The Tuskegee Airmen
The Tuskegee Airmen
During the Second World War, a special project is begun by the US Army Air Corps to integrate African American pilots into the Fighter Pilot Program. Known as the “Tuskegee Airman” for the name of the airbase at which they were trained, these men were forced to constantly endure harassement, prejudice, and much behind the scenes politics until at last they were able to prove themselves in combat.
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) in getting ready to leave for Tuskegee, Alabama, is joined by other African American men from different backgrounds. At the start of their training, they are met by 2ndLt. 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, disobeys a standing order to impress Hannibal, but this results in him being sent home, so to prevent going home in disgrace, he decides to commit suicide by crashing an aircraft.
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.
Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis, and the 99th Pursuit Squadron
A congressional hearing of the House Armed Services Committee is convened in order to determine if the Tuskegee Airmen “experiment” should be allowed to 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.) destroy a destroyer. During a subsequent escort assignment, Roberts is shot down. Later, Lee is awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and promoted to captain. In their next mission, the Tuskegee Airmen are requested for escort on a raid on Berlin.
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.
Originally intended as a 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. 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, 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).