High Flyers

Red Tails is released in cinemas on June 6th
See www.damaris.org/redtails for free church and community resources
Red Tails

“It was interesting for me, as a Christian, to play the guy who’s effectively the atheist,” says David Oyelowo, a rising British star who recently landed a central role in Hollywood blockbuster, Red Tails. His character, Joe ‘Lightning’ Little, is a hot-headed World War Two fighter pilot, and a non-believer in an age when atheism was ‘a lot less hip.’

Oyelowo may be familiar from TV’s Spooks, as well as parts in last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Help. He’s a face to watch for the future, and has already captured reviewers’ attention with his performance in Red Tails. Lightning’s fearless flying – as well as his cynical attitude towards faith – make him stand out from the crowd.

Oyelowo wasn’t fazed by portraying someone with different beliefs. He identified with other aspects of Lightning’s character, and threw himself wholeheartedly into the part. “I was passionate about this guy from day one. What I loved about him is that he exuded the confidence and invincibility that you feel when you are a young man.”

But Lightning’s self-assurance is put to the test, and by the end of his journey he’s more open to the possibility of God. Like many people who’ve found themselves in life-or-death situations, he realises that he’s not indestructible after all. For Oyelowo, this transformation was the best thing about playing Lightning: “There’s nothing more interesting for an actor than to be different at the end than you were at the beginning.”

Red Tails, which is executive-produced by George Lucas, is inspired by the true tale of the Tuskegee Airmen. At a time when the US Military was strictly segregated, this group of African American servicemen faced prejudice from the start. The Tuskegee training programme was the first to take on Black pilots, and its cadets were given very little respect. Made to fly shoddy old planes, and limited for a long time to non-combat assignments, they were kept from serving their country as they wanted to.

The film follows the close-knit group of pilots – including Lightning, self-doubting Marty ‘Easy’ Julian (Nate Parker) and young Ray ‘Junior’ Gannon (Tristan Wilds) – as they are finally allowed to go into combat, and are transformed from sidelined underdogs to champions. Though the story of the Tuskegee squadron has been filmed before, this could be the first time that it reaches a wider audience.

“I wanted to make it about the individual pilots and what they went through,” says George Lucas, for whom the film has been a passion-project twenty years in the planning. “It’s basically about a bunch of kids who went through an amazing journey, and all came out heroes.” A crucial part of this journey is being allowed to lay down their lives for a country which treats them as second-class citizens. The real Tuskegee airmen – and all of those like them – are an embodiment of Jesus’ command to love those who’ve failed to love us.

And faith itself is at the heart of the film. “Prayer is important in everything that I do,” says director Anthony Hemingway, who felt that God’s hand was on the project from the beginning. Many of the characters have a spiritual foundation, including pilot David ‘Deke’ Watkins (Marcus T. Paulk), who flies with a picture of ‘Black Jesus’ on his dashboard. It’s Deke’s faith which eventually brings about Lightning’s change of heart.

Perhaps cinema audiences, like Lightning, will find themselves challenged by their Red Tails experience. “I’d like for every person, young or old, to walk away from the film feeling that anything is possible,” says director Anthony Hemingway. “Dedication, sacrifice, courage, daring and excellence are qualities that the Tuskegee Airmen displayed, but the presence of them are not limited to any group. Red Tails is a celebration. It’s a celebration of life, and a celebration of breaking down barriers.”

Sophie Lister

Red Tails is released in cinemas on June 6th
See www.damaris.org/redtails for free church and community resources

Sophie Lister is a researcher and writer for The Damaris Trust
For more articles and study guides see culturewatch.org and toolsfortalks.com

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