Tuskegee Airmen hit silver screen

Edward Gibson, 89, of Charleston is one of the few surviving Tuskegee Airmen in South Carolina. Gibson (top right, inset) and the other airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.

MONCKS CORNER -- The resemblance is eerie, the black-and-white photo of her dad in what looks to be a World War II Army Air Forces uniform and cap, next to the Berkeley High graduation photo of her son, Kevin Phillips.

"They look alike. They look alike," Gwen Phillips said, as if she can't quite believe it.

She will see Kevin on Friday, up on the screen at a Summerville movie theater, playing the role of a pilot in the film "Red Tails," an action film portrayal of the feats of the Tuskegee Airmen fighter pilots in that war.

Gwen Phillips will be with a group of family, friends and kids from community activist Willie Powell's basketball program at the Berkeley Middle School gym, the same program where Kevin Phillips played.

Powell's group is one of any number of groups that will gather this weekend for the national opening of the film produced by the legendary George Lucas.

They will pay tribute to the nearly 1,000 pilots, navigators, bombardiers and mechanics who stepped forward to prove to a segregated society that people who are black could fly planes, and then flew them as well as or better than anyone else.

Said to have never lost a plane they escorted, the airmen are roundly considered the factor that broke down segregation in the armed services. They have been honored locally often in recent years because of a strong Lowcountry connection. One of their training fields was in Walterboro.

"South Carolina and Walterboro ought to be real proud of the role we played in it," said Johnnie Thompson, historian for the Hiram E. Mann chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., a Walterboro commemorative group.

For the kids in that Moncks Corner gym, the pride hits very close to home.

Kevin Phillips, 30, made a smaller step of the same sort, giving up a college basketball scholarship to follow a quietly kept, lifelong dream of acting. He had a stellar two-sport career at Berkeley High School. He had a chance to make good money playing basketball overseas.

One of the people closest to him told Phillips later that he thought he would fail. His mom was stunned. She had no idea.

"I didn't know which way he was going. He was 20 years old and moved to L.A. But Kevin, he's not afraid of anything. He takes that step," she said.

"I don't think she took it too well. I think she was very worried and very nervous. One thing my mom does is worry," Phillips said Wednesday by phone as his mom blinked back tears. "I believed in myself (even though) people at the time thought I might be a little bit crazy."

Thirteen movie roles later, he lives in West Hollywood and spent the morning in meetings at Fox Studios. He has appeared in such high-profile films as "Pride," "Notorious," "The Cookout" and "American Guns." He is currently filming a lead role in the independent film "Sinners & Saints."

This is the kid who moved to Moncks Corner as an 8-year-old from Staten Island, N.Y., with his older sister and brother, when Gwen Phillips found herself a single mom and returned to family for help raising her children.

As a child he was on the quiet side, Gwen Phillips said. You never knew what he was thinking. "He was calm and admirable," Powell said. "He didn't have a loud spirit about him."

But he hinted at his future, breaking into dance at the first notes of music, the first one out on the floor.

The film opening represents a chance for local community leaders and historians to keep alive the heritage of the Tuskegee Airmen, to stay strong, said historian Joe McGill.

For the kids in the Moncks Corner gym, "This is a big deal here. This movie is a real big deal," Powell said. "It's a motivation for them." Phillips' success shows them they might not have much, "but you don't have to stay here, because he moved on," Powell said.

If Phillips were to talk to those kids, his message would be simple, he said. "Follow your dreams. I like it when somebody tells me I can't do something, because that's another person I can prove wrong."

That's not so different from the message of the film.

For Gwen Phillips, the opening is a pride of the heart. Her father, Richard Shine, never spoke much about the war. She doesn't know what he did. He never knew any of his grandchildren. He was killed in New York City when she was in the hospital delivering her first child, she said.

But she knows he would be proud.

When she goes to the movies to watch her son, she said, "I'm in la-la land. Is that really Kevin? Is that my son?"

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744.