Filmmaker hopes rerelease of movie will put Tuskegee Airmen back in spotlight
February 28, 2016 12:00 AM
Tuskegee Institute alumnus Wendell Freeland waves a Terrible Towel while being honored during a Steelers game at Heinz Field in 2012.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A framed letter penned by former Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau hangs in Bryan Williams’ office at Bryton Entertainment in Augusta, Ga. Mr. LeBeau wrote the letter to express gratitude to Mr. Williams for producing the documentary “In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen.”
Mr. LeBeau and many other Steelers were touched when they watched the film in 2012. In turn, Mr. Williams was touched by the reception he received when the Steelers invited him to attend a game on Veterans Day in 2012. In fact, the avatar on Bryton’s Twitter account is a photo of Tuskegee Institute alumnus Wendall Freeland waving a Terrible Towel as he was being honored before the Monday night game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Tuskegee Airmen flew hundreds of missions during World War II. Now this native Southerner with no ties to Pittsburgh other than his Steelers fandom has one final mission to accomplish for the men and women he chronicled: to make sure the story lives on as they die off.
“One of the questions I asked them was: Why fight for a country that didn’t consider you human?” Mr. Williams recalled. “They said it’s my country, too. And when we were done interviewing them they all said never let our story die. So our goal is to never let the story die.”
Surviving World War II veterans are dwindling. Lt. Col. Herbert Carter, one of the original 33 members of the Tuskegee Airmen who flew 77 missions in World War II, was supposed to be honored on that night in 2012. But he fell ill and died four days before the game.
Mr. Williams and Denton Adkinson, his partner at Bryton Entertainment, did not want to take part in the ceremony unless there was a former Tuskegee Airman who could be honored. The Greater Pittsburgh chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Institute suggested Mr. Freeland, who trained at the Tuskegee institute and later became a local civil rights leader and attorney. Mr. Freeland died 14 months later in January 2014.
Of the 16 Tuskegee Airmen who are featured in the documentary half are still alive but are in their late 80s or 90s.
More than three years after the film was released it will be shown March 29 in nearly 200 theaters nationwide. The 93-minute film will be shown locally at the Cinemark theaters at Settler’s Ridge in Robinson, Center Township Marketplace in Beaver County and Pittsburgh Mills in Frazer.
The film is being rereleased with additional footage to mark the 75th anniversary of the start of the Tuskegee Airmen program.
It’s a one-night event, but Mr. Williams is hoping the publicity generated will allow for other theaters to pick it up as well as a run in television syndication. His main goal, however, is for the documentary to be part of the curriculum in schools. He envisions teachers showing the film in 30-minute increments over three days with a lesson plan and testing to follow viewing.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Edmund Effort, the president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. “They’ve tried to leave these guys out of history. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen has to be retold. You have to see what these guys did. They were the forerunners of the civil rights movement. This is a special group of guys who need to be recognized.”
According to local historian Regis Bobonis, Western Pennsylvania represented the largest contingent of pilots, navigators, bombardiers, technicians and administrators in the Tuskegee Institute. After the death of former Sewickley resident Mitchell Higginbotham on Valentine’s Day only three Western Pennsylvanians who trained at the institute remain alive.
The March 29 release date has significance. The 99th Pursuit Squadron program started in January 1941, but it was on March 29 that the program began to get national attention.
First lady Eleanor Roosevelt was speaking at Tuskegee University and asked to go for a ride with one of the Tuskegee pilots. The military was segregated at the time, but when the wife of the president went up with an African-American pilot, it made national headlines and gave the program credence.
“She said out loud, “I want to see if black pilots can fly,’ ” said Mr. Bobonis, a former editor of the Pittsburgh Courier. “Alfred Anderson, the chief training officer, said he’d be happy to take her up. Well, the Secret Service went spastic, even surrounding the plane. But she insisted. That led to them being accepted into the 15th Air Force and serving in North Africa.”
Mr. Williams is hopeful that schoolchildren will appreciate the history and the film as much as the Steelers did in 2012. In addition to Mr. LeBeau and team president Art Rooney II acknowledging the film, the players snatched up copies of the DVD that Mr. Williams mailed to team headquarters in advance of the game.
“We were told the players went crazy over them,” he said. “It inspired them. We want people to see the film. We want people to learn about them. It’s an inspirational story that has to be told.”
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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