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George Lucas and his team pored over many scripts over the years as they searched for the right balance between airborne action, grounded drama, and the fellowship amongst young men for the movie ‘Red Tails,’ now playing in cinemas. “It’s a big story and if we attempted to depict everything, we’d end up with a ten-hour movie,” Lucas says.
Ultimately, screenwriters John Ridley (U-Turn, Three Kings, Undercover Brother) and Aaron McGruder (Boondocks) focused their efforts on the exploits of the heroic 332nd Fighter Group based out of Ramitelli Airfield in Italy in 1944, as well as the happenings within the halls of the Pentagon that saw that group put into action.
“I think there was a bit of destiny involved with me being the writer on this film,” says Ridley. “My uncle was a Tuskegee Airman. He never talked about it, and when I got to meet the Red Tails, they never talk about it. That was one of my big takeaways from working on this film. You have to remind yourself when you’re talking to these 90-year-old men that they were 19 and 20 years old at the time and they didn’t think what they were doing was monumental. They thought of it as something that was necessary.”
As with many of the people who worked on Red Tails, Ridley found this to be a passion project. “I have a father who was in the Air Force and who lived through the Second World War. I also have a young son, so I was writing for both of them,” he says. “I wanted the film to be exciting and inspiring to young people.
At the same time, for someone like my father I wanted the film to be engaging on an intellectual level and be realistic in terms of its portrayal of the time and the War.” McGruder came onto the film to add depth to certain characters, to quicken the pace of certain scenes, and add a timeless spark of classic adventure.
“I wanted to combine the historic story with the fun, action-adventure vibe that you expect from a George Lucas-produced film,” says McGruder. “It has a comic book-feel that only he could bring to a film. Before this, we didn’t have our John Wayne, but we now have that kind of larger-than-life treatment, and the Tuskegee Airmen deserve it.”
Selecting the director
As the script came together, the production needed a director who could balance a mix of multiple, memorable characters as well as the focused drama called for by the story. The acclaimed work of Anthony Hemingway on television series such as Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, and The Wire drew the producers’ attention.
“I got a call from my agent and he said that George Lucas and Rick McCallum wanted to meet me,” Hemingway remembers. “I was like, ‘Yeah, right. Why me?’ He told me that they were doing a film about the Tuskegee Airmen and I was immediately engaged in the conversation.”
The thrill of the opportunity to helm his first feature film soon expanded into the humbling realization that he’d been tasked to tell the story of Tuskegee Airmen. “I feel like I’m following in their footsteps as a young black filmmaker,” says Hemingway. “I feel a sense of responsibility to make the right moves and work towards becoming what I hope will be an example to anyone, especially young black kids in the world.”
The actors had high praise for Hemingway’s approach to directing. “He came and spoke to me every take,” describes Terrence Howard, who plays Colonel A.J, Bullard in Red Tails. “He manicured what I was doing, because I needed him. That’s the whole point of having a great director. I wanted to find the character inside of me that I couldn’t see, and so Anthony was really the architect of my character. I think he’s done very well with it, because not one time have I left the set and felt that there was something I forgot to do.”
David Oyelowo (who plays Joe ‘Lightning’ Little), was taken in by Hemingway’s ability to balance technical proficiency and attention to detail. “He has a very good bird’s-eye-view of everything that’s going on, and because of that he’s secure enough in his ability that he can allow others to bring things to the table.”
Elijah Kelley (Samuel ‘Joker’ George) appreciated Hemingway’s trust in the actors. “He allowed us to go beyond the words on the page. As long as we had the foundation, if we felt something would help the scene he allowed us to do it.”
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