"I was one of those kids who used to get into trouble. I got suspended 15 times in high school, expelled from four different schools. I felt unappreciated," said Howard.
His attitude began to change when he completed a report on Benjamin O. Davis, the pioneering black officer who shepherded the Tuskegee Airmen through training and won them combat assignments in the European theater.
"Davis went through four years at West Point, and not one person spoke to him, unless it was required, or absolutely necessary. Unappreciated? That put things into perspective for me. Davis endured all of that, and then went on to basically integrate the armed forces. And when I got the script, I found out that's basically the character I would be playing," Howard said.
His character is actually a composite of several men (his character's name, "Bullard," dates to a black pilot who flew for France in World War I), and while it's reasonably close to history, he said, it's an action movie first, history lesson a distant second.
That was always the intention of producer George Lucas, who spent 23 years and $100 million of his own money bringing the story to the big screen. He wanted to celebrate unabashedly the fighting exploits of the airmen, to make the patriotic war movie that should have been made 60 years ago.
"George, when he came [on a set visit] to Prague, reminded us that we're making a movie about heroes, not victims," Howard said.
The heroes were right there on set, including Roscoe Brown, who became an ace flying bomber escort missions deep into Germany.
Howard said he's amazed at how humble the men like Brown are.
"These guys were real heroes, and real heroes don't brag about their exploits. That's why very few people know that they helped save the world."
And that's not hyperbole, Howard said.
"If these airmen didn't do the things they were able to do, I promise you there is every chance the Axis powers would have found a way to survive. They were developing weapons systems that could have turned the tide of the war," he said.