Red Tails Stars Talk George Lucas, Flying Lessons And The Moms Who Watched Their Backs
The stars of Red Tails are burly combat heroes filled with an equal amount of pride and bluster. Briefed on the intense military trainings of the Tuskegee Airmen, such handsome and able-bodied Hollywood actors as Nate Parker, Tristan Wilds, Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelly, Method Man and David Oyelowo are prepared to enter hostile, enemy territories in defense of our nation. And when asked who they rely on to watch their backs and support them through trying times, to a man, they all give me the exact same answer.
“The person who went to bat for me more than anybody else [over the course of my career] was my mother,” said Oscar nominee Terrence Howard, a senior member of the Red Tails alongside Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. “She’d be the one wanting to call up producers and say, ‘You should have hired my son for this part!’”
The sentiment is echoed by pop and R&B star Ne-Yo, who plays pilot Andrew “Smoky” Salem in Anthony Hemingway’s historical drama. “My mom was 100% behind me in anything that I tried to do, whether it be the dumbest idea I’ve ever had in life or something that wound up working. She would be right there. She’d go, ‘OK, you want to train kittens to walk tightropes? Baby, you know what? You train ‘em. You train them kittens!’ That was my mom.”
The Red Tails cast wasn’t trying to train kittens to walk tightropes – though we’d probably pay to see that as well. Instead, they were tasked with re-enacting pivotal battles of our nation’s European campaign during WWII, when the Tuskegee Airmen were trying to break down barriers in their own units before they were allowed to go out and fight the German enemy.
Thanks to the contributions of executive producer George Lucas and director Hemingway, audiences will be amazed by some of the most realistic aerial combat sequences ever committed to film. The men in the cast told me that they basically relied on gimbles, which are large sections of reconstructed planes placed on poles that are being manually manipulated to make it look like a plane in motion. “Then the geniuses at ILM fill in the backgrounds,” Oyelowo explained. “And the way that it’s shot with the camera evokes what it would be like to be up in the air.
“The privilege that you have when working with someone like George Lucas,” Oyelowo continued, “is that if it doesn’t work, you can go back and fix it, because he has the money to pay for it. [Laughs] And basically, the lesson that we learned is that with all of that technology, the only thing that puts the audience in the cockpit is you, the actor, selling it. So what we have to get very good at is knowing which plane was going where, who was being shot at, who you were shooting, and to physically have that tension and the energy that you would have under these circumstances. It was the most exhausting part of the acting process, for me as an actor, was being in that cockpit and selling what it must have been like.”
For that bit of knowledge, the men were able to turn to actual Tuskegee Airmen who served as creative consultants on the set. Dr. Roscoe Brown, a veteran of the Tuskegee Airmen program, informed us that Lucas envisioned this as a trilogy, with a prequel to the Red Tails story involving the men in the unit fighting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt just to be allowed to train to fly.
“Once we got the opportunity to train, we had some obstacles to overcome,” Brown said. “We were trained on a segregated base in Tuskegee, Alabama. We experienced racist commanders. And all of that has been portrayed in some documentaries, so George felt it was too much to fit into one story. Instead, he focused on the combat, and the obstacles we faced in combat.”
And it was important to Brown and his compatriots that Hemingway and his young cast capture the camaraderie of the men of the Tuskegee Air patrol, a proud band of brothers who fought bravely to defend our freedoms.
“We we’re working toward this one goal, of being excellent pilots,” Brown said. “We wanted to show that these stereotypes they had about blacks being incapable of fighting were not true. And we wanted the movie to be show that we could be very competitive amongst ourselves to see who could be the best. And you see some of that in the movie.”
Anthony Hemingway’s Red Tails opens in theaters on Friday, Jan. 20.
Back to top