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‘Red Tails’ actors honored to play Tuskegee Airmen on screen

RED_ILM_720 - WashingtD.C. (shot Prague);Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard)

RED_ILM_720 - Washington D.C. (shot in Prague);Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard)

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Updated: February 16, 2012 8:08AM

Terrence Howard says there is a fine line between a life that soars and one that’s grounded.

The Chicago native, who grew up in Cleveland, says, “I was suspended from school at least 15 times when I was a young man. I was expelled from four different high schools for insubordination. I had a real problem with authority like a lot of black kids.

“Fortunately for me, I never got away with anything.”

A moment in history changed everything for Howard — just as it does for his character in his new movie, “Red Tails.”

“I stole a pair of argyle socks from the May Company [department store] in Cleveland at age 15. I remember the security guard grabbing me and then talking to me like I was a man. I was begging, ‘Can you please, please let me go home? Don’t call the cops.’ ”

The guard replied, “No, young man. I’m calling the cops because I care about you. I don’t want this to become a pattern in your life.”

Says Howard, “The police drove me to my house and we sat in the car for a few minutes. The cop said, ‘Son, just look at where you are today. Look at where you’re heading. I want you to remember one thing. The great men in history like the Tuskegee Airmen were troublemakers at their core. You’re a troublemaker. ... Learn to put that energy into something good.’”

All of these years later, Howard stars in “Red Tails” (opening Friday), a film about the very troublemakers who helped to put him on the right track.

It’s based on the true story of the first all-African-American aerial combat unit in World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen were a major part of combat, but also an issue at the Pentagon, which debated the risk of using black pilots in battle. The film is produced by George Lucas, who says he loved the story of “young men thrust into an incredible situation, who come out heroes. They’re knights of the contemporary age.”

For 23 years, Lucas had been developing the story of cadets enlisted to participate in an experiment at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., to fly combat in the Army Air Corps.

Cuba Gooding Jr., who stars alongside Howard and Nate Parker, says he wanted in from the start.

“I heard George Lucas was putting together a major motion picture push to tell this story. And I knew that stories like this were few and far between — especially in Hollywood. You don’t usually find action-adventure films with an all-black cast.”

Howard knew of the Tuskegee Airmen from his father, who “was extremely Afro-centric and made sure that we were aware of it.

“It does bother me that no one knows about it,” he says. “It’s like walking around not knowing about Columbus. It is nice in this information age that you can reflect on their glory.

“I do remember learning about them as a kid and loved that these black pilots painted the tails of their planes red. They’re part of the red in the red, white and blue flag of ours.”

The actors say that the flying sequences weren’t for the faint of heart. “I got the stunt pilots to take me up, and I got to throw up on my shoes,” Gooding jokes. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to do it again.’ I’d rather be in a club with a drink than up in the air.”

Howard just laughs. “Stunts in a plane are for young people like Nate Parker who has that testosterone. The old men got too much estrogen in their system. I was like, ‘Are you guys crazy?’ I was watching from the ground going, ‘Nate’s doing really good.’ ”

Parker says, “The director made sure I was trained in every way possible. We did boot camp where we went up in P-51 Mustang planes and did rollouts in the air, which was an incredible experience.

“It was paramount to get that on screen. I wanted to feel that joystick in my hand even if I was on a simulator three feet off the ground. I needed to be in that cockpit to feel that tight space and be claustrophobic in it.”

Director Anthony Hemingway, a veteran of HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme,” makes his feature debut with “Red Tails.”

“The first time the actors flew they were kissing the ground,” he says. “You have no control up in the sky when you’re with another pilot who is doing the flying. When you do rolls up there, you’re very close to blacking out while the pilot is in the pressure suits with oxygen to keep the blood in their brain.”

Adds Parker, “When you do a loop up there they tell you that your peripheral vision will go black. All of a sudden you see a circle getting smaller until it’s the size of a pin. You’re actually blacking out.

“When you come out of the roll, the pinhole gets bigger and bigger.”

The actors say that there was something big about depicting men who were part of “the Greatest Generation.”

“We just don’t have a common frame of reference to understand the sacrifice they made,” Howard says. “These boys were 19, 20, 21 and put their lives on the line as black pilots. Many of them lost their lives for a country that didn’t recognize their sacrifice for decades. It took a long time to appreciate what they did.”

The fallout has been amazing.

“We were in Houston last weekend, and I had the most real moment of my career,” he says. “I was sitting next to George H.W. Bush and his wife. We shared a bag of popcorn for two hours with the very first black female astronaut sitting to my right. I’ve never had people of such stature watch one of my films with me.

“They were honoring us. They were honoring the Tuskegee Airmen.”

Gooding adds, “There have been so many emotional moments, like being at the Pentagon and having all of these white, five-star generals with tears running down their faces. They’ve said, ‘Thank you for being here.’

“It feels like something holy,” he says in an amazed voice.

Gooding recalls the prisoners he’s encountered while researching roles.

“These young black men can’t look me in the eye. They’ve looked at their feet saying to me, ‘Cuba, I’m a piece of s---. I come from nothing.’

“I wish I could show them this movie and say to them, ‘Have you heard about these airmen? You come from royalty, too.’ ”

Big Picture News Inc.

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