West Richland lawyer contends ownership of 'Red Tails' screenplay

The Spokesman-ReviewMay 1, 2014 

Red Tails - Premiere

Nancy Colon, the first female African-American flight nurse in the U.S. Air Force, actor Cuba Gooding Jr., center, and former Tuskegee Airman pilot Julias Freeman, right, arrive for the premiere of 'Red Tails' on Jan. 10, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/Carlo Allegri)

CARLO ALLEGRI — ASSOCIATED PRESS

A lawyer from West Richland is suing George Lucas, 20th Century Fox and other Hollywood bigwigs claiming they stole his screenplay for Red Tails, a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II.

John Dudley alleges in a federal lawsuit filed late last year that Lucas, who was an executive producer of the 2012 film, co-writers and the director ripped 80 percent of their movie from a screenplay he'd registered with the Writer's Guild of America in 1998. That screenplay was also titled Red Tails, a moniker used by the African-American fighter pilot group that flew in planes with rouge-tinted tails over the skies of Africa and Italy in World War II.

The film stars Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. It was billed as being co-written by John Ridley, who also wrote this year's Academy Awards best picture winner 12 Years a Slave, and Aaron McGruder, creator of the comic strip series The Boondocks, and made a little more than $50 million at the box office. But it cost $58 million to make, according to ticket tracker Box Office Mojo, and was widely panned by critics.

Dudley, a Bellevue native and 1982 graduate of Gonzaga Law School, lives in West Richland, where he works as an attorney for the federal government.

In court documents, he said he wrote 14 screenplays in the mid-'90s, the last of which was Red Tails. He allegedly shopped the project to Denzel Washington before hiring an entertainment lawyer who showed the script to several people in Los Angeles. One of those firms was a talent and literary agency called International Creative Management Partners, which signed Ridley to a contract in 2003, according to the lawsuit.

Ridley was hired by Lucas to complete writing the film in 2007, according to news reports at the time. Lucas said he originally envisioned the concept as a trilogy. Red Tails was the last film independently produced by LucasFilms Limited, the Star Wars mastermind's film studio that also produced films in the Indiana Jones franchise before the company was bought by The Walt Disney Co. in 2012.

Dudley said in court filings the alleged plagiarism is "not, generally speaking, verbatim in nature." But he included his 126-page script in his offering to the court and points to several instances where he believes Ridley, McGruder and director Anthony Hemingway lifted his ideas and story.

Dudley describes a prayer before a dangerous combat mission and one of the airmen praying to "black Jesus." In the original screenplay, the same scene occurs, but the airman prays to "sweet Jesus," Dudley said. In another scene Dudley alleged was stolen, a racist white fighter pilot is swayed to respect the airmen after witnessing the Red Tails' bravery in battle, just before one of the black pilots is shot down by a Nazi fighter.

Dudley said the fatal shooting scene, including details such as when a particular character curses and how the Nazi fighter plane appears on screen, were ripped directly from his screenplay. The memorial service that follows is also a carbon copy of the original screenplay protected under copyright laws, Dudley alleged.

U.S. District Court Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson has thrown out Dudley's lawsuit against International Creative Management Partners, ruling the Washington court lacks jurisdiction to decide the issue.

Lucas, 20th Century Fox and the writers intend to show Dudley's screenplay differs significantly enough from the film that was produced that they should avoid liability, according to court filings.

Dudley's screenplay spans several generations of the Benjamin Davis family while the Red Tails film focuses on the 15 months the Tuskegee Airmen fought in World War II, attorneys for the defendants argue. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was the commander of the Tuskegee Airmen during the war. His father, Benjamin O. Davis, was the first black officer in the American armed forces, serving in World War I and World War II.

The first 73 pages of the screenplay, Dudley admitted, focus on the buildup to a 1939 federal law allowing black men to train for combat at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and elsewhere. Those events are not included in the Red Tails movie that was made.

A trial date has not yet been set in the case. Peterson is expected to rule next month whether the civil lawsuit can continue in the Washington court.

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