Lionel Richie Throws Weight Behind Obscure Tuskegee Airmen Doc

Lionel Richie Lt. Col. Theodore G. Lumpkin - H 2015
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Lionel Richie Lt. Col. Theodore G. Lumpkin - H 2015

The singer-songwriter held a special screening for 'The Tuskegee Airmen: Sacrifice and Triumph,' hosting 20 viewers at his home and trying to generate Oscar buzz.

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Lionel Richie is putting his weight behind a 27-minute documentary short that has nothing to do with music. On Oct. 1, the singer opened up his Beverly Hills house for an intimate event with 20 guests to screen The Tuskegee Airmen: Sacrifice and Triumph, about the first African-American fighter pilots.

Richie had returned to his hometown of Tuskegee, Ala., where he first saw the short and felt it deserved the attention of Oscar voters. "I made a few phone calls, even though it was very last-minute," says Richie about his screening, and helping to get the film qualified for awards consideration.

Included among the guests were Herbie Hancock, several Academy documentary branch members and Lt. Col. Theodore Lumpkin, an original Tuskegee Airman. Richie previously supported the 2012 feature Red Tails (a poster for the George Lucas-produced movie hangs in his screening room).

"What George Lucas went through — he couldn't get anybody to distribute it, even after he made it with his own money!" says Richie. "That shows you the resistance out there."

Richie says he plans to organize several more screenings of Airmen and to make sure "Uncle Sidney [Poitier]" and "Uncle Quincy [Jones]" get copies of the film.

Eventually, he'd like to see the film make its way to schools around the country. He adds: "You can't settle. There's a young generation coming along that I want to know that the fiber of America has black people in it. We made major contributions in this country."

As for what would happen if the film did win an Oscar, Richie says with a laugh: "I'm rushing the stage! What are you talking about? Are you kidding me?"

But really, the musician says a nomination would be enough for the film to hopefully get the attention it deserves. "I always tell people every day: I can tell you the songs that were nominated, the ones that didn't get the awards, but as far as everyone is concerned, it got the award because they said it at the Oscars, or they said it at the Grammys."

He points to his 1981 song "Endless Love," which was nominated as for best original song at the Academy Awards as an example. "Endless Love did not win an Oscar, but everyone thought it did," he says. "It just gives me more to talk about if it's nominated, because then I can teach some more; Now you can tell more of the story."