On Friday, January 13th, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greeted Tuskegee Airmen at a special screening of the movie “Red Tails” at the White House. The George Lucas film which stars Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Tristan Wilds, Nate Parker and R&B singer Ne-Yo, tells the story of the first black aviators in the American military. The paint job on the back of the fighter pilots’ planes gave the Red Tails their nickname.
The Tuskegee Airmen fought World War II on two fronts. Against the Germans, officially, but also against racism within the ranks. “You had to fight just to get in the fight,” said veteran Walter Robinson, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen’s Atlanta chapter.
On Thursday, January 12th, the Atlanta group hosted an advance screening of the film.
“It’s a real honor,” said veteran Val Archer (shown above on left) who served with the ground crew during his stint as one of the Tuskegee Airmen. “I think we’re pretty proud of who we are and our legacy.”
Archer grew up in Chicago and enlisted at age 15, thanks to a doctored birth certificate. He ended up serving for 13 years. He said his most terrifying moment during his military career came not at the hands of the Nazis but during a training course at Scott Field in St. Louis.
“There were at least four guys who were in the Klan,” he said. “They said they were going to ‘indoctrinate’ me.”
Before the movie, Archer visited with fellow veteran W.O. Smith (shown above on right), who grew up in Cincinnati and enlisted at 17 in hopes of a better life.
“I was the oldest of eight,” he said. “My father wasn’t even making a dollar an hour at the steel plant.”
He retired 35 years ago as of June 1. His memories of racial tension remain fresh.
“I always felt that you had to be better than the others,” he said. “They were always watching you. They didn’t think you were smart enough to be there.”
Indeed, the movie opens with a quote from a 1925 U.S. military study that declared blacks unfit for military service. The movie is scheduled for a Jan. 20 release. Thursday’s screening, at the AMC Southlake 24 in Morrow, served as both a fundraiser for the Atlanta Tuskegee Airmen chapter and a “key influencer” event that organizers hope will result in ticket sales.
In an interview with USA Today Lucas, who financed the film himself, said he was a bit worried about the impact the film’s box office performance could have. “I realize that by accident I’ve now put the black film community at risk. I’m saying, if this doesn’t work, there’s a good chance you’ll stay where you are for quite a while.
“This is an awesome film. Please tell at least four people,” chapter president Zellie Orr urged the packed theater just before the movie began. During the pre-screening reception, Orr, a researcher and historian, said she became active with the chapter in 2004. She contacted the Lucas film folks more than two years ago to secure Thursday night’s premiere in Atlanta.
“These men who made history get to see it on the big screen,” she said. Tuskegee Airmen came from practically every state in the U.S. They contributed to our freedom at home and abroad. They’re getting the recognition they deserve.”
While many of Thursday’s honored guests were Tuskegee Airmen, only a couple were actual Red Tails. One of them was Bob Friend, a Columbia, S.C., native who enlisted in 1942 at age 21 and retired in 1971.
“It was unique in the fact that you were essentially isolated,” he said of his military service during the era of segregation. “The training that we got, I think, was equal to anyone else. An airplane is an airplane. We were people just like they were. We had the same objective – to win that war.”
Bob Friend, above left, was a Red Tail. Seated is veteran The Rev. Ewell Black, who spent four months in a German POW camp during WWII. On the right is Tuskegee Airman Hillard Pouncy. Black and Pouncy live in the same retirement home now and attended the screening together.