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Student documentary on Tuskegee airman wins top honors at film festival

It took communication majors Shane Carrick (BA ’08) and Bobby Deline (BA ’07) a few tries to find the right subject for their documentary film, but when they met Lt. Col. James Harvey they knew they had their man.

Harvey, who lives in Denver, was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, an elite group of black pilots who fought in World War II.

“It was something I think people don’t know a lot about,” Deline says. “A lot of people know the blurb in the history book that’s, ‘Oh, by the way, the Tuskegee Airmen were an all-black fighter pilot squadron in World War II.’ That’s literally about all I knew.”

He and Carrick learned a lot more about the group in 2007, when they made The Black Birdman, a 13-minute documentary on Harvey, for their documentary film production class. They interviewed the pilot in front of a green screen, onto which they later superimposed historic photos and old video footage of the Tuskegee Airmen.

In the film, Harvey, who grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, says his first experience with racism came when he was drafted into the Army. At home he had been class president and captain of the basketball team, but on his way to basic training he was forced to sit in the back car of a train with the other black soldiers.

“They classified us in the category of the ape and the baboon. We were nothing,” he says in the film. “That’s why a lot of people said, ‘Why send them to flying school, why teach them to fly? They can’t learn; they’re nothing.’”

In fact, Harvey says, the Tuskegee experiment originally was set up to prove that black pilots were inferior to white pilots, but the exacting specifications to which the Tuskegee pilots were expected to perform actually made them even better in the end.

“When we graduated, we were better than the instructors,” he says in the film.

Carrick and Deline received praise from their classmates on the film, but once they graduated they moved on. Deline started a film and video production company in Denver, and Carrick worked in television. When Carrick had the idea to format The Black Birdman to run on the station he was working for, he called Deline, who recut the film with new historic footage and new music.

They liked the improved version so much they decided to submit it to a pair of film festivals. Birdman won the best historical short award at the International Black Film Festival in Nashville, Tenn., in October 2010 and was an official selection at the San Diego Black Film Festival in January 2011.

But the film’s most important audience was Harvey himself.

“When Shane and I went over to show it to him, I was scared to death of what he was going to think about it,” says Deline, who is now producing The Aviation Cocktail, a ’50s-set dramatic thriller filmed in and around Denver. “This is his story. I just remember that once the movie ended, he was silent, then he looked over at us and said, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.’ It was pretty powerful.”


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