The Tuskegee Airmen

1995, Movie, PG-13, 107 mins


A made-for-cable historical drama about the first all-black fighter squadron in the US army air corps, THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN is polished, inspiring, and well acted.

On a train bound for Tuskegee Air Base in Alabama, Hannibal Lee (Laurence Fishburne) meets black fellow passengers Walter Peoples (Allen Payne), and Leroi Cappy (Malcolm Jamal Warner). All are flight cadets, going to join the 99th Fighter Squadron, a newly created unit. But the conductor makes them vacate their compartment for German prisoners; Jim Crow still rules in 1942.

At Tuskegee they meet Lieutenant Glenn (Courtney B. Vance) and his white superiors: Major Joy (Chris Mcdonald), a bigot; and Colonel Rogers (Daniel Hugh Kelly), tough but color-blind. Their squadmates are black, middle-class, and educated: a minority elite.

Flight training is dangerous. Lewis Johns (Mekhi Phifer) crashes and dies. Walter is expelled and takes a suicide flight. Other cadets wash out. Eleanor Roosevelt (Rosemary Murphy) visits Tuskegee and flies with Hannibal. As the men get to know their machines and each other, esprit de corps grows. Meanwhile in Washington, Senator Conyers (John Lithgow) attempts to kill the Tuskegee program on racial grounds. He delays the 99th's deployment for a year.

The squadron is sent to Morocco, to strafe railyards, but sees little air action. Its commander, Lt. Colonel Davis (Andre Braugher), testifies against Conyers' allegations that his unit is unfit, proving it was deliberately sandbagged by racist bureaucrats. The 99th is transferred to Italy, flying escort for bombers as far as Berlin. Its record is outstanding: no bombers lost to enemy action. Bomber formations begin to request the 99th as escorts. Billy and Leroi are killed; Hannibal sinks a destroyer, earning a medal and promotion the day after Leroi's death. The film ends with old footage and photos. Titles supply the 99th's combat record.

THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN's theme is the struggle for equal rights. It addresses racism directly, but not shrilly. Various incidents portray segregation as an ingrained system of laws and beliefs. White bigots are not demonized but portrayed as victims of ignorance and rigid thinking (a white pilot "explains" that the black pilots who saved his life can't be black). The airmen often discuss lynching and their personal experiences with bigotry. Walter's suicide symbolizes the rage they feel after the myriad petty humiliations in civilian and military life.

America in the 1940s is fighting a just war and undergoing progressive social change, and AIRMEN shows how racist attitudes contradict both American ideology and the national mood. Black pilots, aware of their unique situation, display dignity despite provocation; sometimes this dignity appears exaggerated, but the superb teleplay compensates with numerous humanizing details.

AIRMEN is a superbly crafted production featuring outstanding aerial sequences. If the heroes of AIRMEN are somewhat idealized, the villians they fight, on the ground and in the air, are real. Their victory, as black Americans, is also real. In an age lacking believable heroes, AIRMEN is a breath of fresh air. (Violence, adult situations, profanity.) leave a comment

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