PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island-based filmmaker Tim Gray has made dozens of documentaries about World War II. His latest is about the Tuskegee Airmen, and it premiered Thursday at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
“The Tuskegee Airmen: Return to Ramitelli,” narrated by musician Darius Rucker, uses interviews with surviving Tuskegee veterans and animations of what the all-Black 99th Pursuit Squadron fighter unit’s operations building in Ramitelli, Italy, looked like during the war.
It’s Gray’s 33rd film, and his first about the legendary unit of Black pilots and airmen who dismantled racist assumptions in what was then still a segregated military.
The film will be screened at the museum in Washington, and in May it will be available on PBS stations across the country, according to Gray, whose World War II Foundation also has a Wakefield-based museum. Gray answered a few questions for The Boston Globe about his film, as did David Barbier Jr., a Syracuse University senior from Miami whose work on the project took him to Italy. Their answers have been lightly edited for length.
What did you learn about the Tuskegee Airmen that you didn’t know before?
Gray: The American military published a report in the 1920s that Black soldiers were not qualified to be in the service and were lazy, stupid, and not coordinated enough to handle the job, especially as pilots. I didn’t realize how much the Tuskegee Airmen used that report to motivate themselves during training, in overseas combat, and after World War II.
Why are the Tuskegee Airmen important to American history and do you think their experience then has relevance to our own today?
Gray: A Civil Rights movement began when they took to the skies even before World War II started, [before they] underwent training in Tuskegee, Ala. The men and women who served in Alabama broke down every stereotype possible in the military. Not sure everyone in the military at the time was happy to see that happen, but the Tuskegee Airmen handled every situation with tenacity and class.
African Americans became some of the best pilots in all of World War II. They were professional, courageous, and dedicated to America, even if, at the time, back home, America wasn’t committed to helping them advance. They were heroes in every sense of the word overseas, yet back in the United States, they were still considered second class. They also had to block out a lot of harmful noise. Imagine if that were today with social media. One of Tuskegee’s fiercest advocates was first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She kept prodding her husband, the president, to allow African Americans to fly in combat.
Barbier: They set the stage for redefining how marginalized groups were treated and the opportunities they had access to. Of course their experience has relevance today because without them I probably wouldn’t be at Syracuse or have access to life-changing opportunities.
What were some highlights in the film for you? What do you think was particularly memorable?
Gray: Visiting Ramitelli, Italy, and seeing what was left of the Air Operations Building was undoubtedly the highlight for all of us on the trip. We could all feel the “ghosts” who once flew from there and helped to alter a society’s views on who could achieve greatness and who was being kept from that opportunity because of their skin color.
The Tuskegee Airmen proved everyone wrong except for themselves. They knew they could always do it and just needed the opportunity.
You were quoted on the University of Rhode Island’s website saying, “There wasn’t anybody who looked like them doing the things that they were doing. When you don’t see anybody who looks like you doing the thing you want to do, it can be discouraging.” Do you think that has personal resonance with you?
Barbier: Growing up doing theater in Miami, there weren’t a lot of men of color present in my arts programs. It was frustrating at times because I sometimes felt that Black actors didn’t get to have the same complexities or access to a differing realm of emotions in comparison to their white counterparts. I wanted to push against that. I wanted to show my peers that we could actively be involved in the storytelling process.
What are your goals? Are you planning to become a filmmaker yourself?
Barbier: My goal is to continue redefining the narrative surrounding marginalized groups. There’s no reason someone should look at film and TV today and not see themselves reflected. Stories help us expand the possibilities available to us. I wanted people to come away from the stories I’ve made and feel they can be anything they want to be.