The Tuskegee Airmen
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 Force, that fought in World War II.
The story starts with Hannibal Lee (Laurence Fishburne) getting ready to leave for Tuskegee, Alabama. He is joined by other African American men, from different backgrounds. At the start of their training, they are met by Lt. Glenn (Courtney B. Vance), who joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and was credited with three kills. During training, Walter Peoples III (Allen Payne), who already has a pilot’s license, disobeys orders to try to prove himself to the base commander but instead of being sent home in shame, he decides to commit suicide by crashing his aircraft.
Later, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arrives for an inspection. Hannibal is chosen specifically by her to take her up. 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, Hannibal’s flight encounters a group of Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Ignoring Hannibal’s orders, Leroy 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. Hannibal shoots the enemy aircraft down, but Cappy crashes.
A court is convened in order to determine if the Tuskegee Airmen "experiment" should be allowed to continue. The Airmen are charged with being incompetent, and a medical study is used to claim that "Negroes are incapable of handling complex machinery". The court decides in the Airmen’s favor and the 99th Pursuit Squadron joins two new squadrons out of Tuskegee to form the all-black 332nd Fighter Group.
The 332nd is deployed to Ramitelli, Italy to provide escort for B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers, which are experiencing heavy losses. During this deployment, Hannibal and Billy sink a destroyer. Billy is shot down, while Hannibal is promoted to captain and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In their next mission, the Tuskegee Airmen are assigned to escort the bombers on a raid on Berlin. As time goes on, the group’s reputation grows to the point that a bomber pilot specifically asks for them as escorts, even though he knows the pilots are black. He trusts the black pilots more than the white pilot escorts.
At the end, the film details the unit’s accomplishments: 66
the 450 Tuskegee Airmen died in battle, they engaged and defeated Me 262s, the first operational
jet fighters, and they were awarded a total of 850 medals over the
course of the war.
- Major Sherman Joy: “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.”
- Hannibal Lee Jr.: “Straighten up…”
- Billy Roberts: “…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.)
As appearing in screen credits (main roles identified):
|Laurence Fishburne||Hannibal “Iowa” Lee Jr.|
|Allen Payne||Walter Peoples|
|Malcolm-Jamal Warner||Leroy Cappy|
|Courtney B. Vance (as
|Andre Braugher||Benjamin O. Davis|
|Christopher McDonald (as Chris McDonald)||Maj. Joy|
|Daniel Hugh Kelly||Col. Rogers|
|John Lithgow||Sen. Conyers|
|Billy “A-Train” Roberts|
|Mekhi Phifer||Lewis Johns|
|Christopher Bevins||Young Hannibal|
|Eddie Braun||Tail gunner|
|Max Daniels||Left waist gunner|
|Jack Dwyer||Operations officer|
|James Field (as James T. Fields)||Conductor|
|Vivica A. Fox (as Vivica Fox)||Charlene|
A full cast and production crew list is too lengthy to
include, see: IMDb profile.
Robert W. Williams, a wartime pilot in the U.S. Army Air Force
“Fighting 99th,” the first African-American combat squadron out of
Tuskegee Air Force base, 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.
Originally intended as an Home Box Office made-for-TV project, (HBO) invested more into the production, a reputed $8.5 million (the largest investment in a telefilm project to date) striving for historical accuracy.  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. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee Army Air Field in 1941, she insisted on flying with Charles Alfred 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. Additionally, 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.
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 T-6 Texans and 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. A limited number of period gun-ciné films were also used.
Although originally released on cable, the HBO feature was
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 16×9 display, and is anamorphically enhanced.
Although shortcomings were noted by critics generally focusing
clichéd dialogue and slow, stagey 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
depicted the real-life struggles of the black airmen and is considered
a resource in many educational programs based on the Black American
The Tuskegee Airmen won the 1996 Emmy
Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Sound Editing in the
Miniseries or Movie category. The telefilm was also nominated in a
variety of other technical categories including sound, mixing, editing
and casting. Both Laurence Fishburne and Andre Braugher were nominated
for Outstanding Leading and Supporting Actor, respectively in a
Miniseries or a Special.
At the 1996 Image Awards, The Tuskegee
Airmen won as Outstanding Television Movie or Mini-Series while Fishburne won
as Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series. Cuba Gooding
Jr. along with Braugher were further nominated as supporting actors.
Fishburne was also nominated for the 1996 Golden Globe
in the Best Television Actor – Miniseries or Movie category.
- The Tuskegee Airmen (1995) Quotes
- The Tuskegee Airmen (1995) Full credits
- Scott, Tony.Variety review Variety.com.
- The Tuskegee Airmen
- DVD Verdict
- Teach with Movies
Tuskegee Airmen (awards)
- Ambrose, Stephen Edward. The Wild Blue: The Men
and Boys who Flew the B-24s over Germany. New York: Simon and
Schuster, 2001. ISBN 0-74320-339-9.
- Broadnax, Samuel L. Blue Skies, Black Wings:
African American Pioneers of Aviation. Westport, Connecticut:
Praeger Publishers, 2007. ISBN 0-27599-195-4.
- 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 1-88132-521-0.
- 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 0-80278-292-2.
- Thole, Lou. “Segregated Skies.” Flypast No, 248,
- The Tuskegee Airmen (VHS/DVD). New York:
HBO Home Video (Release date: 23 January 2001.)
Tuskegee Airmen at the Internet Movie Database