Since the dawn of silent film, Hollywood movies have relegated African-American actors and actresses to wearing the uniforms of servitude as they portrayed a seemingly endless cavalcade of maids, butlers and slaves. Refreshingly, with “Red Tails,” George Lucas and Fox Pictures bring to the screen a stunning portrayal of Blacks in positions and uniforms of command, a true story of heroes rather than victims: that of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.

At a New York screening last Saturday evening of “Red Tails” hosted by Dick Parsons, Bruce Gordon, Desiree Rogers, George Lucas and uber glamorous principal at Ariel Capital, Mellody Hobson, among others, a small group of “influencers” were treated to an exhilarating sneak peek. The audience boasted some of our finest American directors including Lee Daniels, Spike Lee and Warrington Hudlin, as well as leaders from the worlds of finance, politics and media (Star Jones sat next to MTV’s Marva Smalls). Also in attendance were a half dozen surviving airmen sporting their highly decorated bomber jackets and caps.

Ms. Hobson (gamine chic in a short black skirt and crisp white blouse with jabot) and Mr. Lucas took turns recounting the challenge of getting the film made (a twenty-three-year process), and then distributed, in an industry wary of films featuring majority Black casts. Ms. Hobson hailed Mr. Lucas, her longtime boyfriend, as an “honorary Black man” for his perseverance against the odds and herculean efforts. The film succeeds, in part, because Mr. Lucas chose to focus just on the war years, as opposed to telling the full story of Airmen’s training and their subsequent role in integrating the armed forces and the Civil Rights movement. Mr. Lucas has produced a companion documentary to explore the years the film could not. He challenged Mr. Lee and others to do the “prequel” and “sequel.” “When do we start?” Mr. Lee, who was flanked by his two teenage children, shot back from his seat.

Mr. Lucas explained that he made the film as an inspiration to the young, but 
with its masterful blend of heart-racing action, romance and epic history, it should have mass appeal. Not since “A Soldier’s Story” or “Glory” have we been treated to such an array of talente — to say nothing of “foine” –Black actors. Ne-Yo, David Oyelowo, Elijah Kelley, Michael B. Jordan, Nate Parker, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrence Howard (featured as an ensemble in Essence’s January issue, read it and drool) all shine in parts as distinctive as their looks and personalities.

On the elevator going up to the after-party, after being congratulated on his work, Terrence Howard explained to a full car that Mr.Gooding’s role and his were homages to the towering figure of Benjamin O. Davis, the first African-American General in the United States Air Force and their muse. Filled with reverence and awe, Mr. Howard declared that the General’s epic feats in real life could not be contained in one fictionalized character. (While looking into Mr. Howard’s luminous green eyes, this listener was filled with awe of another variety…)

Remarkably, the elevator ride with the dreamily handsome yet humble Mr. Howard (who like Mr. Lee, also brought his teenage son and daughter) was not the evening’s highlight, well, let’s be honest, not its only highlight. During the “talk back” after the screening, former Tuskegee Squadron Commander, Dr. Roscoe C. Brown, took the microphone and gushed, “I shot down the first German plane. I was twenty-two.”  

Vivacious and fit at nearly ninety, he explained to a spellbound audience that as he sat watching the flight sequences, he found himself moving his hands as if manning his jet’s controls. Once a fighter always a fighter. Let’s salute Dr. Brown’s courage and ensure the success of “Red Tails” by going to see it in droves on January 20th. If we want Hollywood to catch up with history, we need to support a heroic story well told.

Susan Fales-Hill is the author of “One Flight Up” and is a famed TV writer and producer who worked on both “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World.”

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