The Tuskegee Airmen

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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
Directed by Robert Markowitz
Written by Paris Qualles
Trey Ellis
Ron Hutchinson
Robert W. Williams
T. S. Cook
Starring Laurence Fishburne
Allen Payne
Malcolm-Jamal Warner
Courtney B. Vance
Andre Braugher
Christopher McDonald
Daniel Hugh Kelly
Mekhi Phifer
John Lithgow
as 'Senator Conyers'
and Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Music by Lee Holdridge
Release dates
August 26, 1995
Running time
106 minutes
Country United States
Language English

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 other African American men from different backgrounds. At the start of their training, they are met by 2nd Lt. Glenn (Courtney B. Vance), who had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and was credited with three kills. During training, Lewis Johns (Mekhi Phifer), and his instructor are killed when they fail to recover from a stall. Walter Peoples III (Allen Payne), who already has a pilot's license, performs an unauthorized aerobatic maneuver in order to impress Hannibal, but this results in him being removed from the training program. To avoid going home in disgrace, he commits suicide by deliberately crashing an aircraft.

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, Leroy Cappy (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) 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.

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[edit]

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[edit]

  • Fly, a 2009 play about the Tuskegee Airmen
  • Red Tails, the 2012 George Lucas film on the 332nd Fighter Group


  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. ^ a b c 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.)

External links[edit]