With George Lucas's admirable media blitz for Red Tails I'm asked a lot these days my thoughts on this new telling of their awe-inspiring true story. See, I'm kind of obsessed. Not only did I help bring their story to HBO in 1995 as The Tuskegee Airmen, but I was asked to revisit them by New York's Lincoln Center as a theater piece which will have it's major theater premiere this fall at Washington, D.C.'s historic Ford's Theater as the play Fly.
I say, "See Lucas's Red Tails again and again and again." The aerial battle scenes alone are worth the price of a ticket. More importantly, however, George Lucas's determination to pretty much self-distribute the film needs to be aggressively supported by the black community - especially in such a drastically contracted film environment - if we ever hope to get more interesting images of us on the screen.
Still, I'm asked, how does his film and mine for HBO compare? It doesn't matter how they compare. What is important is that some of the greatest heroes in our nation's history are celebrated. Besides, the question of why make another version of a black story isn't typically asked of a white story. How many films have there been retelling the story of Pearl Harbor, of D-Day or of Anne Frank? Seminal stories in our history are treasures, touchstones available to all artists everywhere.
My journey to the Airmen's story began with my grandfather, a student at the Tuskegee Institute while the airmen were training nearby. I've been a sucker for WWII adventures my whole life and when I was a teenager and my grandfather first told me about these amazing young men I frankly didn't believe him. They were in none of my history books and of course in none of my favorite old black and white Saturday morning fighter-pilot films like The Flying Leathernecks or Fighter Squadron. My grandfather, like all the best grandfathers, was a brilliant teller of tall tales, and I was sure that this was just another one. I was sure he was just trying to clear a space in an all-white history for a young black boy like me looking for a place to fit in.
Six years later, just graduated from college and determined to make my living as a writer of novels and screenplays, I knew the story the world most needed to hear was the then untold one of the 332nd Fighter Group. Even back then George Lucas was developing his story but mine was commissioned by Columbia Pictures. As Lucas found out, the major studios weren't about to spend a lot of money on an all-black period movie even with lots of amazing action, so HBO took a chance, acquired my script from Columbia and turned it into one of their most-successful movies of all time, winning a Peabody Award and a half-dozen Emmy nominations, including Best Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special, best writing, and best acting for Lawrence Fishburne and Andre Braugher.
Much more importantly, however, the Airmen soon became household names and not just in the black community. The film is now screened in schools around the country and not just for Black History Month but also when history units come to World War II, including my daughter's overwhelmingly white middle school here in Connecticut (not that my thirteen-year-old told me, mind you. I had to hear about it from one of her friends.).
Over the years I've met many of the Airmen still living and was honored to be the keynote speaker at the dedication of their papers being housed at the University of California, Riverside. The main character in The Tuskegee Airmen, played by Laurence Fishburne, is based on Robert Williams, an Airman who flew over fifty combat missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war he became an actor in Hollywood and later a marketing executive and it was his vision, dedication and single-minded persistence that ensured that their incredible story still lives with us to this day. He passed away September 11th, 1997, at the age of 75.
Watching the big grins on the faces of the living Airmen sitting behind President Obama during his inauguration reminded me of how Bob Williams' eyes lit up when describing his exploits in combat; how he suddenly looked fifty years younger as his two hands would dogfight through the air.
Watching those grandfathers and great-grandfathers sitting in that place of honor behind Obama, missing Bob and all those others inevitably lost every year, I knew they still had more stories in them. My play Fly hopes to tell their personal stories, the stories behind their medals and accolades. Lucas's Red Tails thrillingly shows you brave young black fighting in the skies for all of us.