‘How One Tuskegee Airman Changed My Life’: Producer Talks New Tuskegee Airmen Documentary

Kevin Ott - Editor and Writer for Rocking God's House (small)If a Tuskegee airman hadn’t walked into a diner on a certain day and time in 2007, the day that producer Bryan Williams was there for an important meeting–and if Bryan had not uttered a certain prayer only seconds before the legendary airman walked through the door and nodded at Bryan–an amazing series of events would not have unfolded. These subsequent events included everything from George Lucas (yes, that George Lucas, the one who made Star Wars) to bizarrely timed phone calls from strangers, to a rather grueling sit-down with Bill Cosby. And all of that is leading to a monumental theatrical release this Tuesday about one of the most inspiring stories to emerge from the twentieth century.

I’m talking about the new documentary “In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen–the 75th Anniversary.” I had a chance to see an advance screening of it, and it is superb. It covers so much ground: tons of interviews with original Tuskegee Airmen, and it tells many fascinating stories, like when Eleanor Roosevelt ditched her Secret Service escort to fly with one of the African-American pilots (who would become a Tuskegee Airmen) to prove to the world that these men were just as good as any other pilots. It also tells the stories of the white pilots who stood up for the Tuskegee Airmen (and paid a heavy price for it).

If you admire the Tuskegee Airmen, the famous African-American pilots who flew in combat during WWII, then you might be excited to know that this year marks their 75th anniversary. And what better way to commemorate their story by seeing this new documentary, which is playing in theaters one night only, Tues. March 29, 7pm local time. (Check the theater listings linked below.)

Before we dive into the fun story behind the making of the documentary, here is the latest info on it:

Fathom Events is partnering with Bryton Entertainment to present In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen – The 75th Anniversary in select U.S. cinemas for the first time ever on Tuesday, March 29, 2016 at 7:00 p.m. local time. This one-night cinema event features emotional interviews, rare photographs, archival footage and computer-generated recreations. Audiences will also experience an exclusive panel discussion captured at the National Air Force Museum with Tuskegee Airman Lt. Col. George Hardy, Former Administrator of NASA Col. Fred Gregory, as well as the producer Bryan Williams and director Denton Adkinson.

Tickets for “In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen – The 75th Anniversary” can be purchased online by visiting www.FathomEvents.com or at participating theater box offices. Fans throughout the U.S. will be able to enjoy the event in nearly 200 movie theaters through Fathom’s Digital Broadcast Network. For a complete list of theater locations visit the Fathom Events website (theaters and participants are subject to change).

I was amazed by the series of events (which frankly I believe were orchestrated by God’s hand) that led to the making of this documentary. I had the chance to speak with the film’s producer Bryan over the phone and hear the whole amazing story firsthand:

How did you get involved in making this documentary?

In 2007, we were filming two music videos. That’s kind of been our claim to fame, more traditional gospel music videos. We took a break and went to a restaurant around 11:30 at night, August 5th. I was telling the guys that my wife said, just recently, she sees us producing a documentary. They kind of laughed. They said, “Well, we don’t do documentaries.” I said, “Yeah, but if you think about it, it’s about all we watch on TV.” They said, “Yeah, I guess so.” What happened was, we said, “Well, what would we do it on?” We talked about it for a while, and nothing came to mind, so we said, “You know what? We are a Christian company. Let’s just go ahead and pray. God will give us the answer. This will be great.” We said, “OK, God, what would you like us to do? How would you have us move on this project? What do you want us to do? Give us the discernment to understand what’s from you, what’s not from you.” It’s funny. We said, “Amen.” We gave God 13 seconds. He didn’t give us anything.

We thought that was plenty of time for God to give us an idea, so we started thinking, okay well what would we do it on? The ideas were getting worse, and we don’t blame it on the fact that we had no vision. We’re usually geniuses [laughs].  We didn’t come up with an idea. We said, “Well, let’s thank God for the food.” We prayed again … Actually, while we thanked God for the food, I actually asked God again, this time we’ll mean it. No joke, I prayed, asked God, same thing, “Would you give us a project? What would you have us do?”

african-americans-wwii-054 Tuskegee AirmenWhen I said, “Amen,” I kid you not, the door to the restaurant opens up, and this elderly African-American gentleman walks in, wearing Tuskegee Airmen jacket, shirt, and hat. I’m like, “Wow, well that’s interesting. I think that’s a Tuskegee Airman.” My business partner, Denton, looked over. He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Wow. You don’t see one of those everyday…Huh … So, anyway, what should we do it on?” [laughs]

It just kind of flew right past us. Ten minutes later, as we’re talking about what we’re supposed to do our documentary on, I look over, and he’s smiling at me. It’s funny. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Sanford and Son show, Fred Sanford. It’s an old comedy show. He’s kind of like, “dummy, look!” I look over at this guy. He was smiling at me. I walk over there and, man, I’m telling you, nine years ago, and that [the Tuskegee Airmen] is what we’re going into theaters with next week. I tell everyone: God didn’t give us a documentary, but he gave us a direction. So many things happened.

In 2011, George Lucas, [his team] had called us in 2009, when we had an early release of the documentary. We’d actually invited him to a premier we were doing and they couldn’t come, but they said, “Look, we want this because we’re filming a movie called “Red Tails” right now. This would probably be a big help.” They used it for a lot of Red Tails … We actually have a [personal] letter from George Lucas in the office. We were nerds, so [we hung it up].

Oh, yeah, I’m a nerd too [when it comes to Lucas and “Star Wars”]. I would have done the same thing.

When that happened [when Lucas contacted us], we thought, “Okay, let’s get this thing in stores. How do we do it?” We started looking, strolling around, trying to figure out how you get a documentary at Walmart because we’ve never had distribution before. Most of our success had come from music videos. Anyway, we got a connection, and then it just so happens that George Lucas sent us a thank you letter right around the same time. You’ll never believe this, but Bill Cosby … We sat with Bill Cosby for
an hour and a half. We told them about the story and for the first 45 minutes, he just grilled us. He was very nice, but also a bit mean–very “just wanted to know that we were the real deal,” if we were making up stuff or what was going on here.

What ended up happening is, he loved it after the first 45 minutes. We answered all his questions. We knew more about them than he did. He said, “Oh my goodness, guys.” He said, “Way to go. I want to bless this. I want to give this my blessing.” Over the next 45 minutes, we just talked about how, what the story was, and how he could help us. What he ended up doing was, we took some pictures together, and he tweeted about it a few times. That, coupled with the George Lucas letter, when we approached Walmart, they were like, “Oh wow, this is pretty incredible and the timing is great with Red Tails,” so it went to stores nationally. After that, a couple of really neat things happened after that. We got invited to the Pittsburgh Steelers Monday night football game in 2012, for example.

I saw that on YouTube. That was cool. [You can see it here.]

Yeah, it was just beautiful, man, and then the McGraw Hill College, in 2013, and we had to do a five minute clip to be placed in every high school in 20 states. What happens, so funny–I’m going to tell you this, I hope we have time. I’ll tell you this quick story.

Sure, no problem.

After 2013, it died. We were constantly thinking about it. We moved on to other projects, and we’d constantly think about it because it was just such an incredible gift from God. We always felt we just didn’t take it to where it needed to go. We didn’t go as far as we could go with it. In August, last year, 2015 … It’s funny, August, it happened in August, which is the same month when the Huddle House happened in 2007 at the restaurant. I’m sitting in the office. It’s the morning. I’m tired. It’s been a long weekend. We looked at our goals list. It’s funny, when you’re a production company … You start off with about 30 goals every day. You do 15, and then by the end of the day, you have 47 to go. I’m not sure how the mathematics work on that, but you could never catch up. I looked at these goals, and I’m thinking. All of a sudden, I start talking with God. I’m praying. “You know, tomorrow’s 2016.” I said, “No, no, God, tomorrow’s Tuesday. It is still 2015” He said, “Bryan, you know, next week’s 2016.” I was like, “No, no, God, it’s still 2015.”

Basically, what he was telling me, if you’re going to do anything for the 75th anniversary [which is in 2016], you better do something now, and you better start moving. I said, “the gigantic couch in our office looks a lot more comfortable than arguing with you right now, God, or doing anything.” I’m looking at this couch, and God’s still arguing with me, which, I don’t know why he feels he can argue with me, [laughs] but he was. After having this argument, the phone rings, and now, mind you, I had an idea to call Regal Cinemas because we have a connection with Regal, that we’ve dealt with on a few things, but never had anything go to theaters. I’m like, “Well, I can call Regal, but I don’t know what to say.” God’s like, “Well, just call them, and tell them you’ve got this project, and what it’s about.” I’m like, “God, I don’t know.” Of course, I’m just thinking he still … I feel like he’s saying this to me, so I’m like, “God, all of a sudden, we’ve become this tiny little company that can’t get anything done,” which is really funny, how when you get pressed, sometimes you start getting a little nervous and weak.

Oh, yeah, I get that, definitely.

During this argument, the phone rings, and it’s so funny. It’s Arkansas. I’m like, “Who in the world is this… ” We’re actually in Augusta, Georgia, so we’re not in Arkansas. I’m like, “Who’s calling from Arkansas?” Well, it’s a museum director. First, he tries to tell me he’s heard about the documentary and he needs to license it and can I help him with licensing. I said, “Sure, I can help you.” He said, “Well, let me tell you about it.” He starts telling me how good the documentary is. I’m laughing. I’m like, “This is incredible.” He’s going on, and on, and on, about how good the documentary is. I’m like, “Well, I really appreciate that.” He started telling me I should watch it. He said, “It would really cheer you up, and inspire you.” I’m like, “Okay.” I’m laughing. I’m like, “I guess he doesn’t know who I am.” He’s like, “No, I’m telling you, this thing is just great.” I’m like, “Oh, man, I can’t wait to get it.”

Then he said, “Oh, by the way, I haven’t seen it yet.”

I’m like, “Wait a minute. You haven’t seen it?!” He started laughing. He said, “Yeah, you’re probably wondering how I know all this,” then he said, “Well, I deal with a lot of other museum directors, a lot of military, and they’ve seen it. They told me about all that’s in it.” He says, “I’m telling you, buddy, you need to watch it.” I started busting out laughing. He said, “Well, wait a minute. Why are you laughing?” I said, “I’m the producer of the documentary.” He said, “Man, you could have saved me about 10 minutes if you had just told me that to begin with.” I said, “no way, I wasn’t going to stop you, man. This is great. I needed this.” I get off the phone with him and I look at the … literally, I look at the ceiling in the office, I say, “Okay, God. I’ll call Regal right now.” I call this CEO of Regal, and I leave this three-and-a-half minute message. I’ve no idea what I said. It felt passionate though.

As an aside: really, I think our country is stupid right now, with all the race crap, just constantly dominating the news. This documentary is, honest to God, it heals because it’s not just about the airmen. It’s about how we all have to work together. It’s beautiful. The airmen insisted we have a segment, in the documentary, talking about the white officers that helped them and what they went through just by helping them. It was horrible for them.

To get back to the story: I call Regal. I leave a message, and the next day, I get a call from the Head of Acquisitions. It’s so funny, he says, “Amen, I heard your message. I said, “Oh.” I said, “Really?” “Yeah.” He said, “You’re not going to believe this.” I will tell you, Kevin, I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but every time God sticks his hand in something, you hear that “You’re not going to believe this” from someone. The man said, “We were just talking, two weeks ago, about doing a big project that we could honor the military, but we had no idea what to do it on, then you call out of nowhere.”


You got to think. Let’s go back to the reason I called: it is because a guy who’s never seen the documentary called to tell me how good it was. It’s in the middle of me arguing with God. It’s been a dream come true. There are eight of the 16 airmen that we interviewed are still alive. They’re all going to see the movie in their respective cities. They’re all in their 90s. They’re all so excited. I love George Lucas. He helped us, but, not to downgrade “Red Tails” … There’s a movie, in 2005, called, “The Tuskegee Airmen.” It was an HBO movie. The airmen, if you ask them about those movies and what they think of, they’ll say, “Well, we’re glad they did it, but it’s not very realistic. They didn’t really check the facts.”

Ours does. We had an opportunity to show it, a very early version in 2008. We show it to about 75 airmen, and we gave them comment cards. We told them, “Rip it apart. Just absolutely rip it apart. We want it to be your story.” They gave us not many suggestions, just a few, and we used those suggestions. Again, we revamped it when it went to Walmart, and we revamped it again going into theaters. In theaters, you’ll actually see a 30 minute panel discussion after the movie with myself and the director [and others]. The Tuskegee Airman were so cool.

Another as
ide: we had the former administrator of NASA as a moderator. We interviewed the current administrator of NASA for another project and we asked them all of these historical questions about the airmen and his background and all this stuff. It was really cool interviewing him. He’s a very cool guy. When we got to the end of the interview, we said, “Can I ask you one more question?” He said, “Sure, sure.” I said, “Can you tell us about the aliens?” Everything had been very serious and very historical up until this point. When I said that to him, he said, “Ha, ha, ha, ha…No comment.” That was the greatest answer ever. Okay, so now, fast forward. We meet his mentor, the former administrator of NASA, and we tell him that story, which he’s not smiling about at all. He’s just kind of looking at us. One of my editors, Ethan, when he told us that, when he started laughing and said, “No comment,” we thought that was the greatest comment ever about aliens. We started laughing. We said, “So, they didn’t give us much.” When we told that to the former administrator, he said, “I think he gave you too much.” We said, “That’s the second greatest answer we’ve ever been given by NASA!” [laughs]

You can probably tell I am extremely passionate about this project. Two reasons. One: the airmen asked us, “never let our story die. We’ll give you the interview. We’ll sit down and talk with you, but will you please never let it die.” Well, man, going into the theaters across the country puts a gigantic check-mark beside that. We’ve got more to do. We want it in schools as the curriculum, and we’re working on that, especially through McGraw Hill. Right now, it’s in theaters. It’s going to inspire people. It’s the perfect thing to come out right now when, again, our country’s just dumb.

The airmen told us, time and time again, “We had to be perfect, to succeed as black pilots. Since we aren’t perfect, and since no one is, we had to rely on One who was,” which is to me, the most powerful statement about God. I can talk to you forever about this story, but it’s just such an incredible thing to have a production company getting your movie into theaters. Regal Cinema and AMC–Regal was so excited about it, but they said, “What’s next?” We’re like, “Oh my gosh. That’s just the greatest question that anyone could ever ask.” We got on this project … They believe in us. You’re probably very familiar with Kirk Cameron. I met with Kirk two weeks ago. He just put it on Facebook. Lionel Richie put it on Facebook. There is the smallest of chances we’ll be on the Today Show, Tuesday, before the movie premiers.

I hope so. That would be awesome.

I do too, and one: it gives us a chance to talk about God on the Today Show because we [point back to] God in everything we talk about. I don’t want to get preachy, and beat you over the head because that’s not what Christianity is about for me. I just want to let them know that God loves us and that he will give us opportunities. [I think of] Romans 8:28–“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” A lot of Christians forget that second part, that we got to be called according to the plan.

Right, I think that’s an important part.

Here we are in the Huddle House praying, and the guy walks in it’s–when people hear that, the story, they just laugh so hard. They jump for joy because they’re like, “That’s so cool,” because everyone knows [things like that] happen, but not everyone looks for it. You’ll miss it [if you don’t look for it].

It is an incredible story. It was very encouraging to me too, personally. I am in my own [similar situation]. It’s just amazing to hear that and to see how it all played out with this documentary–all the amazing doors that [God] opened.

He will do that for you too, Kevin. I’m telling you, all you have to remember is Romans 8:28. He’s going to make it possible for you. If he did for us, and I’ll tell you … It was funny. I left out one part of the story. When I talked to the guy on the phone from Arkansas [the museum director], and then later on that afternoon, one of my employee’s dad came to pick my employee up. I went out to talk to him because he’s always … he’s very excited about this stuff. I told him about this happening, and so I told him [about the Arkansas call]. I said, “Well, then I got off the phone with the [Arkansas] guy, and I picked up the phone,” and I said, “Okay, God. I’ll call Regal.”

He said, “So, you’re saying it was God on the phone [when the museum director called].”

I said, “No, well I’ll tell you what, if it wasn’t God, definitely one of his messengers. He smiled. The next day, when Ray, the guy called from Regal, he called. I couldn’t talk to him right then. I got off the phone and I called a guy who worked in a local Regal Cinema in Augusta for 25 years. As God would have it, he had left to become a youth pastor and we were very close, good friends, and I called him. I said, “What in the world do I say to [Ray from Regal]?” He said, “Okay, first off, Bryan, you have so much passion and he’s very analytical and he’s a marketing guy,” or more of a numbers guy. He said, “Run over him.” He said, “Just blast him with your passion. He’s not going to know what to do with you. He’s doesn’t know how to deal with people like you.” He said, “Let me tell you what. Yes, I believe it was God or a messenger on the phone [when the museum director from Arkansas called randomly].” He said, “This is what I also believe.” He said, “How did a guy, who’s never seen the documentary, give you specifics about the documentary?” I said, “I know.” He said, “No, no. I know exactly what it is. He was telling you what to tell Regal when you called them.” I’m like, “Okay, that’s too cool.” [In other words, God had arranged everything perfectly, so that the random call from the museum director from Arkansas helped prepare me, though I didn’t know it at the time, for the crucial phone call with Regal that would happen after that.]

Yeah, that’s amazing–God just setting you up like that. Like, “Here are your tools that you need,” and you didn’t even know that God was giving those crucial tools to you at the time.

Needless to say, there’s a man in Arkansas right now who got free licensing. [laughs]


Tickets for “In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen – The 75th Anniversary” can be purchased online by visiting www.FathomEvents.com or at participating theater box offices. Fans throughout the U.S. will be able to enjoy the event in nearly 200 movie theaters through Fathom’s Digital Broadcast Network. For a complete list of theater locations visit the Fathom Events website (theaters and participants are subject to change).