FIRST TIMERS / Silver Wings
BY MARY SUTTER
Freelance filmmaker and photographer Jon Timothy Anderson makes his feature-length directorial debut with Silver Wings & Civil Rights: The Fight to Fly, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of black men to fly for the United States military.
A Miami native, the 33-year-old Anderson, was a student at Miami-Dade College in 1989, pursuing photography, when he developed an interest in theater. ''You put photography and theater together and you get film,'' he says.
After transferring to, and completing, the film program at Orlando's Valencia Community College in 1992, Anderson returned to Miami to pursue filmmaking, starting out as a production assistant and working his way up.
A self-described aviation history buff, Anderson knew of the Tuskegee Airmen and was disappointed to be out of town in 1998 when one, Leo Gray, was scheduled to give a speech at Tamiami Airport. Hoping to catch another Gray appearance, Anderson had a friend supply the retired pilot's telephone number. That connection sparked the idea for the documentary.
Gray introduced Anderson to other airmen in South Florida via the local chapter of Tuskegee Airmen alumni. The filmmaker then traveled to the group's annual convention, and began recording even more interviews (he spoke to about 36, of whom 21 men appear in the final version of the film).
In 2000, Anderson returned to Valencia as a professor, and assembled his production staff from acquaintances and colleagues there. It took another three years to complete the documentary and to boil down the 72 hours of footage -- which included both interviews and historical re-enactments -- to the 90-minute final version Anderson will premiere in Miami.
The Tuskegee Airmen -- named for the Tuskegee Institute of Alabama, a black college where the U.S. Army trained black pilots who would serve in World War II -- have already been the subject of several documentaries and of a 1995 made-for-HBO film starring Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding, Jr.
However, Anderson argues that he takes the story further, placing it the context of black Americans' long struggle to participate in aviation and the early role the men of Tuskegee played in advancing the cause of civil rights. ''They were never really given credit,'' he says. Silver Wings, certainly, tries to correct that, offering viewers direct access to the subjects and a glimpse at the hardships they endured to serve their country.
The airmen, now in their 70s and 80s, are lucid and engaging, recalling their uphill battle to participate in the 1930s Civilian Pilot Training program (a cause advanced by then-Senator Harry Truman), which pre-dated wartime training. Many were not from the American south, and vividly recall the humiliations and indignations they suffered under Jim Crow laws and at the hands of individual racists both on and off base while at Tuskegee. But their outrage is most palatable over the institutionalized racism of the U.S. Army: As officers, they were denied access to base facilities that -- in one of the most egregious examples -- were open to German prisoners of war.
Silver Wings & Civil Rights screens 7:30 p.m. Sunday, February 1, and 7:15 p.m. Friday, February 6, at the Regal. Jon Timothy Anderson will be present, and may be accompanied by Florida-based Tuskegee Airmen Leo Gray and Eldridge Williams.
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