Fifty years after the conclusion of World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen are getting their just due.
A new HBO film, premiering Saturday, illuminates this little-known chapter in the history of the global conflict. "The Tuskegee Airmen," starring Laurence Fishburne, chronicles the remarkable tale of the U.S. Army Air Corps' "Fighting 69th," the first squadron of African American combat fighter pilots who battled not only the Axis powers in Europe and Africa but also the ugly specter of prejudice at home.
The story of how "Tuskegee Airmen" finally made it to the screen is itself an epic tale of heroism, perseverance, love and passion.
The "Tuskegee" saga begins with the film's co-executive producer Robert W. Williams, now 72 and a veteran of the Tuskegee Airmen. Williams flew 50 missions in the U.S. Army Air Corps 332nd Fighter Group, receiving the rank of captain. He was honored with a Distinguished Flying Cross and the Presidential Union Citation.
For the last 43 years, Williams has struggled to bring the story of the Tuskegee squadron to life. He was working for Ebony magazine in Chicago as an advertising space salesman when in 1952, "I learned while I was there that 20th Century Fox wanted to do this picture." During a visit to Los Angeles, the UCLA graduate decided to stop by the studio where he was introduced to Fox's story editor.
"He said, 'I would love to do the story but we don't have one,' " says Williams. "I said, 'I'm not a writer as such, but I flew with the group and I have a background in theater. Perhaps if you could put me in touch with someone who is a writer, maybe he and I could collaborate and we could come up with a story.' "
The story editor introduced Williams to writer Sy Bartlett, of "Twelve O'Clock" high fame, who explained the harsh realities of Hollywood to Williams. "He said, 'Bob, I can't help you because I was in the Air Corps and many of those who didn't want you in the program were friends of mine. But I will give you some tips on writing so you could write it yourself.' So that's exactly the arrangement we made."
By the time Williams, who acted in such films as "Pork Chop Hill" and "A Gathering of Eagles," finished his script, Hollywood was no longer interested in World War II films.
"But I never gave up on the concept," he says. "It was a very important piece of our history and it had to be made somewhere . So from that period on I have been trying to get it made. I guess I have been rejected by every studio and every TV network in the country."
And also by African American filmmakers. "I don't mean to put them down, but I know there are people who I approached who, with the raising of their hand, could have had this picture made or made it themselves."
Williams' luck changed 11 years ago when he met executive producer Frank Price, former president of Universal TV and chief executive officer of MCA Motion Picture Group and former chairman and CEO of Columbia Pictures.
"This man had a fertile mind and saw all the value, excitement and pathos of this picture," Williams says. "I applaud him because this picture wouldn't have been made if it were not for Frank Price. [African Americans] have had people like Martin Luther King Jr., but every bit of progress that we as a people have made, we have had some help from people from the white community. Somebody who can make things happen like John Kennedy who were committed to fairness and civil rights. Frank Price played that role. He was the straw who stirred the drink and made it happen. I will be forever grateful to him."
Price, currently chairman and CEO of Price Entertainment, realized Williams' story was a powerful one. Though Price had heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, "I really didn't know the story. What was so terrific about the story was that it was Bob's personal story that had many, many scenes in it that wouldn't appear in the history of the Tuskegee Airmen."
Williams began flying in 1940, when, he says, "there were 102 licensed black pilots in the entire United States. Three of them were in my family--my father, my brother and myself. My father then bought a Piper Cub and we flew all over southern Iowa. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, a white friend of mine and I went to volunteer at the Air Force and the recruiting sergeant handed my white buddy an application and said, 'There's no use wasting time on that boy, because the Air Corps is taking no niggers.' That was quite a slap in the face."
Initially, Price attempted to get "Tuskegee" made as a theatrical film, but was unable to get a script that satisfied him. "I certainly had a picture in my mind of the story Bob had told. That's the story I wanted to tell. We didn't quite get there [despite] a number of attempts. The good thing about coming to HBO was, at that point, we became very focused. We are now going to do this picture, period. It helps to have a deadline."
HBO became involved with the project two years ago. HBO Pictures President Bob Cooper was inspired to make the film during one of his vacations.
"Sitting on the beach," Cooper recalls, "I thought to myself, 'What would be a good story to tell that would do what HBO ought to keep doing, which is to be different and be unique? What's a story that no one else seems to want to tell that we want to tell?' I had remembered years ago reading some little blurb on the Tuskegee Airmen and when I got back, I asked some other people who worked here to do some research on it. When I heard more of the story I said, 'This is a great movie.' It's big, it's epic and it's an untold story. It breaks down the stereotype we have in a number of movies about African Americans being outsiders and outcasts."
Though some executives informed Cooper that other studios had Tuskegee projects on the burner--including one from George Lucas--he still pursued the idea. "I inquired and found that Frank Price had been developing one for years," Cooper says. He called up Price and inquired if he'd be willing to do his movie with HBO. "Instead of acting as a buyer, I acted as a seller," Cooper says.
The next hurdle was the script. Trey Ellis ("Love Field") wrote one and Ron Hutchinson ("The Josephine Baker Story") "made a great contribution," Price says. But the project jelled when Paris Qualles ("China Beach," "MANTIS") was brought on board.
As luck would have it, Qualles' father was a Tuskegee veteran and Qualles also happened to be a pilot. "Paris did such a marvelous job in writing the final draft of the screenplay," says Williams, who makes a cameo appearance in the scene where Fishburne graduates from training. "Paris understood what was going on and and really grasped the meaning of it."
Qualles worked very closely with Williams and director Robert Markowitz ("Afterburn") on the script. "It's not every day a writer gets a very close working relationship with a director," Qualles says. "Markowitz believed in the words. He believed in the story and he wanted it, if anything, stronger. He wanted more of an edge. He wanted to glorify the aviators even more. So I would argue with him [saying], 'Let's tone it down a bit. We are nibbling on the edge of believability. We have to balance the scales.' "
From the very beginning, Markowitz saw "Tuskegee Airmen" as a love story between the flyers. "If the film has any humanity, it's that these men cared about each other. They really wanted to fly and they were going to do anything to fly. These guys did not think of themselves as victims. They didn't think of themselves as being persecuted. They had one vision--they had their eye on the prize."
"People ask the question, 'Did you have any sense of history while you were going through this program and while I was flying combat?,' " Williams says. "My answer to that is always no. We were just a bunch of young kids. We didn't know anything about history."
Nearly every black actor in Hollywood, Markowitz says, was interested in the project. Besides Fishburne, the film features such acclaimed young African American performers as Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Allen Payne, Cuba Gooding Jr., Courtney Vance and Andre Braugher. "I had a relationship with Laurence Fishburne because I had done 'Decoration Day' with him," Markowitz says. "When I was brought on board I got in touch with him personally. As soon as he heard the subject matter and because we had worked together, getting him to do the movie was truly effortless. Once he came aboard, it really got the quality stamp of approval."
Some of the younger actors, Qualles says, couldn't comprehend the degree of prejudice in America in the 1940s. "While I was writing it I knew this could be a problem for the actors given the mind-set, given the fact that these kids were not around 50 years ago," Qualles explains. "They have no idea what blacks had to put up with; the level of racism 50 years ago was such that kids today have no concept. It's like, 'Why did you ever put up with that? How could you put up with that?' I thought it could be potentially a big problem because an actor who doesn't feel the racism won't portray the time, won't get the characters. There were problems early, but you had people like Bob Williams who was there explaining. They had enough older-generation pilots around to explain."
Vance, who plays the only instructor with flight experience, knew little of Tuskegee history before starting the film. Making it, he says, was an "opportunity to just fill out your education."
While on location in Arkansas, Vance relished his discussions with Williams. "It was beautiful to be able to sit down and just listen to tales."
Unfortunately, Vance acknowledges, "history is told by the winners. What's not talked about can be construed as not to exist. That's why it's so important with these projects that they get done. I was doing some [dubbing] on the film in London and one of the engineer's sons was a World War II buff. He asked me if I would talk to his son about the Tuskegee Airmen because in all of his studies he hadn't come across anything about black soldiers in World War II. He was taken aback that there were actually black soldiers."
Williams, who frequently breaks out in tears when he recalls his Tuskegee days, is thrilled with the movie. "I didn't compromise," he says. "It has happened wonderfully. I couldn't be happier. It's probably the happiest time in my life."
"The Tuskegee Airmen" premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.