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'Red Tails' Tells Story of Black WWII Pilots

  • Alan Silverman

The true story of black American fighter pilots in World War II inspired the new action film Red Tails, produced by George Lucas of Star Wars fame.

"We have a right to fight for our country, the same as every other American."

Among the millions of Americans who joined up in World War II, black soldiers found themselves in a racially segregated Army, mostly restricted to menial jobs away from the front lines. Driven by a need for skilled pilots and political pressure from early civil rights activists, the Army launched an experiment in 1941 to build an all-black squadron.



Nicknamed the "Tuskegee Airmen" for their Alabama training base, they earned admiration for their success in Europe flying fighter planes painted with distinctive "Red Tails" to be sure the Nazi pilots knew they were being shot down by black men.

"Bogeys [enemy aircraft] inbound, 12 o'clock!"
"They're coming in mighty fast."
"Go, 'Lightning,' I'm on one."
"I'm behind you …ha!"
"Congratulations Captain, you are the first Negro to shoot down a 'Jerry' (German)
.

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The radio banter between the pilots may sound familiar to fans of the "Star Wars" movies. Producer George Lucas adapted World War II lingo and swagger to his famous space saga.

Red Tails has long been a dream project of his, but after more than 20 years of trying to convince studios to make it, he spent $58 million of his own money on production and another $35 million to get it distributed to theaters. Lucas disagreed with the arguments from Hollywood executives that Red Tails would not find an audience.

"Just like Star Wars, it's a big action picture, lots of dogfights, lots of excitement. But it's basically about a bunch of kids that went through an amazing journey and all came out heroes."

Co-star David Oyelowo explains that, while the characters are fictitious, they are all based on the real pilots and their accomplisments.

"What they did was dramatic enough that we didn't have to change it that much," Oyelowo says.

Oyelowo admits that growing up in England he had never heard of the "Tuskegee Airmen." On the other hand, American actor Terrence Howard, who plays the squadron commander, says he did know about their heroism under fire.

"I had no idea that they were everyday people. You hear about the "Tuskegee Airmen" - the Red Tails - and they seemed like a very select, legendary group. But we meet them when they were human and flesh and blood before they became legendary," Howard says.

A handful of surviving "Tuskegee Airmen" were advisors on the film, including retired doctor Roscoe Brown.

"Since we've been trying to do this for 65 years, we're really gratified that at last it has happened," says Brown. "And because of Red Tails people will know about us that didn't know before."

The Red Tails flew thousands of sorties in 1944 and '45 and became one of the most highly decorated units in American military history. The film, directed by Anthony Hemingway, is a dramatized version of their story, but the combat exploits it depicts are based on true events.

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