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'Red Tails' airmen have new target: box office

By Lucas L. Johnson Ii

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 19 2012 2:32 p.m. MST

In this Jan. 10, 2012 photo, Tuskegee airman Theobald G. Wilson poses for a portrait during the "Red Tails" press junket in New York. "Red Tails," a film that chronicles the heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen, opens Friday, Jan. 20.

Carlo Allegri, Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tuskegee Airman Herbert Carter flew 77 missions during World War II and crashed landed only once, impressive numbers that challenged those skeptical of the abilities of black aviators. Decades later, he and the other legendary African-American airmen he flew with must once again prove themselves — at the box office.

"Red Tails," a movie chronicling the heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen and starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terence Howard, opens Friday in 2,500 theaters nationwide.

"Star Wars" creator George Lucas has been blunt about his 23-year struggle to make the film. He said executives at every major studio rejected it because they didn't think mainstream viewers would pay to see an all-black cast.

The 94-year-old Carter sees the hesitation by studios as history repeating itself.

"It goes back to the old axiom that the all-black fighter squadron, in their estimate, wasn't going to do well," said Carter, who made a career of the Air Force and retired as a lieutenant colonel. "It ... doesn't surprise me."

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black aviators in the U.S. military. They were trained in Alabama at Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, as a segregated unit during World War II.

After being admitted to the Army Air Corps, they were prohibited from fighting alongside white counterparts and faced severe prejudice, yet went on to become one of World War II's most respected fighter squadrons, successfully escorting countless bombers during the war.

And once back home, many became affluent businessmen and community leaders, despite the continued racism they faced.

"My heroes, those original airmen, set the pace for us younger people," quipped 77-year-old Leon Crayton, a former Air Force flier and member of the honorary Tuskegee Airmen chapter in Tuskegee, Ala., one of 55 in the U.S.

Lucas had several of the surviving airmen join him for a screening of the movie in New York last week, including Dr. Roscoe Brown, Floyd Carter, Roscoe Draper, Shade Lee, Charles McGee, Eugene Richardson and Theobald G. Wilson.

Nate Parker, who plays the role of a flight leader in "Red Tails," said he and the other actors were motivated by the leadership and bravery of the airmen, who distinguished themselves by painting the tails of their planes red, and formed a circle of prayer before many of their missions.

"They all strove for excellence," said Parker. "Excellence is the driving force through adversity, in everything we do."

Syndicated radio host Tom Joyner, whose father was an early cadet in the Tuskegee Airman program, agreed. He said airmen like his father inspired him at one time to do a morning show in Dallas and then fly to Chicago for an afternoon show, earning the nicknames "The Fly Jock" and "The Hardest Working Man in Radio."

While the big studios may calculate that a movie focused on blacks can't be a box office success, promoters of "Red Tails" are playing up the aerial thrills and heroism that should appeal to all viewers, regardless of their race.

"These are American heroes whose story just needs to be put on the largest, biggest, widest screen possible," said Tirrell Whittley, head of Liquid Soul Media, which is marketing the film.

Carter and other surviving airmen, some of whom were advisers during the making of the movie, say they're appreciative to Lucas for spending nearly $100 million of his own money to make and market the film.

"It's a wonderful feeling that finally there is some recognition that's being done in a manner that is credible to the Tuskegee Airmen," Carter said.

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