‘SHOW me the money” is the phrase most of us associate with Cuba Gooding Jr, following his ebullient Oscar-winning turn as an American football star in Jerry Maguire.
He reprised it at volume in his acceptance speech – “I was in shock, that moment was an out-of-body experience” – but right now Gooding thinks I’m going to show him the menu.
Gooding, snazzy in a crisp white shirt, waistcoat, sharp trousers and shades, is running late, so to hasten things along, I’m ushered into the back of the room while he conducts a group chat with a doughnut of online journalists. At the end, one of them wants a picture, spots me, and asks me to take the snap of them together. She draws him to the window, casting them both in shade; it’s left to Gooding instinctively to pull her gently round to the light, dipping his head and smiling broadly at the lens.
As she exits, we chat about cameras and he wonders aloud why everyone in the UK press asks about his character smoking a pipe in Red Tails. “In America, it was never mentioned. Here, every single person asks about it,” he says confidentially. Then he notices me pulling out my tape recorder and laughs: “Are you a journalist? I thought you were here to take my lunch order.”
This says sad things about my fashion choices, but it also confirms Gooding’s reputation as one of movies’ most affable actors, happy to shoot the breeze with whoever is in the room. But he says he’s also “laser-focused” about getting the word out about Red Tails, which tells a gently fictionalised version of the high-flying exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen – the first all-black aerial combat unit to serve in the Second World War. The pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group were nicknamed the Red Tails after the flash of colour at the end of their P-47 fighters.
Gooding Jr plays the pipe-chewing Major Emanuelle Stance, with Terrence Howard as the flight crew’s champion in Washington, Colonel Bullard, while Britain’s David Oyelowo, (Spooks, The Last King of Scotland, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes) is the squadron’s leading light.
Red Tails was made with £35 million from George Lucas, who has spent more than 20 years trying to get the project off the ground. Aside from a possible return to Indiana Jones, Red Tails will be his last blockbuster. From now on, he intends to concentrate on small, personal projects.
In a sense, however, his career has come full circle: when he made Star Wars almost 30 years ago, Hollywood didn’t have much faith that his space saga would fly. When he made Red Tails, every studio in town turned down the chance to commit to his film. Does the reluctance to promote an all-black action movie carry any racist overtones? Gooding doesn’t think so.
“There are other areas of racism in Hollywood, but this isn’t blatant racism, it’s blatant capitalism. It’s an industry that follows ideas – that’s why you see two or three cowboys stories at once, or two stories about Snow White at the same time. Nobody wants to be the first to try something out in Hollywood.
“If someone makes money out of a slasher movie, they greenlight a slasher movie. No-one wants to step out of the box and say ‘let’s do an all-black action movie’. Something like Titanic would never have been made if someone like James Cameron hadn’t stepped up with their own resources to tell the tale. And similarly, thank God George Lucas was prepared to come forward with his own money and finally bring this to the screen.”
This is the second time Gooding has helped tell the story of the black aviators who fought the Germans in the air and racism on the ground. In 1995 he appeared in The Tuskegee Airmen, which was the first film to raise the profile of this chapter in history, and was made in the presence of original pilots.
“They were on the set every day, telling their stories, and when they talk, you could see the pride and love for what they did. They were flying these planes at tremendous speeds, some of them as young as 19. I did ask one of them: ‘Did it ever freak you out, flying on missions and knowing that you might die?’ And he said, ‘Yes and no. If we died over the skies of Berlin then we would die as heroes. But if we lived and went back to the States, we would still be second-class citizens. Out in the air, we were warriors.’ ” Gooding Jr is clearly moved by this. “They were like kamikaze pilots; they didn’t care if they lived or died.”
When the word got out that Lucas was finally able to get his own fighter film off the ground, he was keen to get on board. But Lucas’s director, Anthony Hemingway, resisted. “He didn’t really want anyone from the HBO movie, and I understood that,” he recalls, “but these were two very different movies. The first film focused on the racism they had to overcome during the military training, and their exploits in Tuskegee, Alabama. Red Tails is about the courage they showed in the air and their contribution to the war effort.”
Gooding admits that he pestered both Lucas and Hemingway until they changed their minds: “They aren’t telling many of these stories in Hollywood, so I wanted to be part of this one. I graduated high school knowing nothing about the part blacks played in almost every American conflict. Now I have a chance to teach my kids about this through movies, that Obama wasn’t a mistake: he was part of the natural progression of things.”
Gooding has some previous when it comes to military heroes. Besides Tuskagee, he was one of the fighter pilots in Pearl Harbor, and one of the Navy’s first black divers in Men Of Honor with Robert De Niro. Now he’s developing some more war stories through his own production company. He’s enthused by the possibilities of retelling experiences of black paratroopers and marines, and the original buffalo soldiers. But having appeared in two Tuskagee stories, there’s one part of the research he’s happy to steer away from in future.
“The pilots love to give you a sense of what it was really like to fly, so back in 1995 I went up in a plane. I threw up twice, so I was happy to let the others have that experience this time.” «
Red Tails is in cinemas from Wednesday
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