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Actor Jay Ellis remembers watching the 1986 movie “Top Gun” at an Air Force base in Austin, Texas. Ellis states he was only 8 or 9 years old, and the blockbuster made him dream about becoming a fighter pilot.
Now, he plays Navy fighter pilot Payback in the anticipated sequel “Top Gun: Maverick,” which releases nationwide Friday. According to NBC News, Ellis said he sees the film as a way to say thank you to the real men and women who inspired him as a child.
Jay Ellis has long been an admirer of aviation.
“I grew up around aviation, and I think about the sacrifice that so many men and women take — they give, rather — just for us to be safe,” he said. “I think we all wrap our arms around this community and we protect it so much. And we understand the responsibility to be amazing on-screen for these folks.”
Both of Ellis’ grandfathers, his step-grandfather and his father were in the Air Force, so this role comes full circle in more ways than one for the acclaimed actor.
I think seeing yourself on-screen always is something that people lean into,” Ellis said. “We knew that people flew in jets and protected this country in that way. But we didn’t know the ways in which they get chosen and how they trained to do it.”
Actor Greg Davis, who plays the fighter pilot Coyote in the sequel, said he hopes this film will inspire a new generation of viewers. He said showing a Black Navy pilot with other diverse pilots on the big screen is an important milestone.
“When I saw the first ‘Top Gun,’ obviously there was one Black character, Sundown, but I don’t think he was represented as fully as he could have been,” Davis said. “So I think that it’s really cool that we have the representation, not just of Black characters, but of many different men and women.”
Red Tails remain honored to this day.
While Black people have been involved in the US military since its earliest stages, Blacks in film combat roles date back only to World War II.
“The idea that they were not able to handle the responsibility of combat has a political implication,” Ellis said. “When you relegate nonwhite people from specially valorous positions, you are implicitly undercutting any political claim they could have later on.”