The story of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II has an odd place in history. The achievements of the first-ever group of African-American aviators in the United States military have been well-documented in books and in various World War II films. But as much as has been told about the members of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 447th Bombardment Group, their story has always been put on the periphery. When it has taken center stage, such as in the 1995 HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen, the acclaim has been relatively quiet.
Expect this to change soon with not one, but two proper treatments of the Tuskegee Airmen’s incredible story. The first and better-known version is the highly anticipated feature film Red Tails. Directed and produced by George Lucas, the film will hit theaters in January 2012.
But while Red Tails is billed as “based on true events,” Lucas, ever the consummate storyteller, has paired the Hollywood feature — starring Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. — with the excellent and touching documentary Double Victory. Though it will soon come to television, the doc is currently on a tour of special screenings throughout the country. Monday night, Double Victory was shown at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.
Narrated by Gooding, Double Victory does what no Hollywood movie can do, and a good documentary should do: It lets the people who lived to tell the tale do so. Interspersed with the words of living Tuskegee Airmen, the documentary also shows original wartime footage and photos of deceased leaders. But most important, Double Victory, as implied in the title, tells the tale of the men’s efforts not only to end fascism in Europe but also to end the racism they endured in the United States.
With so much ground to cover, from the soldiers’ own anecdotes to those passed down throughout history, Double Victory finds a way to deliver facts without the burden of fitting them into a narrative, though there is an arc to make the information easily digestible for those who want to see a good story. Nuggets like the fact that admission into the cadet-training program required at least two years of college — at a time when less than 1 percent of African Americans had a college degree — add an extra level of gravitas to the Tuskegee Airmen’s story.
Then there are the war stories. Capt. Roscoe C. Brown Jr. recounts a mission over Berlin, during which the Airmen went face to face with the Nazis’ brand new jet fighters — far superior to America’s planes. Brown’s story is told while footage is played back, and concludes in a huge explosion that got a rousing applause from the people in the audience. But the other war stories — the ones that took place on the ground among fellow white soldiers — elicited a different response from the audience.
Sighs were audible when soldiers discussed their experience with the Freeman Field Mutiny, in which members of the 477th Bombardment Group attempted to integrate an all-white officers’ club on the military base in Seymour, Ind. To hear the men tell their stories of victory and valor overseas, only to watch them recount what it felt like to be told they were not welcome in an officers’ club on American soil — where they were treated worse than German prisoners — will send anyone who watches Double Victory into an emotional tailspin.
For anyone thinking of buying a ticket to see Red Tails in January, be sure to add Double Victory to the watch list as well.