Remaining professional when placed in a room of breathtaking, talented and just plain charismatic black men who also happen to all star in George Lucas’ latest feature film Red Tails is a challenge to say the absolute least. Cuba Gooding Jr., David Oyelowo, Nate Parker, Terrence Howard, Tristan Wilds, Elijah Kelley, Ne-Yo and a few more of Hollywood’s hottest black actors all teamed up to bring the heroic story of the Tuskegee Airmen to life.
Director Anthony Hemingway and producer Rick McCallum managed to exhibit the inspirational and aspirational story behind the fly boys of Tuskegee with Red Tails. I’ll be the first to tell you that I am no action movie fan, but from the very beginning of this movie, I was hooked, then I was invested in the story and by the end, balled like a baby. Red Tails not only focuses on the heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen, but it also touches on themes of racism, power and visually enthralls the viewer in stunning air combat.
They say sex sells, so Red Tails should have no issue bringing in big bucks, considering the sexy stars cast to be the meat – literally and figuratively – in the retelling of this historic plight. After thanking my lucky stars, I got a chance to sit down with stars David Oyelowo, Nate Parker, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tristan Wilds, Elijah Kelley, Ne-Yo, director Anthony Hemingway, producer Rick McCallum, and real life Tuskegee Airman Dr. Roscoe Brown as they discussed the characters in the film, what they loved about it and working on an action-packed film with Civil Rights undertones. Everything about this movie stole my attention and kept it under lock and key, so please, do yourself a favor and go see Red Tails this Friday, January 20th!
Describe the characters you played…
David Oyelowo: I played Lightning and he embodies the audacity of youth. He’s a bad boy in a sense. He embodies that feeling of immortality. You kind of need that to get in a tin can that flies, go out to save the world and feel you’re going to come back every time. You needed that to do the missions. One of the things that Nate [Parker] and I talked about so much is that we were two sides of the same coin. There’s a phenomenal amount of talent in Lightning that needs directing and there’s a phenomenal amount of pressure in being a leader of a group that falls on Easy (Parker’s character).
Nate Parker: It was so exciting when we got this opportunity. This [grabs David’s shoulder] has become one of my closest friends on Earth. We sat down to figure out how we’d approach this because these characters aren’t very different. Easy’s given the responsibility of dealing with the burden of leadership and he’s 21 and it’s life or death. This character is always in the position of continual unrest and the only way he can slow his mind down is to find his coping mechanism which was alcohol, which [he thought] helped him be more human in his environment. There’s many things people use to deal with the anxiety inside of them. Through the journey, it took a series of events to let him know that sooner or later, he was going to have to face that anxiety and become a man in it. It was a rite of passage for him and without the series of events, he would have never changed. He ended up appreciating all the things that led up to him saying, “No more.”
Cuba Gooding Jr.: I play Major Emmanuel Stance. My character gives these gentleman guidance, proper training and encouragement and send them off to their war machines in the skies above.
Ne-Yo: I play Andrew “Smokey” Salem. He’s kind of the comedy relief in the film and the light-hearted part of the seriousness that is going on.
Elijah Kelley: My character’s name is Samuel “Joker” George. Ne-Yo and my character have a bond. We bring the levity to a very serious situation. I’m also a go-getter, gunner type of fighter. I want everybody to have an incredible time.
Tristan Wilds: My character is Raymond Gannon. They call me Junior. I’m the youngest pilot on the flight, the small man on the totem pole trying to get respect from my older peers.
Ne-Yo, how did you get cast in this film?
Ne-Yo: You know what? I went through the process like everyone else. I auditioned and they dug my audition. I told my people I don’t want roles because I’m Ne-Yo. It was my third time cold reading in life and it was enough to impress Anthony and there I was.
What do you love most about this film?
David Oyelowo: That was one of the things I loved about the film—I’ve been involved in films like this before. In the black community, you feel like you have to be all things to all men. You feel you have to please everyone. You feel if you have one that drinks, a bad boy and people feel like you’re airing dirty laundry. [laughs] I love that we’re doing a film that has a very firm eye on the audience. Everyone has weaknesses, especially young people. It was about how are these young men going to make the transition from boys to men. One of the scenes I enjoyed most in the movie was the scene with Terrence. He told Lightning that he had potential, but he was wasting it. Every young person has those moments where they need to buck up or lose out. I love that we didn’t pander to the fear of making him perfect. Any movie like this, you need that art so people can identify because they have those weaknesses.
Anthony Hemingway: We’ve seen ourselves as slaves, maids and X, Y and Z. This is a chance to see warriors, heroes, bravery and confidence—strong men, period. It’s a freshness. We’re focusing on educating the new generation that doesn’t know who the Tuskegee Airmen are. It’s to engage them to enjoy the ride. You’re on a roller-coaster ride, then you’re socked with some history, education and inspiration.
Nate Parker: You’re literally seeing stereotypes being dispelled as you watch it. Because there’s such an authenticity in it, it feels like you’re being transformed in the way that you think. What I really love about the film is that it celebrates masculinity in the black man. We don’t see that as often as we should. To be a part of the Hollywood machine, we look for it and our young people look for it. When they only see it in athletes and drug dealers, then that’s what they aspire to. To give them a different point of reference and say you can be excellent, strong, a rock star, sexy and still be responsible, college educated—it says something. As a black man, it’s inspiring.
David Oyewolo: I haven’t seen young, black men in amazing planes, doing what we got to do in this movie. We’ve seen films with great CGI or whatever, but not with this particular group getting to do this. It’s rare to go and feel like you’re watching something new. You can feel that.
You guys had to use a lot of CGI and green screen. What’s the difference in acting with this versus a regular movie?
Elijah Kelley: I used to laugh at people that did those type of movies—like Terminator and Transformers. It’s the hardest thing! We had someone reading lines next to us. We’re in the plane like, “boooom booom!” and the person next to you is like, [no inflection]”you’re getting shot. They’re coming after you. Look harder. Move faster.” And you’re like, “I’m getting shot at! I need for you to give me something!” All the Sam Worthington’s Shia LeBouf’s and Arnold Schwartenegger’s that have stood in front of that screen and made something from nothing—kudos!
Do you feel it was more important to show the adventure of the film versus the Civil Rights aspect of it?
Dr. Roscoe Brown: It does show the Civil Rights, in a sense because it talks about what we can’t do and what we must do. The struggle goes back to the 1940’s and the NAACP and the black press. It’s certainly difficult to highlight that in a dramatic film. You probably know about the Double V documentary George has produced, which has interviews and back stories. The movie focuses on the combat activity to get the attention of the public.
David Oyelowo: Also, with a film of this size, there’s a desire for it to crossover and be a global film, you marginalize with the film and the audience by concentrating on that. The great thing about the Tuskegee Airmen, the untold thing about them is the heroism and sheer swagger they had. These guys were the movies stars of their day in the black community and without. They gained respect from white pilots because that’s the way they crashed through the color barrier by what they did as opposed to who they were. That’s what we wanted to depict in this. It’s for kids and grown-ups all over. It’s not just for one community or group.