March 28, 2014 at 03:39 PM EDT

In The Harlem Hellfighters, World War Z author Max Brooks resurrects the heroics of World War I’s mighty 369th U.S. Army Infantry Regiment. The titular all-black unit faced appalling bigotry: They were forced to train in hostile South Carolina, issued broomsticks instead of guns, and eventually dumped on the depleted French Army because the American Army had no intention of letting them fight side-by-side with white soldiers. Undaunted, they volunteered for the most dangerous assignments and soon became one of the most decorated — and feared — Allied fighting units.

Brooks, the 41-year-old son of Mel Brooks and the late Anne Bancroft, has been ruminating on this story for three decades. When his screenplay was repeatedly rejected, he partnered with artist Caanan White on a graphic novel instead. Less than 48 hours after the finished book made the rounds, Sony picked up the movie rights for producer Will Smith. Brooks dreams of a big-name cast like that of 1962’s WWII classic The Longest Day. But he’s also cautious. “Whether this movie gets made or whether it doesn’t, the book lives,” he says.

Click below for an extended chat with Brooks, as well as art from The Harlem Hellfighters, available April 1:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The story of the Harlem Hellfighters has been ignored by most history books, but you’ve been obsessed with it for 30 years. How did a 10-year-old discover them?

MAX BROOKS: My parents had assistants, and part of their job was picking me up from school. They had this one guy, Michael Furmanovsky, a university student getting his degree in history. He was picking me up from school, and he said it just as a throwaway: “Hey, did you know that there was a unit of black soldiers that the U.S. government set up to fail in World War I?” I couldn’t believe it. To a 10-year-old white kid from the west side of L.A., that kind of injustice was incomprehensible. But what made it stick was the fact that I was just a weird kid — I was interested in that kind of stuff.

When did you decide that this was a story you wanted to tell?

In the late ’90s, when TNT did Buffalo Soldiers and [HBO did] the first Tuskegee Airmen movie, I thought [Hollywood] might be interested in the story. It went beyond race, because the truth is, if you take out the color of their skin and just look at their combat record, the Hellfighters spent more time in combat than any other American unit. The first American to win the Croix de Guerre was one of them. And they brought jazz to France. If these guys had been white, they would’ve been part of our American narrative since the 1920s. So I wrote the script and nobody wanted it. Everyone was like, “No, no, no. We’re not going to do a story about black soldiers in a war nobody cares about.” And then I met with LaVar Burton and that changed everything — because I was ready to give it up. LaVar Burton sat me down and said, “Look, there’s a lot of Harlem Hellfighters scripts going around but yours comes closest to the truth, so don’t give up on it.” And I thought, All right, I won’t.

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