"For those of us in my group of filmmakers, like Steven (Spielberg) or Ron (Howard) or Marty (Scorsese), we want to make movies that enthralled us when we were little," George Lucas explained in a USA Today interview.
"For me, Red Tails is like Flying Leathernecks," he says, the 1951 John Wayne charge through Guadalcanal. "It's corny. It's über-patriotic. And it's a really exciting action-adventure movie. As for the racism in our story, it's embedded in the material, so we just had to be careful not to overdo it."
Tuskegee Airmen in Film
Conversations with Lucas, Red Tails director Anthony Hemingway and castmembers make one thing clear: Pride in this project is only peripherally connected to box-office success.
For Lucas, 23 years have passed since he first was told about the fabled Airmen and their battles with both German pilots and American racists that helped ignite the Civil Rights movement. "It was a project that I instantly was attracted to and was determined to get made," he says.
Scripts came and went. Special effects improved. His personal fortune mushroomed enough to contemplate making a labor of love without an assist from a major studio. Finally, in 2009, principal photography began in the Czech Republic and Croatia (doubling for Germany and Italy), followed by more than a year of special-effects work (Lucas' pioneering firm Industrial Light & Magic supervised while actual effects were rendered by smaller companies all over the world).
"I have only one agenda, and that's for a lot of young people to see this movie," says Lucas, who adds that corporations already have signed on to sponsor screenings at schools. "I think kids who see this, be they black or white, will walk out thinking (the Airmen) were cool."
For Hemingway, whom Lucas plucked from the realm of television (HBO's The Wire and Treme), and his largely black cast, making Red Tails was less about the chance to work on a well-financed feature film and more about honoring the movie's legendary advisers whose numbers dwindled over the course of the project.
"I looked into the eyes of these amazing guys, and as a black man and an artist I knew I had to tell their story in a way that reflected the huge responsibility I have to my community," says Hemingway, 36, who notes he was not aware of the Airmen as a kid.
"I'm glad we can change awareness with this movie. But ultimately, to me Red Tails isn't just a black story, it's an American success story."
When Cuba Gooding Jr. heard that a major feature was planned on the flyboys who famously painted the tails of their P-51 Mustang planes red - a story he already had tackled as a castmember in the 1995 HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen- he lobbied to be included.
"For my sons not to know about this part of history is unacceptable," says the Oscar winner, who in Red Tails plays the squadron's pipe-chewing leader. "When I heard George was making a go of it, I couldn't sit back. Hollywood just isn't green-lighting these kinds of tales, because they tend to be gambles financially."
Fellow Red Tail actor David Oyelowo insists that "no one but George would make sure this movie got made. It's crazy to call him an independent filmmaker, but that's what he was on this. He bankrolled it and saw that a lot of young black artists could spread their wings."
Lucas didn't expect to pony up the film's entire budget; he met with a half-dozen major studio heads to suggest a financial partnership, but none accepted.
"Everyone said: 'You're George Lucas walking in there. Won't they just do anything for you?' And the answer is no. They felt there was no evidence that this sort of film would draw a big audience. I said I disagreed. The most important thing to me is my freedom. I've been investing in my own movies since Empire (Strikes Back), so it was just time to do it again."
A $58 million "black film," as Lucas calls Red Tails, may not be as risky as studio executives think, considering the success of movies such as last summer's The Help, which has grossed more than $200 million worldwide, says Josh Dickey, film editor at Variety.
"Race issues in a film today tend to be secondary to simply having a good story and telling it well," he says. "Red Tails has a built-in level of appeal to anyone fascinated by World War II movies. And we've already seen that Lucas has a way with aerial battle scenes from Star Wars."
Lucas is the first to admit that the one word that attracted him to this project wasn't "racism" but "dogfight."
"I love dogfights and I know how to do them," he says. "I told Anthony, 'You worry about the actors and the story on the ground, and I'll worry about the one hour we're in the air.' "
The good-vs.-evil, duels-in-the-skies aspect is what makes the movie especially timely, Lucas says. For many young people today, heroes - be they athletes, entertainers or presidents - aren't defined by skin color.
"My girlfriend is black, and I've learned a lot about racism including the fact that it hasn't gone away, especially in American business," Lucas says. "But on a social level there's less prejudice than there was. So I figured, let's put another hero up there." He notes that the Airmen were largely college-educated and after the war many went on to become captains
"These guys are part of American history, not a side note."
Segregation 'a way of life'
For Roscoe Brown, 89, watching Red Tails meant rewinding to a time that was painful but triumphant. One of the film's dramatic moments features an Airman shooting down a newfangled Nazi jet, something Brown did over Berlin on March 24, 1945.
"This movie tells it like it was, from the epic air battles to the evils of segregation, which frankly in those days was just a way of life, like the milkman bringing milk to your door," says Brown, who went on to a career in sports medicine. Other illustrious Airmen included civil rights activist Percy Sutton and former Detroit mayor Coleman Young.
"We Airmen knew that if we showed our stripes, we could help change perceptions," says Brown, who is looking forward to a screening of Red Tails at the White House. "We are now in exciting times, where someone like President Obama shows everyone that talent comes in many sizes and shapes."
With today's economy putting particular pressure on minorities, Red Tails could "prove to be a story of triumph that lifts us all in tough times," says Hilary Shelton, senior vice president of advocacy and policy for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"What was both an ugly era for our people and for America also produced this amazing tale of triumph over racism," he says. "That a noted filmmaker like George would take on this story is a real source of pride."
Lucas brushes off suggestions that the film will make him a hero in the African-American community. "I've had people say 'Thank you for making this movie,' but my reasons have to do with the kids," he says.
The only praise he accepts is from the Airmen themselves.
"Their approval is the biggest relief of all. In the end, I was trying to get it right, but I was also trying to get it done," he says with a laugh. "We had them up to the ranch two or three times a year for decades. I wanted to finish it for those guys."
But as much as Lucas wanted to make Red Tails for a dwindling group of aging African-American heroes, he also made it for a young George Walton Lucas, who when he wasn't lusting after hot rods liked nothing more than to disappear out of the Central Valley heat and into a cool movie theater where he would be transported to the flak-filled skies over France or Midway.
"When you think about it, other than Saving Private Ryan, there haven't been many movies like Back to Bataan and Battle of Britain, plain old propaganda movies where there were good guys and bad guys. So that appealed to me about Red Tails," he says, smiling. "It's all left over from me being 10 years old."
(KUSA-TV © 2012 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)