Saturday, July 20, 2024

Taji Mag Exclusive: Dee Rees Explores the Heroism of Tuskegee Airmen in “Masters of the Air”

Filmmaker Dee Rees

Acclaimed director Dee Rees, whose captivating work includes “Bessie” and “The Last Thing He Wanted,” brings her masterful storytelling to Apple TV’s “Masters of the Air.” In this poignant miniseries, Rees takes the helm for episodes 7 and 8, weaving the inspiring narrative of the Tuskegee Airmen into the show’s existing tapestry of World War II stories. In an exclusive interview with Taji Magazine, Rees delves into her creative process, exploring the challenges and triumphs of bringing these iconic historical figures to life on screen.

Dapper Dr Feel (DDF): How did you become a part of this project, and what was your reaction? 

Dee Rees (DR): Cary Fukunaga invited me to be a part of it. So, I got excited. It’s actually funny—I’d written to him about James Bond, saying, “Hey, James Bond looks amazing.” And he was like, “Thanks. What are you doing, by the way?” He was talking to me about Ryan and Anna, you know, so I knew it was going to be a cool group of filmmakers to be in the community with. And that was going to be a cinematic approach because they’re all kind of feature filmmakers. So, yeah. One of the things that I noticed about your approach to this is that let me know if this is part of the screenplay or not, but the color palette and the angles that you use for each different story involve empathy.

Dee Rees, known for her adept storytelling of historical figures, demonstrates her skill once again in episodes 7 and 8 of “The Masters of the Air.” She masterfully weaves together multiple narratives, creating a rich tapestry of interconnected experiences during World War II. Through her direction, Rees skillfully intertwines the characters’ individual stories, forming a compelling and cohesive series that captures the complexity and depth of their wartime experiences.

DDF: Can you go into detail about the creative process for the episodes 7&8? 

DR: Yeah, so in episode seven, for instance, we’re introducing a new world—the prison camp, akin to Stalag Luft 3. And in episode eight, we’re venturing into another setting called Ramateli, the Air Force Base in Italy.

For Stalag Luft 3, we aimed for a heavily atmospheric tone, with smoky and gray hues, to emphasize the sense of confinement and the characters’ grounded state. The absence of their gear and machinery highlights their vulnerability, focusing solely on their bodies. We wanted to accentuate this fragility against the backdrop of earth and muted colors, devoid of the vibrant hues typically associated with war.

DDF: The Tuskegee Airmen play a significant role in these episodes. How did you portray their story authentically while staying true to historical accuracy?

DR: When we introduced Macon and Jefferson in episode eight, our aim was to illustrate that these men have different stakes. They’re not just fighting a battle on the front lines, but they’ll also face a battle when they return home—and yet, they persevere. We wanted their environment to reflect this shift, with a pal that feels more sandy and beige, capturing the essence of Italy and distinguishing it as a different base. Working with my DP, Richard Rutkowski, we aimed to convey this change in tone and color, symbolizing the significance of these men, despite perhaps not receiving the recognition they deserved. They were instrumental in turning the tide and aiding America’s victory.

Despite facing discrimination and segregation within the military and society, the Tuskegee Airmen persevered and excelled in their training. Their success played a significant role in breaking down racial barriers within the military, paving the way for desegregation in the armed forces following the war. This historical impact is vividly portrayed in an episode of “The Masters of the Air,” where characters like Macon, Jefferson, and others are initially met with hesitation but eventually form an alliance with their fellow officers, highlighting the pivotal role of the Tuskegee Airmen in challenging and reshaping racial dynamics within the military.

Branden Cook (Far left) in “Masters of the Air,” 

DDF: After the Tuskegeee airmen (Daniels, Jefferson and Macon) are caught, they are asked why do they fight for a country that basically mistreats them, they don’t talk negatively? 

DR: Yes, I wrote that scene. It was important for me to highlight the double standard and ironies present. Firstly, the irony that the German interrogator possesses more knowledge about them than their American counterparts, underscoring their underestimation. Secondly, I wanted to emphasize their high level of education, often surpassing that of their colleagues, and the limited opportunities awaiting them upon returning home. The line about having a degree in chemistry but potentially becoming a janitor in the States encapsulates this disparity. These scenes highlight the differing stakes for these men, who have fought for and invested in their country. Macon’s desire to purchase land reflects this investment. The question arises: why should they not fight for a country in which they’ve invested so much? Additionally, their bond with allies like Cleven and Egan in the camps prompts contemplation: will they have similar allies upon returning home?

Fun Fact: According to, The Tuskegee Airmen flew over 15,000 combat sorties during World War II, primarily in the European Theater of Operations. They escorted bombers on missions deep into enemy territory, protecting them from enemy fighters.

DDF: What historical figures would you like to bring to the screen? 

DR: There are figures like Eugene Bullard and groups like the Harlem Hellfighters, along with countless other stories that often go overlooked. My focus has been on examining who is considered a patriot and reshaping the definition of patriotism. I aim to illustrate how individuals from diverse backgrounds, across various wars and historical eras, have demonstrated patriotism. Yet, many still face ongoing challenges, including barriers to voting and the full rights of citizenship.

Ncuti Gatwa in “Masters of the Air”

DDF: Since it’s Women’s Month, I wanted to know how we can continue to support women in the entertainment industry. 

DR: I don’t believe there’s a single definitive answer to that question, but I think it involves actively engaging in the work and reaching out to others. For example, when Carrie reached out to me, it provided an opportunity for me to contribute and demonstrate my capabilities. Ultimately, it’s about being given the chance to engage in the work and demonstrate one’s commitment and abilities.

In Episode 8 of “Masters of the Air,” Dee Rees delves into the poignant story of the Tuskegee Airmen, shedding light on their contributions and the harrowing experiences they faced as prisoners of war. Through Rees’s masterful direction, these narratives are brought to life with sensitivity and depth, providing viewers with a compelling insight into the lives of these brave soldiers. As the series explores the bonds formed amidst adversity, questions arise about the lasting impact of these relationships beyond the battlefield. Rees’s portrayal prompts reflection on the resilience and camaraderie forged in the face of hardship. For an immersive and thought-provoking exploration of wartime experiences, “Masters of the Air” is a must-watch on Apple TV.

Dapper Dr Feel

Felipe Patterson aka Dapper Dr. Feel, #BlackLoveConvo & Entertainment | @fdapperdr Dapper Dr. Feel is a Entertainment journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association and African American Film Association.

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