A snub from Hollywood, a helping hand from UCR
By Chris Levister –
When Star Wars creator George Lucas’ epic “Red Tails” opens nationwide in theaters on Friday, January 20th African Americans are banking on their brethren packing theaters. The feature film about the Tuskegee Airmen took 23 years to make and according to Lucas the script was snubbed because of its all-Black cast.
When Lucas approached the major Hollywood studios about backing "Red Tails," he was told: Thanks, but no thanks.
"There's no major White roles in it at all . . . I showed it to all of them and they said no, we don't know how to market a movie like this," Lucas told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.
“I'm urging all of you to see this movie, and tell others about it as well,” wrote UC Riverside professor of psychology Dr. Carolyn Murray in an e-mail recently.
“When the movie was finally ready for production, no production company would take it; as a result, George Lucas had to write a check,” Murray fumes. “After production was completed, no distribution company would take it. So, George Lucas wrote another check.”
“Anything we can do to ensure large numbers of viewers in the first few days of release will make a statement to the production and distribution companies that WE ARE interested in SEEING this film and that they made a miscalculation.”
By all accounts, African American audiences across the country are gearing up to pack theaters in numbers usually reserved for the latest Tyler Perry movie. “We have to become smart consumers. If some of us could line up for hours to buy $200 Nike sneakers, why don’t we go see movies that teach us and our children of our heroes? If we can go see Tyler Perry’s "Madea" —and there is nothing wrong with a little humor—why can’t we go to those that show another side of our people? If we can flock the theaters to see "gangsta sequels," why can’t we spend our money on "Red Tails?” writes New York based Allvoices anchor Veronica Roberts.
That sense of importance and urgency is on full display on the fourth floor of the UC Riverside Library, home to the world’s largest and most comprehensive archive of documents and artifacts illuminating the careers of many of those World War II flying aces that fought Nazis in the sky and discrimination on the ground. Before starting production of the fictionalized film in Europe several actors who auditioned for the Lucasfilm searched for facts in the university’s coveted collection of personal letters; photographs; oral histories; petitions; documentation of careers before, during, and after military service; books by and about the Airmen; diaries; records of the local and regional chapters; posters; African American military history; memorabilia; and other historic resources housed at the Archive.
UCR Librarian Ruth Jackson said, photographs from the archive were used in preparing for the production’s release activities, and the archive responded to requests for contact information for the filming of the DVD documentary film about the Tuskegee Airmen that will be released simultaneously.
“We have inquiries from all over the world, from as far away as Switzerland,” said Jackson.
For example, a salvage team retrieving a plane that was shot down off the coast of Corsica in World War II contacted the UCR archive for a photo of the Tuskegee pilot. The university was able to provide a group photo that included the pilot.
To date 80 donors have contributed papers, artifacts and historical records documenting the military careers and personal lives of dozens of Tuskegee Airmen, including Buford Johnson, who lives in Inland Southern California.
Jackson said the archive seeks to document the Airmen and Women’s contributions to aviation and military history, as well as their unique contributions to economic development, race relations, politics, business, military science, the arts and theater, education, and numerous other fields.
“The emphasis of our archive is to collect not only the military history but the history of their personal lives as well,” Jackson said of the archive that was established in 2005. The university also hosts an annual celebration to honor the airmen and women who were a part of the famed Tuskegee Experience. The graduates of the program, which trained the first African-American pilots between 1943 and 1945, established an enviable record during World War II.
“In addition to their distinguished military record and playing a major role in integrating the armed services and aviation, they have contributed tremendously to all aspects of American history and life. They served as judges, university presidents, teachers, architects, engineers, physicians, actors, scientists, and musicians, etc. They have accompl ished many, many things.”
Riverside resident Col. Ralph W. Smith (USAF-Ret.) a member of the Tuskegee Airmen gold medal committee, and president of the Smith Family/Concerned Citizens Cultural Foundation for Minority Affairs (SCMEB Foundation) spent more than 30 years often behind the scenes to bring recognition to the 1,000 men who suffered unspeakable indignities while trying to serve their country.
"I came from a long line of family members who served in every branch of the military since 1868," says Smith. In the early 70's working as a research scientist at Northrop Aircraft, Smith learned four of his colleagues were Tuskegee Airmen. After hearing their stories Smith joined the airmen's Los Angeles unit.
Smith remembers quiet, reserved men who never gave up.
“Although they earned respect in the air, the fliers endured racism and segregation on the ground.”
"Their stories were empowering and heartbreaking. I had to do something," says Smith.
In 2007, President George W. Bush saluted the Tuskegee Airmen, six decades after they completed their World War II mission and returned home to a country that discriminated against them because they were Black.
“Even the Nazis asked why African American men would fight for a country that treated them so unfairly,” President Bush told the group of legendary Black aviators, who received a Congressional Gold Medal — the most prestigious Congress has to offer.
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