Local Detroit film-maker Mike Rott has crafted a very insightful documentary, spotlighting a real American hero. The film is called "Luft Gangster: Memoirs of a Second Class Hero," and is the story of the now 94-year-old Lt. Colonel Alexander Jefferson, a Detroit-native, who fought and flew for the highly-coveted Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. This documentary excels not only in creating a lasting tribute to a worthy subject, but in putting his plight in proper context as to the racial and social climate of the times.
Of course, many of us have heard or are familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-African-American military pilots who were racially segregated during WWII. Many of us have also seen the recent Hollywood film, Red Tails, which gave us the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. Hilariously in Luft Gangster, when making a speech to a roomful of students gathered in his honor, Lt. Col. Jefferson tells them about Red Tails that "nothing in it is true" and that it is "pure Hollywood." This line immediately peaks our interest and gets us involved in the real history of the Airmen.
And while the film and Lt. Col. Jefferson's story are endearing, portions of the tale are infuriating. A memo around the time of WWII from a high-ranking official warned about "the Negroes" and their supposed flaws, going so far as to say, plainly, that the Negroes are inferior to the white man. Early on, Lt. Col. Jefferson tells a story about how he was brought to Atlanta briefly as a child, but made a derogatory comment to a white store owner. His father immediately got him out of the deep South and back to Detroit, for fear of racial retaliation. It's against this backdrop that the story of the Tuskegee Airmen really takes flight.
Once the social climate is made clear to us, the film spends a lot of time on the personal experiences of Lt. Col. Jefferson. On his 19th mission during the war, he is shot down and captured by German forces and saw first-hand the travesties within a concentration camp. He never lost his spirit and continued to press on, finally being liberated.
With all the much-deserved attention the Tuskegee Airmen have gotten over the years, we also tend to have forgotten that the horrible racial climate they left before the war didn't go anywhere once they got home. Even though they were known as the most efficient air force in the military, they were not treated as heroes upon returning back to America. Yes, Red Tails this movie ain't.
Lt. Col. Jefferson is the perfect subject to deliver such weighty material, because he is a humorous, engaging man, full of vim and vigor. He may have once been a "Luft Gangster" (German for "air"), but he has always remained a humble, educated and positive spirit. It's no surprise that he is well-loved by an entire community, not only for his war efforts, but because of his influence as a teacher to thousands of kids who learned from him and were inspired by him in the classroom.
Luft Gangster: Memoirs of a Second Class Hero is even more profound knowing that Lt. Col. Jefferson is a Detroit-er through and through. His is a story of someone that came from nothing, who despite all odds, persevered. The film itself is a loving, reverent tribute to an honorable man, worthy of being honored.