On Movies: For Gooding, 'Red Tails' is a tale worth telling

Cuba Gooding Jr. (right) with Terrence Howard. Gooding says the "Red Tails" cast was aided by several real-life Tuskegee veterans.
Cuba Gooding Jr. (right) with Terrence Howard. Gooding says the "Red Tails" cast was aided by several real-life Tuskegee veterans. (Lucasfilm)
Posted: January 22, 2012

Cuba Gooding Jr. is one of the veteran Tuskegee Airmen.

That is, the actor plays a base commander in the new, George Lucas-produced Red Tails, an action-packed account of the daring aerial exploits of the famed all-black flying unit of World War II.

And Gooding was one of the young African American aces who took to the skies to shoot down Nazis in 1995's HBO drama The Tuskegee Airmen.

Both films show how the unique group of Army Air Corps pilots combated fascism in Europe, and then combated racism at home - and within the ranks of the U.S. military.

"When I first heard about their story back in 1992, 1993, I was in my early 20s and I had never heard of them, never knew who they were, never knew nothing," Gooding says of the Tuskegee heroes.

"And it made me frustrated, because it made me realize that my upbringing, my education, had a lack of African American stories in it . . . stories of empowerment, of self-empowerment. . . . And hopefully one of the things Red Tails will do is make a lot of people, a lot of young people, aware of what these black men did. It's good now to be able to celebrate their lives and their accomplishments."

Red Tails, which opened Friday, is a project that Lucas tried to get funded for more than 20 years. The studios were resistant to the idea of an all-black story that required a fairly hefty production budget, and even the man behind the Star Wars saga had to struggle to get the Tuskegee film made.

Finally, though, he has. Anthony Hemingway, an accomplished African American television director (The Wire, True Blood, The Closer), makes his big-screen debut, and a cast that includes Gooding, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Elijah Kelley, Tristan Wilds, Method Man, and Terrence Howard is in front of the camera - and in the cockpits of the red-tailed fighter planes.

Like Star Wars, Red Tails features amazing sequences of dogfighting warfare, weapons ablaze, swooping and diving and arcing, with fast cutaways to the pilots, communicating by radio, strapped into their cockpits.

Although Gooding says there were a number of vintage P-51 Mustangs on the movie set - an abandoned Soviet airstrip outside Prague in the Czech Republic - most of the planes and aerial acrobatics depicted in the film are the stuff of CG. The giant air battles were mostly digital.

"It's such a visually exciting, stunning movie," Gooding says, on the phone from New York recently. "The CG work is amazing, especially when I think of what we had - a couple of planes, and the actors staring at green screens, staring at orange balls."

The Oscar winner (best supporting actor, Jerry Maguire) laughs.

"These young actors, the other pilots - Nate and David, who were wonderful - they spent weeks in cockpits on soundstages, just being yelled at and having to stare off into lights. That will unnerve you after awhile, but they seem to have done a really good job."

Gooding says the cast and crew were helped immensely by the presence of several real-life Tuskegee veterans on the Czech shoot: Roscoe Brown, Lee Archer, and Bill Holloman as consultants - and as inspiration.

"Roscoe and Lee Archer - who's no longer with us - were on the set, and it wasn't just, 'Oh, don't do that,' or 'We wouldn't have done it like that.' It was more like 'Man, I remember this one time we went up . . .,' and they would tell us these stories of dogfights and all the things they experienced, and that blew us away more than anything."

Gooding, who has been making action movies lately (The Hit List with Cole Hauser, One in the Chamber with Dolph Lundgren), also narrated a Tuskegee Airmen documentary, Double Victory, that debuted last weekend on the History Channel.

"It finishes with this one wonderful line from Billy Holloman," Gooding recalls. The film describes the racism that these men had to deal with, and someone says to him, 'You guys were heroes, and it's taken sixty-something years for you to be recognized.'

"But Billy says he has no bad feelings. He said, 'I got to tell you. I was on the air base with these other airmen, and we don't have a lot of resentment.'

"And then he says, 'Our country has been sick for a long time, but we'll hold her hand until she gets better.'

"I thought that was a really cool, really moving line."

Soderbergh goes "Haywire." Who says channel surfing is a waste of time? If Steven Soderbergh hadn't been idly scanning the programming grid on his TV back in late 2008, and his eyes hadn't gone to CBS' Saturday Night Fights, then Haywire - the sleek international action thriller that opened everywhere Friday - probably wouldn't exist.

Soderbergh clicked on the show back then and saw a raven-haired mixed martial arts star, Gina Carano, in the cage. He was impressed with her athleticism, her fighting skills, and, well, her hotness.

"It was pretty random," says Soderbergh, the director of Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Oceans Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen fame.

"This could very easily have not happened, which is scary - but I guess that's the way the world works sometimes."

The director started to follow Carano - virtually, that is. He looked her up on the Internet. He watched her next fight. And then, he saw her lose to MMA femme titan Cris Cyborg.

"And then I called Gina's managers and asked if I could sit down with her," says Soderbergh, who was thinking about a spy thriller, an action piece, built around Carano.

"We had lunch. . . . I was trying to get a read on whether or not this is someone who could handle what I was thinking of proposing, and she seemed very grounded, and didn't seem like a crazy person, the way some athletes do - you know, they're kind of living in the third person. You don't want to spend a lot of time with them."

At the end of their lunch, Soderbergh told Carano what he had in mind. "I'd like to create a character and build a movie around you and your abilities," he recalls telling her. "And from that point on, it happened pretty quickly."

Indeed, Soderbergh finished Haywire - which also stars Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, and Channing Tatum - last spring. Then he shot Contagion, his global pandemic disaster pic, which opened in September.

"It's been a crazy 12 months," he concedes.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.

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