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.
Black filmmakers and actors are pulling for the movie to be successful because they realize its success could mean more opportunities for them.
"Every black film that's made seems to have a bearing on whether black filmmakers get an opportunity," said Terverius Black, a filmmaker in Huntsville, Ala. "I want to see it be successful."
Joyner said he too wants the movie to have strong box office numbers, but acknowledges it will be challenging.
"You have to make twice the money that you put in just to break even," Joyner said. "You put in $100 million, you got to make $200 million. So this will be pretty monumental."
Some historians and scholars believe the movie's general war theme will be an attraction to all audiences.
Bobby Lovett was a history professor at Tennessee State University in Nashville for nearly 40 years before recently retiring. He often invited some of the Tuskegee Airmen to speak to his students, who were fascinated by their stories.
"There's a sort of romanticism attached to pilots and aircraft," he said. "I don't know of any other story you could pull out of World War II that would be as appealing to an audience."
Vanderbilt University professor Alice Randall said the movie could introduce some to a portion of black history they've never heard.
"We have an opportunity to ... educate viewers, even as we entertain them, about the rainbow of Americans who have performed patriotic duty for this country," said Randall, a writer-in-residence in African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt.
Tennessee Rep. Tony Shipley, a Kingsport Republican and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who has attended events with the Tuskegee Airmen, said "the war could have gone a different direction" had it not been for the airmen who escorted bombers deep into Germany.
"Those guys were ... absolutely awesome," said Shipley, who is white. "And if anybody pays attention to the story — who cares black, white, green, yellow — they were Americans. People are alive today whose grandfather would have been killed had it not been for the Tuskegee Airmen."
Vernice Armour, the nation's first black female combat pilot, said the airmen helped pave the way for men and women in the military, and noted a phrase at the bottom of a poster advertising the movie that reads: "Courage has no color."
"Without their honor, courage and sacrifice, I wouldn't be where I am," said Armour, who served two tours during the Iraq War as a Marine.Comment on this story
The Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their service in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and were invited to attend President Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009. President Obama and the first lady screened "Red Tails" at the White House last week.
Regardless of its impact at the box office, many believe the inspirational message of the movie will linger for a long time.
"These are the type of films I try to do," Parker said. "Things that ... you can take into our community and effect change in a way that the airmen did."