Actor Terrence Howard

The Oscar-nominated actor discusses his starring role in George Lucas’ Red Tails and explains why he’ll be disheartened if Black people don’t show up in droves to support the film.

With a chemical engineering degree, Terrence Howard didn't initially set his sights on Hollywood. However, since being discovered on a NYC street by a casting director, he's appeared in more than 30 films, including Ray, Crash, an Oscar-nominated performance in Hustle & Flow, Pride, which he co-exec-produced, and the new WWII action film, Red Tails. His TV credits include Lackawanna Blues, ABC's Muhammad Ali biopic and the L.A. installment of NBC's storied L&O franchise. He's also a self-taught musician, who plays piano and guitar and released the CD “Shine Through It” in 2008.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Terrence Howard back to this program. The Oscar nominee heads the terrific cast of the much-talked-about new film, “Red Tails.” The project, produced by filmmaking legend George Lucas, tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. The film is now playing in theaters around the country, and so here now a scene from “Red Tails.”


Tavis: Let me start by asking you what George Lucas had to do to get this thing made, because I’m starting to hear stories of the journey he had to endure just do – this is George Lucas now. This ain’t Terrence Howard or Tavis Smiley or Spike Lee; this is George Lucas who had to fight, I’m told, to get it made. What’d he have to go through?

Terrence Howard: I think he had to go all the way to the dark side of the Force to make something happen, because what was taking place – he’s been working at this film for 23 years. He started developing the story. But then as things went along there wasn’t enough to happen, there was people that were battling, whose story do you use?

But finally after 23 years he gets to the point where he’s ready to go get it made. He goes to studios; nobody really wants to touch it initially. So he’s like, “You know what? I’ll do like I did with ‘Star Wars.’ I’ll put my own money up.” So he puts up $43, $50 million, shoots the movie, polishes it, brings it over to Fox initially, where his deal is at, where he’s brought them billions of dollars in the past and his record shows this is a profitable man.

He gets there. They tell him, “Well, it’s a good movie but we don’t know what to do with it.” And he’s like, “Huh?” He said, “You market it.” They said, “Well, we don’t know how to market it.” “It’s an action movie.” “Yes, but it’s an action movie with an all-Black cast and we don’t think it really is viable out of this country or outside of the Black community, and all of the bad guys are white.”

And he was like, “So? That’s just this story,” and they’re like, “Well, we can’t touch it.” So he takes it over to all of the other seven major studios. Each and every one of them – two of them canceled and didn’t even want to see a screening.

One of them actually sent in one Black guy to watch the movie, and at the end of it they asked him what department do you work in? He said, “I work in IT.” He didn’t even work with film and distribution and acquisition.

Tavis: But this is George Lucas, Terrence.

Howard: This is George Lucas. But George Lucas is carrying this film about Black actors, about Black men, about Black history, which really incorporates and tells all of history. You can’t take one race out without eliminating every other race if you’re going to tell the story of the human race.

So George is facing these problems, and mind you, George’s girlfriend, Mellody, who is a brilliant woman, very brilliant, smart. She said to him, “Now you are getting an understanding of what it’s like to be a minority.”

Tavis: You should explain. Mellody Hobson happens to be an African American woman.

Howard: Yes.

Tavis: So she’s saying to white George Lucas, now you know what it feels like.

Howard: Yeah, now Mellody, she’s the head of one of the largest hedge funds and money marketing or money management funds in America. This is a heavyweight woman, but she has seen so much take place.

So she reaches out to Oprah, she reaches out to – who reaches out to Tavis – well, you, who reaches out to Spike Lee, who reaches out to Dick Parsons, who reaches out to everyone in the community.

They all garner themselves behind this to say, “You know, George, if you put this amount of money up, we’re not going to let it fail,” and George puts another $50 million and said, “You know what? I will distribute it myself. I will market it myself, and I will push it along.”

So we, as the actors, was like, “Okay, if you’re gonna do that,” so four months, I haven’t taken a job because I’ve been touring the country making awareness about these Tuskegee Airmen and the wonderful thing that George Lucas put together.

Tavis: I’m going to get into the movie in just a second here, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, which is an American story, to your point, but let me just ask a very politically incorrect question, because I want to and because I can, respectfully.

So for all that George Lucas, white George Lucas, had to go through, being turned down by every major white-owned studio in this city, to get this story of heroic African Americans told, pardon my English, how you gonna feel if Black people do not turn out in droves to see this movie?

We’ll come to the rest of America in just a second. I’m talking about Black people now. How are you going to feel if we don’t turn out to see this movie?

Howard: Disheartened, a bit, because this is basically a natural link in the chain of events of Martin Luther King gathering everyone in Montgomery and gathering everyone in Memphis, and Malcolm X and his movements through Chicago, and all of the people that have moved towards no longer being part of the disenfranchised.

If we do not show up and support the march, the march towards cinematic equality, the march towards being on a level at – we don’t even have to be higher than whites, but to be viewed in the same common thread of this is a professional, these are stories that people are interested in, instead of being fed the same old BS dogma that’s been fed and the studios have used.

If Black people do not support it, I’ll be disappointed but maybe the next generation will support it, and maybe we need to do a better job with educating our need to stay as a solid front.

Tavis: Tell me, then – that’s the African American question I wanted to dispense with right up front, and let me just offer a quick commentary. I asked that question deliberately and unapologetically because we have a bad track record – let’s be frank about it – a horrendous track record inside the African American community of talking the talk, but not walking the walk.

We will demonize this town; we will talk about Hollywood at Academy time when they don’t nominate African American actors, when they don’t win. You know the story as well as I do. We will raise holy hell what it comes to what Hollywood doesn’t do to tell our stories, and then when a guy like George Lucas goes to the end of the Earth to get the story made, to get the story told, puts his money into it, has an all-Black cast, telling a story of heroic Americans who happen to be African American, and if we don’t turn out to see this, I can tell you you ain’t going to be the only one who’s going to be upset.

I’m going to have some commentary about this as well if the numbers indicate that Black in droves did not turn out to see this. We have to do that, and I just want to put that out there as my own commentary, even though you didn’t ask.

Now, that’s the Black part. We’ll dispense with that. What makes this story for you such a quintessential American story?

Howard: Well, you have to think. This country finds itself in a similar place as it was back in the 1940s, and I make that statement because at that point we were living in trepidation because the threat of Europe, what was taking place over there, what had happened to their economy, even though we had seemed isolated away from it, the threat of what was taking place over there could spill over to here.

So you jump 67 years ahead. Now we’re in 2011, 2012. We’re facing a similar problem with what took place over there in Europe. Someone has come in and through mismanagement the world economic stability is gone. These men were not only fighting for the freedom of the world back then, they were also fighting for the recognition of being able to contribute something to their country.

These few men, boys, 19, 20 years old, 18 years old, that was told not only do they have to make a stand for the world so that the world can find balance, they have to make a stand for their race so their race would be respected.

If we today do not support this film, if we today do not support those that are in government trying to make a difference, if we don’t raise our voice, if we don’t raise our level of education, we don’t raise our contribution, then the fascist threat that affected the world back then, we will not have anyone – there will be no more Tuskegee Airmen to come and save the day.

We need an economic Tuskegee Airmen right now. We need some Red Tails to come in and make some strong sacrifices and self-discipline to change the tide, because I think where we’re sitting is based upon an economic quagmire that we’ve created or that our governments have created.

Tavis: It occurs to me that this is the kind of film you want people to go see for a variety of reasons, and we’ve discussed reasons heretofore in this conversation why people ought to go see the movie. But this is Hollywood, and Hollywood is an entertainment business, and I don’t want to go see nothing that ain’t entertaining. You want to see a good film.

So let me just move to talk about this. It really is a good film, and as you would expect from George Lucas, the high-tech stuff –

Howard: Special effects?

Tavis: Yeah, the special effects.

Howard: That’s no joke.

Tavis: I’ll let you tell me about it, yeah.

Howard: They’ve invented some new techniques in telling the story. Even with “Star Wars” that wasn’t as complicated as this. It has over 1,600 special effects shots. Now to put that in perspective, you have to think that “Avatar” had only 2,000 special effects shots, and that was creating a whole new basic part of our galaxy. They had to do everything with that.

But to recreate that armada of B17s and of P51s, 200 P51s surrounding them, and the dogfights through there, that was a whole new form of technology. So going to see the movie for that, I was sitting with Roscoe Brown – Dr. Roscoe Brown, he’s one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, sharp as a tack. Sharp as a scalpel today at 90 years old.

But watching the film, I was imagining that this is the very first time in 60 years that he’s been able to re-envision what it must have been like to be surrounded by that many aircraft.

While we were watching it, you could see him – his hands were between his legs like he was still holding onto his joystick, or his operational stick, dodging things.

Tavis: In the movie.

Howard: In the movie.

Tavis: At 90 years old. (Laughter)

Howard: Watching him, I was sitting next to him –

Tavis: Flashback.

Howard: He was there. He was there. So I was like, this film, if it can transport someone who was actually there, that’s who we wanted to impress, them. So the rest of the world, in knowing what the contribution that these men have made – because when they got off of that boat after the war they were expecting to go down to the grand parade. It said, “Whites this way and Blacks this way,” and they thought they would meet up. They were put on a bus, the white people getting the parade. Black people went right back to a place where they couldn’t even vote.

So watching these men and those special effects and the glory of it, and then these two little white kids, after the show, were sitting up playing, “I’m Lighting,” “No, I’m Lightning.” These are little eight and nine-year-old white kids that didn’t mind Lighting, the maverick of the show, being Black, wanted to be Black, and I think that might be a little frightening. (Laughter)

Tavis: As I think about this, what’s fascinating about the contributions that African Americans have made to history, you think about Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman never lost one person who she escorted to safety on the Underground Railroad.

Nineteen times, Harriet Tubman goes back down South to bring Black folk, slaves, to freedom, never loses a single passenger on the Underground Railroad. You know where I’m going with this. Tuskegee Airmen never lose –

Howard: Lost a bomber.

Tavis: Never lost a bomber. Every plane they escorted, they got them back safely.

Howard: That was the way. A number of them ended up dying because they would be forced to – the life expectancy of a pilot back then was about 15 missions. Now, whites were told that they only had to do 24 missions, and Blacks still had the same thing, the Negroes of the time, but because there was so limited a number of Tuskegee Airmen because the washout process was so strong and what they were facing, the lack of educated ones was so huge, these men had to go on 74 missions on average.

So their possibility of being killed was tripled, if not even more. So that in itself shows a dedication to service, and maybe that’s what protected them. Even though they lost their own lives, all of the bombers, whether they were English bombers, part of the Allied forces, whether they were from a number of the others, supporting the French fighters – all of those bombers have family members that are so thankful for the sacrifices that the Tuskegee Airmen, the Red Tails, made, because they would not leave the side of those which they were told to protect.

Tavis: What did you take away from – you (unintelligible) spend time with Roscoe Brown, but in your conversations with him, Terrence, and your reading about the Tuskegee Airmen, what did you take away as to why they were so committed to their country, given, one, that they had to do triple the missions that the white pilots had to do, which again increases by triple the chance of getting killed.

But to your earlier point they are in a country where they can’t vote, they’re not respected, they’re called out of their name, the country only calls them up when they are so desperate for pilots. So these guys have been good at this for a while.

Howard: Yes.

Tavis: They only get called up as a last resort, and then they come back home and they get treated like they were being treated before they went. So what do you take away as to why they still felt compelled? Why were they still so patriotic to do this for the love of country?

Howard: Well, because we do not know how to let go of a hope. That’s something that God put in us, a hope and long suffering – a long-suffering nature. Godly quality that I think we and many other minorities carry that gave them I’m going to keep pushing, even though after this, I’m still going to keep pushing because I know there’s some good to turn out from this.

I’m glad they did, because look at us now.

Tavis: I was saying to some folk the other day, since we’re in that season now of Dr. King’s holiday and Black History Month, so a lot of us are on the lecture circuit raising these kinds of issues about how America can be a better nation, and obviously there’s so much that the nation can learn from the Black experience in this country.

One of the things I said the other day is that there are so many examples of African Americans who have learned to love this country in spite of, not because of, and that’s what you’re saying – that we’ve learned to love this country, and these Tuskegee Airmen loved America in spite of how they were being treated, not because of the way they were being treated.

Howard: No.

Tavis: That’s the story that I think makes this – it’s what makes their contribution resonate with me so much, because they didn’t have to do it.

Howard: Then they didn’t even come back and brag. They talked about it in the barber shops among each other, but they didn’t sit up and say – they weren’t Little Richard, “I’ve never gotten a Grammy, I’ve never gotten a Grammy.”

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Shut up.

Howard: (Unintelligible) So when we were invited to the White House to see all of the 20 or so Tuskegee Airmen that never got a grand parade, but to see them in the White House shaking the hands of the president, a Black president, so they knew the fruitage of their hard work and their sacrifice, it did pay off. Just to be able to see that, it’s like Moses getting to see the Promised Land.

Even though he wasn’t allowed to get in there, these individuals, they actually could see and live inside of the Promised Land.

Tavis: I read somewhere you’ve seen this movie with two presidents.

Howard: Yes.

Tavis: You saw it with President Obama and you were hanging out – speaking of pilots, you were hanging out with President George Bush.

Howard: I sat down with George –

Tavis: The first President Bush.

Howard: Yeah, with George H. Bush and his wife in a common theater, and we enjoyed it, literally had a great time and watching him, and he reminded me that he used to sit in one of the bubbles underneath the bomber planes, and he had to – he said the Tuskegee Airmen, the Red Tails, the fact they set a new standard for how fighter pilots dealt with bombers.

Everyone else tried to emulate that afterwards, but not all of them had the sense of service and the fortitude. Some of them wanted to get their own glory. But yeah, we taught them a lot, and I think as a consequence of that contribution in 1948 Truman desegregated the military.

Tavis: Tell me about the character that you play.

Howard: Ah, Colonel Bullard. I believe he is based upon this archetype of a man, of a real strong man named Benjamin O. Davis. He was the third Black graduate from, Negro graduate from West Point. The whole four years he was in West Point, not one white cadet spoke to him beyond disseminating an order to him, or issuing something for him to do.

But he maintained his integrity, his dignity, and he held no resentment or malice, and therefore he was added onto the project of the Tuskegee project, to prove that Black pilots couldn’t fly. He was determined to prove that they could, so he was like George Washington, extremely stoic.

They said you could shake his hand, you could tell a joke to him, but you couldn’t put your arm around him. He was the grandfather of all of the causes that they were going through, even though he was 30 years old. They called him the old man, because he was the oldest man on the base at 30 years old.

Tavis: He goes on, of course, to be a general.

Howard: General, a brigadier general.

Tavis: So Colin Powell, I love him, but he wasn’t the first.

Howard: No.

Tavis: There was a brother named Benjamin O. Davis (unintelligible).

Howard: His father was the first one. His father, Benjamin O. Davis – this is Benjamin O. Davis Jr.

Tavis: His daddy is Senior, exactly.

Howard: Yeah, his father was the first brigadier general.

Tavis: That’s right, his father.

Howard: He came to be the second one.

Tavis: That’s right, that’s right.

Howard: That has to be so much pride. But he could have mothered these men, but he installed in them the necessity to maintain their majestic composure, the necessity to exhale at everything that they did and never to lose, and don’t be stuck by the mistakes that you make today. We all make mistakes on our road to accomplishment.

Tavis: Let me close with a two-part question in the minute and a half I have left. One, at the conclusion of this project, tell me more about the respect you now have for the Tuskegee Airmen, and the respect that you now have for George Lucas.

Howard: Well, the Tuskegee Airmen, to see a young man make a stand for a group of people that have no appreciation for his actions at the time is similar to what I saw in Jesus – no greater love has a man than for him to lay his life down for those that he loves. That self-sacrifice and that desire to achieve in excellence, that touches me.

George Lucas, a man who had nothing to gain beyond – at this late age in his life, in his seventies, he didn’t need to take on this type of battle. He didn’t need to risk $100 million, his reputation. For him to step forward like that, that is the gift of God. That is a gift of creativity. When you’ve been blessed with that much creativity, you’re supposed to share and take the chances so that others may have an opportunity to swim in that pool of opportunity and blessing.

Tavis: To the Tuskegee Airmen still living, we thank you. A grateful nation thanks you for what you did then and for the example that you set. And to George Lucas, we thank you for working so hard over two decades, sir, to bring this story to life and to Terrence Howard for starring in the film with a great cast. I thank you for coming to see me.

Howard: Thank you, brother.

Tavis: Thank you, man.

[Official film trailer for “Red Tails”]

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Last modified: January 25, 2012 at 6:11 pm