GARY | Quentin Smith describes the new George Lucas film "Red Tails" as "a movie meant to keep an important story and message alive for future generations to know and learn from."
Smith, 93, is part of that story being shared on screens around the country this week, and he says the timing for the film's national release couldn't be more ideal.
"There's going to be plenty more special showings of this movie for the Monday Martin Luther King Jr. holiday," Smith said after attending an advance VIP studio screening Sunday afternoon at Kerasotes Showplace ICON Theatre on Roosevelt Road in Chicago.
"It's a movie that matters."
Smith, a Gary native, is one of the few dozen surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the legendary black World War II air corps that never lost a plane while escorting and protecting bombers as they flew missions over war-torn Europe. Red paint on the planes' tails became the visual trademark of the Tuskegee Airmen.
But Smith, who later returned to the region and served as the first principal of West Side High School in Gary and on the Gary City Council, is more eager to talk about the Tuskegee Airmen's key role for what became the desegregation of U.S. armed forces than just sharing tales of reliving the death-defying air missions.
The new Lucas film, which has been in the making for two decades, approaches the subject but doesn't "face it" as much as Smith had expected.
"They (the filmmakers) didn't really tell the other story that also changed history," Smith said after watching the two-hour film, which opens in theaters Friday and stars Chicago actor Terrence Howard with Cuba Gooding Jr., singer Ne-Yo and Gerald McRaney.
"They did a good job, but it was also pretty Hollywoodized. But most importantly, it will serve to get people talking and learning about all of the stories about who the Tuskegee Airmen are and what they stood for at a time when things were very different for us."
During World War II, the U.S. military was segregated, and the all-black Tuskegee Airmen faced a second battle — racial discrimination.
"The U.S. military said that black men couldn't fight, couldn't lead and couldn't fly complicated machines like these planes," Smith said.
"We had to succeed for many reasons."
Smith was one of surviving Tuskegee Airmen who attended Sunday's screening.
Rixie H. McCarroll, 90, of Merrillville, is another of the surviving Tuskegee Airmen, but was unable to travel to Chicago to screen the film because of frail health.
"Like so many others, I've waited a long time for this film to finally be made and I'll see it, but I'll go just a little closer to home," McCarroll said.
"Young people need to realize how much was at stake for so many people at that time, all fighting for freedom, which can never be taken for granted. And for a black man to even be accepted to the military for the Tukegee Airmen experiment, we had to have been to college, which wasn't something many people of most backgrounds were doing in 1943."
Lucas, the man behind the "Star Wars" film franchise, shared a filmed message to the audience prior to Sunday's showing, explaining how important this film project has been for him as a personal mission. He also has revealed in recent media interviews that major Hollywood studios had no interest in this film idea, so he invested nearly $100 million to make and distribute the movie on his own.
Smith, who also created the Gary Emerson High School for Visual and Performing Arts, and McCarroll agree the film will have an impact and educational value, despite what Smith describes as "Hollywood treatment."
Tuskegee Airmen regional and state chapters, such as the Chicago "DODO" Chapter that help organized the Sunday event, continue to create educational programming to spread the message of the Tuskegee Airman's sacrifice.