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Why Red Tails flew high

Lisa Olivia Fitch | 1/25/2012, 5 p.m.

Clapping and yelling at the sights of African American heroes on the screen, viewers on the opening night for "Red Tails" did not hesitate to voice pride in the movie at a local Baldwin Hills theater.

But it was the aerial scenes that left viewers breathless, wondering at the courage of these 20-something-year-olds, dodging and darting through the formations of U.S. bombers they protected and brazenly challenging the high-speed German jets. It was as thrilling and foreboding as if the viewers were in the cockpit, an experience they could only get on the big screen.

The film also soared at the box office, raking in $19.1 million over the opening weekend, second only to "Underworld: Awakening" ($25.4 million).

African American organizations around the country pushed their communities to support the movie. In Atlanta, "75 members of the North Metro chapter of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, representing the local alumni chapters of eight African American fraternities and sororities, attended the 5 p.m. Saturday showing at AMC Discover Mills," reported the Atlanta Consitution. The article continued:

"The movie has spurred a healthy word-of-mouth campaign on the Twitter accounts of numerous celebrities.

" 'Go see Red Tails,' tweeted actor Tyrese Gibson. 'It's already at $20 million in two days ..! They said movies w/ an all-Black cast don't do well.'

" 'Just saw Red Tails,' actor LeVar Burton tweeted. 'Tonight my inner child will dream of heroes who look like me. Thank you, George Lucas!'

'' 'It's important that we all go support Red Tails the movie and go see it this weekend!!!' tweeted Sean 'Diddy' Combs.

"And Atlanta R&B artist Ne-Yo, who plays one of the fighters, rallied his followers to come see him on the big screen.

" 'Salutations twitfam!' he tweeted. 'Who saw Red Tails opening day? What did you think? Tell a friend to tell a friend to go see it today! We Fight!' "

According to The YBF (The Young, Black, and Fabulous) website, "Red Tails" actor Tristan Wilds tweeted a request to fans to join him at a midnight showing of the film at Universal City Walk, and he came with celebrity friends bearing tickets for those who wanted to enter the movie.

It might have been one of the greatest uses of social media since Barack Obama used it to catapult himself into the presidency of the United States.

Locally, there was a move by activists to "Occupy Red Tails" by urging followers to set a date when to see the movie, purchase tickets in advance at http://fandango.com/, and use social media to encourage others to see the movie. And there was a lot of support out there. Beside the "Occupy Red Tails" emails encouraging folks to buy opening weekend tickets, even book clubs asked members to view the movie this month instead of turning pages for their regular discussions.

"I thought it was a good movie," said Theodore G. Lumpkin, 92, a former president of the Los Angeles chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. Lumpkin served in Italy as an intelligence officers with the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group. "It tried to depict the changes that occurred about the Black air force at that time and the fact that we wound up with a good record in World War II," he said. "It focused on the fact that we escorted the bombers to and from their targets."

"I thought it was an outstandingly entertaining movie. It helps give you a feeling of what these guys were faced with," said Levi Thornhill, 79, another member of the Los Angeles chapter. "Overall it was very good," he continued. Thornhill served as an aircraft mechanic crew chief with the 302nd Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group.

In Springfiled, Mass., as in other major cities around the country, former Tuskegee Airmen voiced their admiration for the film. James Sowell, 89, however, cited in The Republican on MassLive.com, liberties the fim took with reality. He said the airmen never did the inside rolls and outside rolls in their planes. But his friend, Charles T. Cross, 80, another Tusekegee alum, saw it as big screen wartime aerial flick with lots of action.

There have been other stories about the Tuskegee Airmen in books, videos and an HBO movie. In fact, there's an off-Broadway play on the same subject, "Black Angels Over Tuskegee," which has been running for three years now.

And what's with all the talk about the movie's financing? Black filmmakers have always had a hard row to hoe in that regard. Remember Robert Townsend maxing out his credit cards to produce his film "Hollywood Shuffle"?

But, here in "Red Tails" we have a high-tech, action-adventure flick with a majority Black cast and an Oscar-winning executive producer who financed the venture with millions of his own dollars. Well, yes, this is the big deal everyone is saying it is.

The $58-million production was nothing to sneeze at, and admittedly it still has a way to go to recoup executive director George Lucas' investment, but the film has enjoyed a fine takeoff.

"We're warranted to have (big) budgets, why not?" asked Art Sims, the artist behind the slick, explosive "Red Tails" movie posters.

"I'm optimistic," he added during a red carpet interview at the Baldwin Hills Rave 15 Theaters before the showing last Friday. "I hope with all the support in the U.S. . . . Well, I'm looking for a $50 million opening weekend, or at the very minimum 35 to 40--that in the future Hollywood studios will say 'If we can make our money back .... It's worth the investment.'"

"I think what [Lucas] did was he sent Hollywood a message--you can make a successful film with Black stars," Sims said. "It should inspire other filmmakers.

"George Lucas has been financing his own films for a while. That's nothing new. Since his earlier films were quite successful, he now enjoys the creative freedom of self-financing. The studios cannot tell him what to edit out of a film."

Lucas has said he poured his own money into the distribution of the movie because the Hollywood studios said it wasn't "green enough." They said they didn't know how to market a movie like this, and apparently they are not convinced that there will be an overseas market for a film with an all-Black cast. Hollywood usually rakes in 60 percent of its entertainment dollars overseas.

The executive producer also poured some money into the Black community. Sims' company, 11:24, which takes its name from the biblical book of Mark, was one of several African American enterprises chosen to help bring the story of the Tuskegee Airmen to the screen.

Sims met Lucas back in 2008 at a New York party given by Spike Lee. He had heard about the project and told Lucas that his agency would like to work on it someday.

Well, networking works. Sims got a call from one of the producers, Rick McCallum.

"I realized that look, I'm an African American company," Sims said. "I've gotta knock this outta the park."

In addition to looking at more than 50,000 still photographs from the film and watching five trailers, Sims researched the World War II paintings of Robert Taylor and others to get that cinematic sky and sunset.

"We started on the project in May of last year and rapped it up in August," said the L.A.-based artist. Two movie posters were produced for the film, one spotlighting the explosive action of the aerial dogfights and the other spotlighting a row of young, Black fighter pilots walking off a blazing airfield.

Lucas and company were pleased with the results.

"They called me and I think I heard the clinking of champagne glasses at Lucas' ranch," Sims smiled. "They were like 'You did it!'"

"Kudos to Lucas," he added. "He actually sought out African American businesses to help with everything that they did behind the scenes."

To say the making of this film was a labor of love for Lucas is an understatement. Since first hearing a story about the airmen from a pilot friend of his, Lucas was enamored of the idea and how the struggles of these pilots sparked the genesis of the early Civil Rights Movement. Fashioning the script took more than 20 years.

"It was too big and long," he said in a recent USA Today interview, comparing it to his first Star Wars script, which was so big it had to be divided into first three episodes of the saga. "Red Tails" had to be trimmed, losing some of the back story, training scenes and postwar racism incidents. But Lucas was careful to keep the message intact, much like his other epic films.

"I decided I liked the idea of doing films that spoke to and inspired young people," he said. "Saying things that needed to be said without being blatant--and that's where 'Red Tails' fits in."

In those 20 years, Lucas and his crew held biannual meetings with up to 40 Tuskegee Airmen, listening to their stories.

"That was the fun part," he said.

Sims, for one, thinks the outcome works on the big screen.

"One thing that the film showed was their positivity," Sims said. "They lifted each other up. It was more like 'look, this is what it is.' I think Lucas depicted it in a cool, positive way."

Glynn Turman was also on the red carpet last week.

"I'm hopeful that it gets the support he needs from all of America," Turman said. "The money can't be recouped from just the Black community.

"This film is long overdue. The value it brings to history. Now people will ask questions about other heroes, other stories--'what other contributions have we made to this great America?"

James Pickens, co-star of "Grey's Anatomy" was also pleased

"Hopefully people will have a chance to see scenes that they weren't privy to before," Pickens said." A lot of people didn't know that the U.S. Army was so segregated then. The Tuskegee experiment really meant to prove that African Americans couldn't fly. These men were flying in the face of unbelievable odds."