The Tuskegee Airmen

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The Tuskegee Airmen
DVD Cover art
Written byParis Qualles
Trey Ellis
Ron Hutchinson
Robert Wayland Williams
T. S. Cook
Directed byRobert Markowitz
StarringLaurence Fishburne
Allen Payne
Malcolm-Jamal Warner
Courtney B. Vance
Andre Braugher
Christopher McDonald
Daniel Hugh Kelly
Mekhi Phifer
John Lithgow
Cuba Gooding Jr.
Music byLee Holdridge
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
Executive producersFrank Price
Robert Wayland Williams (co-executive producer)
ProducersBill Carraro
Carol Bahoric (co-producer)
Production locationsMuskogee, Oklahoma
Fort Smith, Arkansas (Ft. Smith Frisco Station)
Muskogee, Oklahoma (Davis Field)
Fort Chaffee, Arkansas
Fort Smith, Arkansas
Los Angeles
Juliette, Georgia
CinematographyRon Orieux
EditorDavid Beatty
Running time106 minutes
Production companiesHBO Pictures
Price Entertainment
Budget$8,500,000 (estimated)
Original release
ReleaseAugust 26, 1995 (1995-08-26)

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 "Iowa" Lee, Jr. (Laurence Fishburne), traveling by train to Tuskegee, Alabama, is joined by fellow flight cadet candidates Billy "A-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 Noel Rogers (Daniel Hugh Kelly), the commander of the base; Major Sherman Joy (Christopher McDonald), director of training; and Second Lieutenant Glenn (Courtney B. Vance), liaison officer. The cadets are briefed by Rogers and 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 at the time, belittling the cadets and questioning whether they are up to the task. Afterward, Lt. Glenn tells the cadets that he hoped they took note of the differing views of the two different officers. Later that evening, the cadets are chatting among themselves, and begin to introduce themselves and what their college majors were (e.g. "Lewis Johns, English Literature"). It is during this time where Walter Peoples "guarantees" that no one's name would be called above his on graduation day.

While the cadets begin their classes, Major Joy begins his ploy to discredit the cadets. During a classroom session, Joy has them retake the same flight exam they had to take to get into the program. 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 tricky and dangerous moves to try and break People's will, but the tactic doesn't work-which seems to frustrate Joy even more. Afterwards, Major Joy explains to Colonel Rogers 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 informs Joy that no one scored less than a 95 on the retest, and scorns 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 ends tragically for cadet Johns (Pheifer), as he struggles to get his aircraft out of a stall. The instructor also tries to regain control but it is too late, as the plane crashes 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 and watching others leave the program. Cadets Lee and Peoples give Cappy a stern pep talk, telling him not to quit. The cadets continue their training, flying with their instructor pilots and controlling the planes on their own. Major Joy even lets cadet Lee make several solo flights around the Base. While watching a film on air combat, Lt. Glenn steps in and begins to teach the cadets. Peoples questions Lt. Glenn on why he, not Major Joy, is teaching air combat class. At this point, Lt. Glenn 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.

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

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) to impress Hannibal, but this also catches the attention of Colonel Rogers and Major Joy, and results in him being removed from the training program. Peoples admits to Colonel Rogers and Major Joy that he made a mistake and pleads with them not to put him out of the program, but to no avail. To avoid going home in disgrace, an emotionally distraught 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 begin 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 a carbine 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 is going to stick with his attempts to break them as well. Cadet Lee fires back, saying that Major Joy's gameplan was to make them quit, and that he wasn't falling for it. He emphatically says that he isn'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. Glenn and cadets Lee, Roberts and Cappy are on a routine training mission when Cappy's plane begins to experience trouble. Cappy and 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 and curiosity when the cadets exit the aircraft; their emotions turn to utter shock when Lee and 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. However, they are not deployed to the European theatre due to congressional concerns over their race. Later, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arrives for an inspection. She chooses Lee to take her up in an aircraft. With the ensuing positive press coverage, the men are 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. Cappy is then 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. The men are charged with inherent incompetence: 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 three 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 2nd Lt. 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
Rosemary Murphy Eleanor Roosevelt

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


Robert W. Williams (left) and other Tuskegee Airmen at a briefing in Ramitelli, Italy (March 1945)
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 were 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]


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]

Criticism of the movie was generally focused on clichéd dialogue and slow, stagy scenes, but the overall impression by the public was mostly favorable.

Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
Peabody Awards HBO Pictures and Price Entertainment Won [6]
American Cinema Editors Awards Best Edited Motion Picture for Non-Commercial Television David Beatty Nominated [7]
CableACE Awards Movie or Miniseries Nominated [8]
Actor in a Movie or Miniseries Laurence Fishburne Nominated
Supporting Actor in a Movie or Miniseries Andre Braugher Nominated
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Specials Robert Markowitz Nominated [9]
Golden Globe Awards Best Actor in a Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television Laurence Fishburne Nominated [10]
NAACP Image Awards Outstanding Television Movie or Mini-Series Won
Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie or Mini-Series Andre Braugher Nominated
Laurence Fishburne Won
Cuba Gooding Jr. Nominated
Primetime Emmy Awards Outstanding Made for Television Movie Frank Price, Robert Wayland Williams,
Bill Carraro, and Carol Bahoric
Nominated [11]
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Special Laurence Fishburne Nominated
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Special Andre Braugher Nominated
Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries or a Special Paris Qualles, Trey Ellis, Ron Hutchinson,
Robert Wayland Williams, and T.S. Cook
Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries or a Special Robi Reed-Humes Won[a]
Outstanding Editing for a Miniseries or a Special – Single Camera Production David Beatty Won
Outstanding Music Composition for a Miniseries or a Special Lee Holdridge Nominated
Outstanding Sound Editing for a Miniseries or a Special G. Michael Graham, Joe Melody, Anton Holden,
Bob Costanza, Tim Terusa, Mike Dickeson,
Mark Steele, Darren Wright, Michael Lyle,
Gary Macheel, John K. Adams, Richard Steele,
Mark Friedgen, Billy B. Bell, Kristi Johns,
Stan Jones, Mark Heyes, Jill Schachne, and
Tim Chilton
Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Drama Miniseries or a Special Veda Campbell, Wayne Artman,
Robert L. Harman, and Nick Alphin
Outstanding Special Visual Effects Michael Muscal, Fred Cramer,
Ray McIntyre Jr., and David Fiske
Screen Actors Guild Awards Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries Laurence Fishburne Nominated [12]

Historical accuracy[edit]

Besides the character of Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (who is actually among the attendees during the wing pinning ceremony scene) 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 with whom Williams served.

At one point, the character Lewis Johns (Mekhi Phifer) recites "Strange Fruit" to the other recruits in their barracks. "Strange Fruit" is a song recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939, inspired by a poem by Abel Meeropol after he witnessed the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.

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. This claim is a source of historical controversy. The 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.[13][14] This was, however, still an excellent loss to enemy fire ratio; the average for other P-51 fighter groups of the Fifteenth Air Force was 46 bombers lost.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tied with Mary Colquhoun for Truman.


  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". Peabody Awards. Retrieved October 19, 2023.
  7. ^ "Nominees/Winners". IMDb. Retrieved April 3, 2019.
  8. ^ Margulies, Lee (September 11, 1996). "CableACE Nominations Are Dominated by HBO". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 6, 2015.
  9. ^ "48th DGA Awards". Directors Guild of America Awards. Retrieved October 19, 2023.
  10. ^ "The Tuskegee Airmen". Golden Globe Awards. Retrieved October 19, 2023.
  11. ^ "The Tuskegee Airmen". Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Retrieved October 19, 2023.
  12. ^ "The 2nd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards". Screen Actors Guild Awards. Retrieved October 19, 2023.
  13. ^ "Report: Tuskegee Airmen lost 25 bombers." USA Today, April 1, 2007. Retrieved: April 1, 2007.
  14. ^ Ex-Pilot Confirms Bomber Loss, Flier Shot down in 1944 was Escorted by Tuskegee Airmen. Washington Post, December 17, 2006, p. A18.
  15. ^ Haulman, Dr. Daniel L. (2013). "Misconceptions About the Tuskegee Airmen" Archived 29 October 2013 at the Wayback Machine,; retrieved 26 February 2019.
  • 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]