felt like the ideal person to, Moses-like, take us into the Promised Land. So, you know, God bless George Lucas.

MARTIN: But what about the film's message? And I'm asking you this, in part, because you're young - young man. You're not a baby, but you're young and...


MARTIN: And the message is one that we don't hear very often anymore, which is you have to be twice as good. You have to earn the right to be respected. Even if you shouldn't have to, you do.

I mean, some of the most powerful scenes in the film - there are many - but have to do with people saying to these young men, you are fighting to prove your worth. You shouldn't have to, but you are.

And I'm wondering if you think - forgive me for, you know, but - that people want to hear that today.

OYELOWO: Well, I think, whether they want to hear it or not, it's a truism whether you're black, white, a woman or whatever. You know, Dr. Brown often would say to us that it's cool to be smart. That's the thing that he really would like young people to take away from this. But also, they overcame these adversities with excellence. They didn't spend their whole time carping about the inequities that they were suffering. They just were excellent at what they did and, with time, Truman, the rest of the country had to acknowledge them. That led to the desegregation of the military, which led to the desegregation of the South, which led to the civil rights movement, which led to us now having a country in which we can have an African-American president.

So the message of the film is that, yes, everyone faces obstacles, whether it's bullying in a playground. It's about how you deal with those obstacles, and these men chose to do it by being excellent at what they were chosen to do.

MARTIN: I know you want to answer that, Mr. Brown. I do think it's worth mentioning that you went on to become a distinguished educator after being a distinguished aviator. You're now the director of the Urban Education Policy Center at City University of New York. So what about you? I mean, do you think that people - young - do young people want to hear that?

BROWN: I think young people want to hear it. One of the things that we face now is the proliferation of media. There are so many subsets in the media that bring us to a particular point, and the old days where you had four television stations and everybody listened to the same thing are gone.

So, therefore, we have to use various forms of communication. And one thing about "Red Tails" - by the way, "Red Tails" is because that's the color of the silver P-51 tail surfaces. They were shiny, red tails so that the bomber pilots could recognize us. And they began to call us the Red Tail Angels because we stayed so close to them and protected them.

But in terms of our young people today, many of the young people haven't had the harsh reality, as I did, when I came back from the service and applied to be a pilot at Eastern Airline, where the secretary took my application, threw it in the waste basket and said to my face: We don't hire negroes here.

We were powerless. We couldn't do anything about it. But because of our pursuit of excellence and, finally, Harry Truman desegregated the military and, finally, the Brown case, we have opportunities now, but you still have to prove yourself. And the way you prove yourself is to be smart, to be persistent and to be disciplined, and I think this is one thing that young people will get from this movie.

MARTIN: I do have to ask, though, that one of the criticisms of the film is that it doesn't dig deep enough into the issues that you talked about, Mr. Brown. For example, the New York Daily News reviewed it this way - and I'm quoting here - "George Lucas produced this candy-coated fictionalized drama, and while its cast is first rate and its flying sequences sharp, the movie is as glazed and wide-eyed as a 70-year-old comic book."

So, you know, Mr. Brown, I have to ask you that. I mean...

BROWN: That's really an exaggeration. And matter of fact, the reviewer who wrote that said we were escorting transport planes. He didn't even know that they were bomber planes. Because of this dialog in the movie that says we were doing things with each other, we weren't cussing each other out. We weren't cussing out white people. We were trying to be better. That was a very unfair review.

I think some of the other reviews, such as in the New York Post and Times, were much better, and they contextualized it. And that's one of the problems we have. A lot of people in America think that things were always this way. They were not always this way, and they're not perfect yet.


BROWN: One of the things we want to do is to show excellence will help to overcome prejudice.

MARTIN: I do want to ask David about this whole question of excellence, as there was a very, you know, aggressive word-of-mouth campaign, a kind of grass roots campaign to get people to the film on opening weekend. And I'm wondering if, you know, looking back on it now, there were a lot of events. There was even an event at the White House. There were a lot of Tuskegee Airmen events.

There was a lot of community support, major - you know, even civil rights leaders saying, look, you need to go out and see this film just to basically show Hollywood what's up. And I'm wondering if, looking back on it now, you know, was that really necessary? I mean, is it really the case that whatever problems George Lucas had getting the film made, is it really true that if this film didn't do well on its opening weekend that, you know, Spike Lee wouldn't get to make another film, John Singleton wouldn't get to make another film?

OYELOWO: The reason we had to go out and beat the drum is that this is a full-bore action movie in the vein of "Top Gun," in the vein of "Mission Impossible," in the vein of all those action films that both black and white people go to cinemas weekend after weekend to watch and enjoy and escape. And, you know, George Lucas' mantra for us when we were making this film is I want to make a film about heroes, not victims.

And the fact of the matter is we've had so many films that are centered around the black experience from a period point of view that are about us being subservient or us being brow-beaten. So, you know, we had to go out and let people know this is a celebration - not just of the Tuskegee Airmen, but of the fact that America joined the world in saving the world from Nazism, from a dictatorship.

And, you know, in a world in which we all go and see "Iron Man," "Superman," "Spiderman," whatever, these were superheroes who saved the world, but there wasn't a cape in sight. And that needed to be told to everyone, and that's why they came out, because, if we didn't tell them, they would assume this was a civil rights piece that makes us all feel bad.

MARTIN: All right. So, Captain Brown, are you happy with it, when all is said and done?

BROWN: I'm happy, tremendously happy. I want people to come back this weekend, sit in that seat, because when you sit in that seat, you feel like you are in that airplane. So that's one of the things that's so great about the movie.

And another thing is it just shows that excellence will overcome obstacles, and that's what we did and that's what I want our young people to do.

MARTIN: Roscoe Brown is a former Tuskegee Airman who served as a squadron commander of the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group. He retired at the rank of Captain. He's currently the director of the Urban Education Policy Center at City University of New York, and he was nice enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Also with us, David Oyelowo, who plays Joe "Lightning" Little. He is one of the stars of the film, "Red Tails," and he joined us from our NPR West studios in Culver City, California.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us, gentlemen. Thank you for taking the time. And, Captain Brown, I have to thank you once again for your service to this country.

BROWN: Thank you so much.

OYELOWO: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.