The Tuskegee Airmen

This article is about 1995 film. For the article about the World War II flyers, see Tuskegee Airmen. For other uses, see Tuskegee Airmen (disambiguation).
The Tuskegee Airmen

DVD Cover art
Genre Drama
Written by Paris Qualles
Trey Ellis
Ron Hutchinson
Robert W. Williams
T. S. Cook
Directed by Robert Markowitz
Starring Laurence Fishburne
Allen Payne
Malcolm-Jamal Warner
Courtney B. Vance
Andre Braugher
Christopher McDonald
Daniel Hugh Kelly
Mekhi Phifer
John Lithgow
Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Music by Lee Holdridge
Country of origin United States
Original language(s) English
Executive producer(s) Frank Price
Robert Williams (co-executive producer)
Producer(s) Bill Carraro
Carol Bahoric (co-producer)
Cinematography Ron Orieux
Editor(s) David Beatty
Running time 106 minutes
Production company(s) HBO Pictures
Price Entertainment
Distributor HBO
Original release August 26, 1995

The Tuskegee Airmen is a 1995 HBO television movie based on the exploits of an actual groundbreaking unit, the first African American combat pilots in the United States Army Air Corps, that fought in World War II. The film was directed by Robert Markowitz and stars Laurence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding, Jr., John Lithgow, and Malcolm-Jamal Warner.


During World War II, Hannibal Lee (Laurence Fishburne), traveling by train to Tuskegee, Alabama, is joined by fellow flight cadet candidates Billy "Train" Roberts (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), Walter Peoples III (Allen Payne), and Lewis Johns (Mekhi Phifer). At the start of their training, they are met by Colonel Rogers (Daniel Hugh Kelly), the commander of the base; Major Joy (Christopher McDonald), director of training; and second lieutenant Glenn (Courtney B. Vance), liaison officer. The cadets are briefed by Rogers & Joy, both with their own views that set the tone for what the cadets would later face in training: Rogers has an optimistic view of the cadets, wanting the cadets to prove the naysayers wrong and letting them know how much of an honor it would be for the cadets to pass the training and earn their wings as aviators. Major Joy, however, reflects the views of most of white America's thoughts at the time, belittling the cadets and questioning whether or not they were up to the task. Afterward, Lt. Glenn told the cadets that he hoped they took note of the differing views of the two different officers. Later that evening, the cadets are chatting amongst themselves, and began to introduce themselves and what their college majors were (e.g. "Lewis Johns, English Literature"). It was during this time where Walter Peoples "guaranteed" that no one's name would be called above his on graduation day.

While the cadets begin their classes, Major Joy began his ploy to discredit the cadets. During a classroom session, Joy had them to retake the same flight exam they had to take to get into the program to begin with. Later, he takes Peoples on a flight after it is revealed that Peoples has a commercial pilot license. Joy takes the training aircraft, a PT-17, through very tricky and dangerous moves in order to try and break People's will, but the tactic didn't work-which seemed to frustrate Joy even more. Afterwards, Major Joy had to explain to Colonel Rogers on why he decided to give the retest and Joy's beliefs that some (if not all) of the cadets may have cheated to get in the program. Rogers informed Joy that no one scored less than a 95 on the retest, and scourned Joy about his tactics.

After a briefing with the cadets, Major Joy sends each cadet up on flights in their PT-17 training aircraft with an instructor pilot. It would end tragically for cadet Johns (Pheifer), as he struggled to get his aircraft out of a stall. The instructor also tries to regain control but it was too late, as the plane crashed into a building, exploding on impact and killing both Johns and his instructor. Afterwards, cadet Leroy Cappy (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) begins to let self-doubt creep in after seeing John's deadly crash & watching others leave the program. Cadets Lee & Peoples give Cappy a stern pep talk, telling him not to quit. The cadets continue on with their training, flying with their instructor pilots and controlling the planes on their own. Major Joy even let cadet Lee make several solo flights around the base. While watching a film on air combat, Lt. Glen steps in and begins to teach the cadets. Cadet Peoples questioned Lt. Glen on why he, not Major Joy, was teaching air combat class. At this point, Lt. Glen reveals to the cadets (most notably Peoples) that he had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he was credited with three kills, making him the only Army Air Corps officer on the base with actual air combat experience.

Peoples and Lee, flying solo each in the AT-6 Texan training plane, take part in a mock dogfight where Peoples gets an edge on Lee and "shoots him down". Afterwards, Peoples performs some unauthorized aerobatic maneuvers (buzzing the airfield, barrel rolling) in order to impress Hannibal, but this results in him being removed from the training program. Peoples admitted to Colonel Rogers and Major Joy that he made a mistake & pleaded with them not to put him out of the program, but to no avail. To avoid going home in disgrace, Peoples commandeers an AT-6, takes off with it and commits suicide by deliberately crashing it.

Back at the cadets' barracks, tensions and emotions following Peoples' death began to reach the boiling point. Cadet Roberts has a heated exchange with cadet Lee on Major Joy's tactics, saying that Joy set out to break Peoples and killed him "like putting acarbine to his head". Cadet Cappy - again letting his own self doubts creep back in - sides with Roberts against Lee, saying that he doesn't see any reason to continue on if Major Joy was going to continue with his attempts to break them as well. Cadet Lee fired back, saying that Major Joy's gameplan was to make them quit, and that he wasn't falling for it. He emphatically said that he wasn't going to let Major Joy, anyone else at the base, or "the God damned Commander-In-Chief himself" stop him from his dreams of flying.

Lt. Glen and cadets Lee, Roberts & Cappy are on a routine training mission when Cappy's plane begins to experience trouble. Cappy & Lee land on a country road where a prison chain gang are out working in a roadside field. As the planes are coming in to land, the prison guards over the gang force the prisoners out of the way to make room for the planes to land. The guards stand with a mixed look of praise & curiosity when the cadets exit the aircraft; their emotions turn to utter shock when Lee & Cappy take their flight masks off, revealing themselves as Black aviators. The cadets go on to successfully "earn their wings" and are commissioned as 2nd Lieutenants in the Army Air Corps.

Training base where Maj. Joy (Christopher McDonald) instructs the trainees for the first time.

Later, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arrives for an inspection. She chooses Lee to take her up in an aircraft. The men are eventually deployed to North Africa, as part of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, though they are relegated to ground attack missions. During the campaign, Lee's flight encounters a group of Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Ignoring Lee's orders, Cappy breaks formation and attacks, downing one of them. Another Bf 109 hits Cappy's fighter aircraft numerous times, causing a fire in the cockpit and fatally wounding him. Unfortunately, Cappy is killed when his damaged fighter plane crashes after catching fire.

A congressional hearing of the House Armed Services Committee is convened to determine whether the Tuskegee Airmen "experiment" should continue. Charged with being incompetent, a medical study is used to claim that "Negroes are incapable of handling complex machinery." The hearing decides in the Tuskegee Airmen's favor, due to testimony by their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis (Andre Braugher), and the 99th Pursuit Squadron joins two new squadrons out of Tuskegee to form the all-black 332nd Fighter Group, under the now Col. Benjamin O. Davis.

The 332nd is deployed to Ramitelli, Italy to provide escort for Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers, which are experiencing heavy losses. During this deployment, Lee and Billy Roberts (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) sink a destroyer. They also rescue a straggling B-17 which is being attacked by two German fighters while returning from a bombing raid, shooting down both of the enemy Bf 109s. When the bomber's pilot and co-pilot travel to Ramitelli to thank them, the B-17 pilot refuses to believe that black pilots saved them. During a subsequent escort assignment, Roberts is shot down. Later, Lee is awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for sinking the destroyer and promoted to captain. Having by then earned the respect and admiration of the white bomber pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen are specifically requested for escort for a raid on Berlin - a request advanced in a mission briefing by the same pilot who originally refused to believe that the 332nd had helped his plane.


Actor Role
Laurence Fishburne Capt. Hannibal "Iowa" Lee, Jr.
Allen Payne Cdt. Walter Peoples
Malcolm-Jamal Warner Lt. Leroy Cappy
Courtney B. Vance 2ndLt. Glenn
Andre Braugher Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
Christopher McDonald Maj. Sherman Joy
Daniel Hugh Kelly Col. Rogers
John Lithgow Sen. Conyers
Cuba Gooding, Jr. Lt. Billy "A-Train" Roberts
Mekhi Phifer Cdt. Lewis Johns

A full cast and production crew list is too lengthy to include, see: IMDb profile.[1]

With the characteristic cry, "Here we come, fellas," the 332 FG escorted USAAF bombers over Europe. (screenshot)


Ottumwa, Iowa, native, Captain Robert W. Williams, a wartime pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps' "332nd Fighter Group", the all African-American combat unit trained at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama, wrote a manuscript years earlier, and worked with screenwriter T. S. Cook to create a screenplay originally intended for a feature film project. The plot combined fact and fiction to create an essentially historically accurate drama. Linking up with Frank Price, owner of Price Productions in 1985 finally gained some traction for the project and when financing was eventually obtained nearly 10 years later, Williams stayed on as co-executive producer and Price as executive producer.[2]

Originally intended as a HBO made-for-TV project, the network invested more into the production, a reputed $8.5 million (the largest investment in a telefilm project to date) striving for historical accuracy.[2] Although most of the lead characters were fictitious composites of real pilots, the inclusion of Eleanor Roosevelt and General Benjamin "B.O." Davis was based on actual events.[3] When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee Army Air Field in 1941, she insisted on flying with C. Alfred "Chief" Anderson, the first African American to earn his pilot's license and the first flight instructor of the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) organized at the Tuskegee Institute. She had the photograph of her in a training aircraft with a black pilot at the controls widely circulated. Other than some differences in physical appearance and profile, Andre Braugher's portrayal of "B.O." Davis and his role as the commanding officer pointedly was an accurate depiction of the unit's first commander's personality and character.

Location shooting took place at Fort Chaffee, right outside of Fort Smith, Arkansas. The barracks had been used in the filming of Biloxi Blues (1988), another wartime story. The principal photography also utilized locations at Juliette, Georgia, Muskogee, Oklahoma as well as studio work in Los Angeles, California. A collection of period aircraft including North American T-6 Texans and North American P-51 Mustangs were representative of the many types flown by the Tuskegee Airmen. A small number of authentic P-51 fighter aircraft in appropriate "red tail" colors was employed in the aerial sequences.

In addition, a limited number of period gun-ciné films were also used,[2] as were sequences from the films, Memphis Belle (1990) and Battle of Britain (1969). The producers also borrowed a technique used in Memphis Belle by using cutout silhouettes of aircraft to make it appear that there were more aircraft parked at the various airfields. One example of period dialogue that was faithful to the times was Hannibal Lee Jr. (another fictitious composite) singing: "Straighten up..." finished by Billy Roberts (fictional character): "...and fly right." (The catchphrase was derived from the 1944 top-40 hit record, "Straighten Up and Fly Right" by The King Cole Trio led by Nat King Cole.)[4][N 1]


Although originally released on cable, the HBO feature was shown on multiple repeats and eventually was released as a limited feature in selected theaters. In 2001, a home video/DVD version was also released in both formats. The transfer was done in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, which exactly fills a 16x9 display, and is anamorphically enhanced.[5]

Although shortcomings were noted by critics generally focusing on clichéd dialogue and slow, stagy scenes, however, the overall impression by the public was nearly universally favorable. An excellent ensemble cast that was balanced by the use of realistic aerial footage were often cited as significant. The main theme of racial discrimination was also an emotional touchstone for many audience members. The Tuskegee Airmen rather than being "preachy" depicted the real-life struggles of the black airmen and is considered a resource in many educational programs based on the Black American experience.[6]

Historical accuracy

Besides the character of Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., played by Andre Braugher, no other actual real-life Tuskegee airmen were portrayed in this film - other featured Tuskegee airmen characters are composites of the men Bob Williams served with.

The character Lewis Johns (Mekhi Phifer) recites "Strange Fruit" to his fellow recruits in their barracks at one point in the movie to describe lynchings that took place, especially in the south, in the early 20th century. "Strange Fruit" is a 1939 song sung by Billie Holiday which in turn was inspired by a 1936 poem by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish teacher in the Bronx, after he witnessed the lynchings of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana in that year.

At the end, the film details the unit's accomplishments: 66 out of the 450 Tuskegee Airmen died in battle, they engaged and defeated Messerschmitt Me 262s, the first operational jet fighters, and they were awarded a total of 850 medals over the course of the war. The credits also note (inaccurately, but a common belief of the time) that the 332nd never lost a single bomber to enemy fighter action. The claim at the end of the film that the 332nd never lost a single bomber to enemy fighter action is a source of historical controversy. This statement was repeated for many years, and not challenged because of the esteem of the Tuskegee Airmen. However, Air Force records and eyewitness accounts later showed that at least 25 bombers were lost to enemy fire. This was, however, still an excellent loss to enemy fire ratio.[7][8]


The Tuskegee Airmen won the 1996 Peabody Award. The made-for-TV movie also won three Emmy Awards for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Miniseries or a Special, Outstanding Editing for a Miniseries or a Special - Single Camera Production and Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries or a Special. The telefilm was also nominated in a variety of other technical categories including sound mixing, visual effects, music and writing. Both Laurence Fishburne and Andre Braugher were nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Special and Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Special.

At the 1996 NAACP Image Awards, The Tuskegee Airmen won the award for Outstanding Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special, while Fishburne won as Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special. Braugher and Cuba Gooding Jr. were nominated in the supporting actor category.

Fishburne was also nominated for the 1996 Golden Globe in the Best Television Actor - Miniseries or Movie category, despite the fact many thought he was too old and mature (Fishburne was entering his late thirties), to portray a green and naive character in his early 20s.[9]

See also


  1. Although period dialogue was present including: Major Sherman Joy (a fictitious composite) pontificating: "The four elements: earth, air, water and fire. Of these, I call your attention to two: air and fire. As pilots we live in the air, but we die by fire." The entire statement is merely movie dialogue and not a contemporary quote.
  1. " 'The Tuskegee Airmen' (1995) Full credits." IMDb. Retrieved: January 3, 2010.
  2. 1 2 3 Scott, Tony." 'The Tuskegee Airmen' review." Retrieved: January 3, 2010.
  3. "The Tuskegee Airmen." Eleanore Roosevelt National Historic Site Hyde Park, New York. Retrieved: March 20, 2010.
  4. " 'The Tuskegee Airmen' (1995) Quotes." IMDb. Retrieved: January 3, 2010.
  5. " 'The Tuskegee Airmen'." DVD Verdict. Retrieved: January 3, 2010.
  6. " 'The Tuskegee Airmen'." Teach with Movies. Retrieved: January 3, 2010.
  7. "Report: Tuskegee Airmen lost 25 bombers." USA Today, April 1, 2007. Retrieved: April 1, 2007.
  8. Ex-Pilot Confirms Bomber Loss, Flier Shot down in 1944 was Escorted by Tuskegee Airmen. Washington Post, December 17, 2006, p. A18.
  9. " 'The Tuskegee Airmen' (Awards)." IMDb. Retrieved: January 3, 2010.
  • Ambrose, Stephen Edward. The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys who Flew the B-24s over Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001. ISBN 0-7432-0339-9.
  • Broadnax, Samuel L. Blue Skies, Black Wings: African American Pioneers of Aviation. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2007. ISBN 0-275-99195-4.
  • Bucholtz, Chris and Laurier, Jim. 332nd Fighter Group - Tuskegee Airmen. London: Osprey Publishing, 2007. ISBN 1-84603-044-7.
  • Cotter, Jarrod. "Red Tail Project." Flypast No. 248, March 2002.
  • Holway, John B. Red Tail, Black Wings: The Men of America's Black Air Force. Las Cruces, New Mexico: Yuca Tree Press, 1997. ISBN 1-881325-21-0.
  • McKissack, Patricia C. and Fredrick L. Red Tail Angels: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. New York: Walker Books for Young Readers, 1996. ISBN 0-8027-8292-2.
  • Thole, Lou. "Segregated Skies." Flypast No, 248, March 2002.
  • The Tuskegee Airmen (VHS/DVD). New York: HBO Home Video (Release date: 23 January 2001.)
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