George Lucas, creator of six of the top-grossing films in Hollywood history, says nearly all of his films were "commercial longshots." None more so than "Red Tails," a virtually all-black picture based on the story of the Tuskegee Airmen--a black fighter squadron awarded a Presidential Unit Citation during World War II.
Lucas' new project is a groundbreaker of sorts. Unlike films such as "Cry Freedom" and "Glory," the story will be told through the black pilots themselves--not through the eyes of white protagonists. And, in an industry frequently short on affirmative action, two blacks with minimal feature film experience will write and produce. Though no director is yet in place, another black--Emmy-nominated Thomas Carter (TV's "Equal Justice" and "Midnight Caller")--is the acknowledged frontrunner.
Budgeted at $25 million-$30 million, "Red Tails" is scheduled to go into preproduction in the fall and start shooting in the spring. It will be the first picture in a long-term deal Lucas will be cutting with a studio yet to be determined.
"I'm sure to encounter resistance," Lucas said in a telephone interview, "but I'm one of the few people that can get this film made. I see the movie less as a race picture than as an aerial action adventure. 'Top Gun' proved there's an audience for that."
Lucas challenges the notion that the film is a departure from his previous work: a U-turn in the wake of "Star Wars' " fantasy and "Indiana Jones' " tongue-in-cheek. "Strip away all the facade and it's the same story in all my movies: people relying on their intelligence and wit to overcome great obstacles," he said. "I've always been drawn to underdogs and intrigued by the relationship between man, machine, and excellence."
The elements of drama are certainly in place. In 1940, Congress ordered the Army Air Corps (later to become the U.S. Air Force) to lift its color ban. During a four-year period, 926 blacks were trained at Alabama's Tuskegee Army Flying School. Though their service weren't sought out by military brass, an all-black squadron was eventually deployed to North Africa and Italy, where they served as escorts for white bomber pilots. Trashing the belief that blacks were not intelligent enough to fly, it went on to become one of the best fighter groups around--flying 1,578 missions without losing a bomber along the way.
Called "The Black Redtail Angels" (alluding to the red paint on the back of their planes) by admiring white colleagues, the Airmen returned home with honors--only to confront the indignities of segregation from which they were insulated mid-air. "Overnight, they went from heroes to second-class citizens," said the screenwriter Kevin Sullivan, a TV producer/director/writer ("Frank's Place," "Night Watch") who has never before written a feature film that was produced. "It's a story that somehow got lost in our history books."
The veterans formed Tuskegee Airmen Inc. in 1972 and, two years later, set up a committee to bring their story to the screen. Despite more than 100 feelers over the years, nothing ever took off.
"It's a period piece which is expensive to begin with--and all the planes add to the cost," said producer Charles Floyd Johnson, a TV veteran ("Magnum P. I.," "Rockford Files") working on his first feature film. "Add in the fact that it deals with blacks and it was too much of a liability."
Shelby Westbrook, 68, who flew 60 missions for the Tuskegee unit, wasn't surprised. "Hollywood has taught a lot of American history erroneously," he charged. "Its big omissions and stereotypical images have contributed to the development of a lot of false ideas. This was just business-as-usual."
Enter George Lucas, informed about the squadron by a photographer friend in the mid-'80s.
"I let it sit awhile," Lucas said, "but two years ago I realized it wouldn't leave my brain. Like 'Tucker' (on which Lucas was executive producer) it's a story too good to be true."
Sullivan researched the topic for six months, talking with 14 of the Airmen before sitting down to write.