J. Todd Moye

J. Todd Moye is the author of Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, which has recently been issued in paperback by Oxford University Press. From 2000 to 2005 he directed the National Park Service's Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project. In this Guest Editorial, Moye discusses the recently released World War II film Red Tails, and how it echoes and expands on previous attempts to bring the Tuskegee Airmen to the attention of a wider audience.

Hollywood Rediscovers the Tuskegee Airmen

The release of executive producer George Lucas's feature film Red Tails has understandably brought a new level of attention to the Tuskegee Airmen, the African American military pilots on whose World War II combat history the movie is based. Lucas has said in interviews that he fell in love with story of the Tuskegee Airmen decades ago, and that he worked for nearly 30 years to get the film made and widely released. Red Tails clearly reflects its executive producer's idiosyncratic tastes and lifelong immersion in film history. Having worked with and written about the Tuskegee Airmen, it is apparent to me that Lucas did his homework. But Lucas is far from the first American filmmaker to have developed an interest in the rich history of the Tuskegee Airmen. In fact, Hollywood rediscovers the historic experience once a generation or so.

The movie-going public got its first introduction to the Airmen while the Tuskegee Army Flying School, the facility in central Alabama where the Airmen earned their wings, was still in existence. In 1945 the U.S. Army Air Forces First Motion Picture Unit, which was headquartered in Hollywood and chaired by perhaps the most well-known film director of the time, Frank Capra, released the propaganda film Wings for This Man, a short documentary narrated by Ronald Reagan. Using extreme close-ups, quick edits, a swelling musical score, and other techniques one would have expected Hollywood's best to bring to the subject, Capra's filmmakers built an emotional connection between the men depicted in the film and their audience in a way that stands the test of time.

The film opens with footage from what looks like an average Army Air Force squadron's "routine morning patrol." These are "just plain citizens from Anywhere, U.S.A.," according to Reagan's narration, doing their jobs. Only after we've seen the pilots complete their mission successfully and one of them (Lee Archer, the closest thing to a "black ace" in the history of American air combat) addresses the camera to discuss his own aerial exploits do we learn that the pilots are dark-skinned. From that point Wings for This Man deals with the race of the Tuskegee Airmen squarely and addresses the special challenges they faced head-on.

The film shifts quickly from Italy to central Alabama for a look at the flight program that trained the black pilots. At Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF), which was constructed in a number of months in 1941, Reagan tells us, "[M]ore than trees had to be cleared away. There was misunderstanding and distrust and prejudice to be cleared away." That's putting it lightly: the white citizens of Tuskegee petitioned authorities to close the base on multiple occasions throughout the war years. Although it brought hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of payroll dollars into economically depressed Macon County while it was in use, local whites cheered its closure in 1946.

The Army built the flying school at TAAF in the first place only because African Americans demanded inclusion in the nation's flight training program and made it politically difficult, if not impossible, for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to deny their ambitions. The generals of the U.S. Army Air Corps (as the service was known until 1941, when it became the U.S. Army Air Forces; it became the separate U.S. Air Force in 1947) had come of age in an all-white institution, and they made no bones about their preference that it remain that way. They insisted on referring to the Tuskegee program as an "experiment" to train black flyers, and a significant majority of them plainly hoped and expected that the experiment would fail.

Once the hard work of black newspapers, college presidents, and civil rights organizations got TAAF built, the young men who won spots in the training program had to prove themselves able to fly, and to fly even better than Army specifications demanded. Knowing that Army brass would be more than happy to wash their hands of the black pilots and fully aware that no less than the full weight of the hopes and dreams of the African American people rested on their shoulders, they had to have felt tremendous pressure to excel.

By the time the Motion Picture Unit released Wings for This Man, the Tuskegee-trained pilots had begun to excel in the European Theater. Even so, given the well-documented ambivalence on the part of the Air Forces' generals toward the Tuskegee program, it's somewhat remarkable that Capra's group was able to make the film at all, much less that it was able to present the racial aspect of the story in a mostly clear-eyed tone. Nonetheless, this is exactly what the producers did. "You can't judge a man here by the color of his eyes or the shape of his nose," Reagan narrates, over shots of blacks interacting with white instructors at Tuskegee as equals. "On the flight strip, you judge a man by the way he flies." One could quibble with this: powerful whites in the Air Forces didn't object to having to train these particular pilots because of their eye color or nose shape; they objected because they believed that the pilots' skin color necessarily made them inferior to whites and incapable of flying airplanes in combat.

The second half of the statement—"On the flight strip, you judge a man by the way he flies"—is the money quote. The sentiment pointed the way toward the racial egalitarianism that the armed forces came to accept and then champion, at least on paper, after the war, when the military became the first major national institution to desegregate. The film's concluding message, which Reagan delivers dramatically over a martial score, brings the point home even more strongly, and underlines African Americans' particular motives for fighting the war in the first place. Over shots of TAAF's white base commander, Col. Noel F. Parrish, pinning officers' wings on graduates of the flight school, Reagan thunders, "Here's the answer to Adolf and Hirohito. Here's the answer to the propaganda of the Japs and Nazis. Here's the answer: wings for this man. Here's the answer: wings for these Americans."

Unfortunately, it is a near certainty that Wings for This Man ran only in what would have been called "race" markets, in front of exclusively African American movie audiences. In the war years mainstream news sources like the New York Times and Time Magazine did report on the Tuskegee program from time to time, but it was entirely possible for white Americans, even relatively informed ones, to have no idea that the Air Forces trained black pilots in the war at all. Larry Fleischer, the bombardier-navigator on an all-white bomber crew that received fighter escort from the Tuskegee-trained, all-black 332nd Fighter Group over the skies of Europe over several months in 1944–5, brought that point home for me in an oral history interview we recorded in 2001. "[Y]ou can't tell what the color of the pilot is when he's got his helmet on and everything, so we never knew that they were black," he said.

On January 20, 1945, Fleischer's B-24 was disabled by anti-aircraft fire on a bombing run to Linz, Austria, and had to make an emergency landing at the 332nd's air base at Ramitelli, Italy. Fleischer said, "So when we got to Ramitelli and we got out of the airplane—I mean, here we see all these black guys. Can't figure it out. And then, of course, we spotted the Red-Tail P-51s…. [A]ll we knew was that the Red-Tails, when we were flying our missions, were doing such a great job for us, as compared to the other guys, who were out there messing around. So when we land there at Ramitelli and see those black guys—man! … [I]n my experiences up to that time, as far as black people, the only black people I ever saw in the military was when I was at Ellington Field. They were in the kitchen. They were cooks, and they served the food, and that's the only black guys I ever encountered in the military. And here they were. This program to train black pilots was more secret than the atom bomb."

Like the rest of America, Hollywood ignored the Tuskegee Airmen for a good while after the war ended, but not for lack of effort on the part of the Airmen themselves. Veterans of the experience created a national, non-profit organization, Tuskegee Airmen Inc. (TAI), in the early 1970s to organize their own efforts to publicize what they had done during the war. Over the following decades they developed chapters around the country, spoke to thousands of schools and civic groups, held annual meetings, sponsored programs to introduce underprivileged children to aviation, and raised money for college scholarships. They craved public recognition that they had been part of something truly remarkable during World War II, and that what they had done helped change the country for the better.

Robert W. Williams, a combat pilot who had graduated from the Tuskegee flight program, believed that the path to public recognition led through Hollywood. Shortly after the war ended and Williams returned to civilian life, he began jotting down his own memories of life at Tuskegee, telling his wife, "There should be a movie about this. That way more people would learn about it." He eventually wrote his own script and made the rounds, pitching his dream to Hollywood executives. Interestingly, he had exactly the experience George Lucas says he had with a later class of studio heads. All said much the same thing: Audiences won't pay to watch a film about a bunch of black people, even if the characters are heroic. But Williams didn't give up.

He finally got the call in the early 1990s: the premium cable television company Home Box Office (HBO) wanted to produce and broadcast his film. It wasn't Hollywood but it was close, and Williams jumped at the chance. Director Robert Markowitz's team used a different script entirely, but the Tuskegee Airman did end up with a co-executive producer credit. The storyline hewed closely to actual events, though it did of course take liberties as it followed a handful of would-be black pilots from towns and cities throughout the land to Tuskegee for training, and then overseas for aerial combat. Modern-day viewers would be impressed with the film's cast, led by Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jr., who were then on the verge of legitimate stardom.

HBO treated the real Tuskegee Airmen to a Hollywood-style premiere gala at TAI's 1995 annual meeting and broadcast the movie for the first time shortly thereafter. The Tuskegee Airmen has since become an African American History Month television staple. Tuskegee Airmen characters have since been featured in films as various as Hart's War, a World War II prisoner of war legal thriller starring Bruce Willis, and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.

By 1995 Lucas was already at work on what would become "Red Tails." He chose to focus his film's storyline much more tightly on the combat experience, undoubtedly because it would allow him to showcase his expertise in imagining aerial combat and special effects. He has also said that he plans a "prequel," focusing on the combat pilots' prewar civilian lives and training at Tuskegee, and a sequel, focusing on their efforts to integrate American society during and after the war. Lucas worked closely with veterans of the experience throughout the production of both Red Tails and a companion documentary film, Double Victory, and the Tuskegee Airmen as a whole seem to be very pleased with the results. (Full disclosure: I consulted on and appeared on-camera in Double Victory.)

Red Tails opened on January 20, 2012, and banked the second best box office receipts of any movie playing its opening weekend despite a tepid (at best) response from movie critics. Then again, Lucas clearly did not make the film to please critics. As he said repeatedly in the press blitz that led up to the movie's opening weekend, he made the film to inspire teenage boys. Lucas used adjectives such as "corny" and "jingoistic" to describe the film's tone, and its plot and dialogue do have the throwback feel of a 1950s-era action flick despite its 21st-century computer generated imagery.

Red Tails has undeniably introduced the story of the Tuskegee Airmen to much larger audiences than the Airmen could have found otherwise, and this can only be a good thing. It's worth remembering, however, that African Americans in general didn't need to rediscover the Tuskegee Airmen at all. Black Americans have never needed to be reminded that throughout their nation's history they have proven themselves to be as patriotic as the members of any other ethnic group. But seeing this history on the big screen, in an audience with dozens or hundreds of other people, can make a difference. It can be affirming. Lucas's treatment, whatever the film critics might say about it, serves to legitimize the experience of the Tuskegee Airmen in a way that stories handed down by grandparents, or African American History Month lessons, or even books, cannot.