In the new film Red Tails, about the Tuskegee Airmen who fought in World War II, a fellow white solider refers to the black pilots as “flyboys.”
For Milton Williams, it was more than just a reference uttered by a character in a movie.
“They called me Flyboy,” said the 89-year-old Williams, who served in the Army Air Corp. from 1943 to 1945.
Flyboy was his nickname as he fought against Hitler’s army in the war. Williams is the real deal, an actual Tuskegee Airman who defended the United States overseas, even though his country discriminated against him and other black Americans back home.
An Arkansas native, Williams says he still flies but not alone due to his age. But Williams didn’t need much assistance at the Lawndale 10 Cinema following a recent screening of the film, as dozens of people crowded around him asking for autographs, posing for pictures and just wanting to shake his hand.
“It’s quite an honor. I’m star-struck,” said Chantes Johnson, who came from Forest Park to see the film for the first time. Johnson also brought his young daughters, Amarrea and Tylynn, with him for the Saturday morning screening sponsored, in part, by state Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-8th).
“It’s just so good to share with my young kids,” Johnson said. “I talked to them about the idea of the Tuskegee Airmen and what they went through, and I didn’t know [Williams] was here, honestly, so it was just amazing that my kids saw the movie, and after the movie we saw a real-life Tuskegee Airman.”
Red Tails tells the story of a group of Tuskegee Airmen led by their superior officer, played by Chicago native Terrence Howard. The movie is produced by George Lucas, the filmmaker more known for his flying spaceships in the Star Wars films than the real life flying fighter pilots.
It’s a film Lucas spent decades trying to get Hollywood to make. Backed by a $58 million production budget of Lucas’ own money, the film has raked in nearly $42 million in its first two weeks in release. Its domestic gross has steadily grown since its Jan. 20 debut.
Williams, a second lieutenant during the war, has seen the film five times, including last Saturday at Lawndale 10, a black-owned theater on the West Side, and during its premier at AMC Theater with the film’s cast. Lawndale 10 had so many people attend that they had to show the film on two screens.
“I couldn’t be any more happier than the way they received me here today. It made the old man feel real good,” Williams said of the turnout.
For Williams, it’s a sense of pride to see his life, and that of his fellow airmen, portrayed on film.
“We’re excited anytime now that they would do anything about us,” he said. “They kept us a secret for so long. And now that we are getting a little publicly, everyone is doing something for us now and we appreciate it.”
Williams brought his great-grandson, Jacob Miller, with him for the screening. Williams, wearing his bomber jacket and a Tuskegee Airmen baseball cap, posed for every picture and signed every autograph asked of him.
Nicole Harris, a South Sider, said she was overwhelmed to meet the war hero. The film, she added, moved her to tears.
“I thought it was incredible,” she said. “There were so many different emotions coursing through me throughout the movie. I think more than anything it was elation, because we’ve been so overlooked for so long.”
Ford, who co-sponsored Saturday’s screening with the Westside Health Authority, said Saturday’s screening was also done to help Lawndale 10, 3330 W. Roosevelt Rd. The theater opened in 1997 but closed a decade later. It reopened last summer.
“We should, not just during Black History Month, support a black establishment,” Ford said. “So not only are we supporting black business but the Tuskegee Airmen, and we’re learning black history first hand. We can’t beat that.”