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The Tuskegee Airmen [Movie Review]

Summary

The Tuskegee Airmen is a 1995 made for TV semi-fictional drama about the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first all-Black Air Force squadron. Formed in Tuskegee, Alabama, the group was initially an experiment to gauge the suitability of Black men to serve as fighter and bomber pilots. Laurence Fishburne is joined by several other popular Black male actors of the time in a portrayal of the young pilots who competed for the opportunity to train and fight in World War II. The men brave the dangers of flight school while also contending with prejudice to become one of the most well-respected air combat squadrons.

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Show Notes

In the same vein that Angela Bassett is my OG favorite actress, Laurence Fishbourne is my dude from the 1980s and 90s. It had been years since I’d seen The Tuskegee Airmen and knew Fishbourne, who played the lead of Hannibal Lee, and Allen Payne who played Walter Peoples both appeared in the movie. But I guess I’d forgotten that quite a few other notable actors also appeared in the film.

Lee is the first recruit that we meet and the only one whose family life we get to witness, though just briefly. He hails from Iowa where his family appears to be rather tight-knit and living relatively comfortably for the time. You get the sense that his parents are quite proud of him and take a great deal of pride in his acceptance into the flight program.

It’s easy to imagine that the other recruits who are setting out from different parts of the country are also leaving behind families and communities that are equally beaming with pride. The main part of the group meets when they arrive and take their seats on the train that will carry them to Tuskegee. We get a bit of basic background about where the men are from, their aspirations, and for the most part, the assumption that they all expect to be successful.

Upon arrival at Tuskegee, they’re made to jog in their suits with their luggage to meet the commanding officers. Colonel Rogers (Daniel Kelly) lets them know that this is an experiment to test the abilities of the Black airmen and he expects them to succeed in training. Meanwhile, Major Joy (Christopher McDonald), expresses that he expects them to fail in a speech filled with pepperings of the “n-word”. Lieutenant Glen (Courtney B. Vance) is there to serve as a liaison between the group and the military and doesn’t go out of his way to give them a hard time but also sets expectations for the reality of what they’ve gotten themselves into. The dialogue is a little hokey but we get an idea of where things are headed.

Passing an exam was a requirement for participation in the program. Major Joy’s prejudice prevents him from even entertaining the possibility that the men did well on the exam because they are smart and competent. Instead, he has them retake the exam only to have all the men once again score high grades. The men face the possibility of going to war which is dangerous so I understand the need to ensure that these guys can do the job. Training programs of this sort are intended to ensure recruits get proper training while also allowing those who are unfit to naturally wash out. But Joy goes beyond allowing the group to cull itself and instead attempts to become a barrier to their success.

It’s not enough for him to believe that the group is unfit, he goes out of his way and fails at proving it. How would it be possible that these men who are coming from different parts of the country and meeting for the first time somehow conspired together or had someone conspire on their behalf to fix their exam? Situations like this always give me pause, because if you believe someone is inferior or incapable, if given the chance shouldn’t they naturally fall short without your intervention? It seems likely that if the higher-ups weren’t keeping an eye on things he might have resorted to sabotage rather than simply second-guessing the recruits and giving them a hard time.

Often the media pushes these unrealistic images of manhood where men, especially Black men, are brutish creatures with simple thoughts and no feelings. But ironically, war movies tend to do a fairly good job at showing men as being fully formed human beings. It says something that it takes the looming presence of death, shooting, and all other manners of mayhem for filmmakers to feel it’s ok to allow men to be realistic complex people. You would think a tough and tense environment such as war would be the place where filmmakers showcase machomen. Yet, war movies tend to be the genre where male characters are most consistently allowed to be human and vulnerable.

The racist forces working against the Tuskegee Airmen help them to develop a kind of brotherhood. My favorite scenes in the movie weren’t them flying or fighting but when they were kicking back and chatting. In particular, the scenes with them in the barracks were my favorites. It offered an opportunity to learn about the men as people and individuals without the peacocking that sometimes occurred while they were training.

It’s revealed that the group is primarily composed of men who are either attending or have attended college. This is fairly significant for the 1940s as I don’t think most people at that time were attending or had graduated from college. Yet, these men were leaving school and relatively safe futures for a shot at training and serving in the Air Corps. I’m not a fan of the military as an organization but I have a lot of respect for people who choose to serve. So I respected how dedicated these men were to their dreams.

Black people had served in previous wars so that wasn’t new but their changing role while serving in World War II was significant as were the long-term ramifications. There was division within the Black community over whether or not it made sense for Black people to fight in the war. Some felt it was foolish while others supported the “Double V Campaign”, the idea of aiding America in the fight abroad in hopes of being rewarded with equal rights and opportunities at home.

This is a war movie so it’s expected that some of the characters would die in combat. Yet it drives home the level of their sacrifice and determination that several of the men died in training (they didn’t even see combat) but the others persisted. This is a dangerous mission and situation as before you even face the threat of the enemy, you have to deal with the threat of the planes and flying itself. Stress and fear led some of the men to have moments of self-doubt about their odds of completing the program. But the bond of brotherhood between the men allows them to rely on and encourage each other in times of need.

I, like the cadets, assumed that the Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black pilots in the US Air Corp. It turns out that while this is correct to a degree, it’s not the full story. Glen explains that while Joy outranks him, he is the more experienced of the two and likely the most experienced on the entire base. Earlier in Glen’s career, he served at a time when the US military was still segregated and the Air Corp did not recruit Black cadets to be pilots. In his determination to see action, Glen relocated to Canada and joined their air force where he was able to serve as a pilot.

Under different circumstances, Glen would have likely had a higher rank and been running the program. But instead, he ranks below the commanding officers despite him being the only person on base with real combat experience. Given his experience within the military, he is well aware of what the recruits are up against. Thus he holds the cadets accountable for their actions and expected them to perform up to standards that would serve them well in the long run. Yet, he also goes to bat for them with the military command serving as an advocate to fend off Joy’s attempts to undermine the group.

Glen was unable to achieve his dreams of flying for the US Air Corp but he still returned from Canada to serve in the US military. Sometimes when people have a hard time in life, they go out of their way to make things difficult for those coming up after them. Instead of being embittered and giving the cadets a hard time, Glen instead went out of his way to teach and mentor them. It’s quite admirable.

On paper Peoples has some of the best qualifications within the program but I don’t think he necessarily had the best temperament to become a pilot. There’s confidence, which is needed to remain committed to goals and persevere when faced with obstacles. And then there’s arrogance, an overbearing attitude of self-importance or superiority. We get a glimpse of the latter when the group first meets on the train and Peoples is a bit condescending towards the other guys. For example, he assumes that he got a higher grade on the exam than Billy Roberts (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) who kindly corrects him about this notion. Over time he becomes a bit less overbearing and is friendly towards that other guys but still a little self-important.

It was obvious from the beginning that Joy was trying to pressure the cadets into washing out. Under those circumstances, arrogant and foolish decisions would be unwise as they would play into the hands of this man that wants to see you fail. Be smart and don’t give anyone reasons or excuses to kick you out of the program. Peoples is qualified to fly but shows that he doesn’t have the maturity to survive the program. With such high stakes, his impetuousness and need to showboat would put other pilots in danger.

His reckless actions would be dangerous in combat but also show a degree of selfishness. Peoples put himself, everyone on the ground, and the Tuskegee program itself at risk. He opened himself up to the possibility of facing expulsion from the program and then added fuel to the fire by throwing a massive temper tantrum. Like the other men, flying was a dream for Peoples and when the opportunity was taken away in part because of his actions, he couldn’t deal with the consequences. Much of his identity and sense of self-worth came from the things he’d achieved and his ability to look down on others. How could that square with him failing in such a public manner?

There’s certainly a problem with the organization but Peoples deserved to be reprimanded. He was only thinking about himself and his ego without realizing that he was putting everyone else at risk. To a degree, the incident felt like a bout of self-sabotage. Peoples had so much riding on this opportunity and for someone who believes himself to be very smart, should have known better than to blow his shot.

The Tuskegee Airmen were training in the 1940s during segregation. An ember in the fight for civil rights had continued faintly burning since the end of Reconstruction. But a major spark that helped to reignite the flame was servicemen returning home after fighting for freedom abroad. Back in America, they were dismayed to find that society was still unwilling to see them and their people as citizens.

A great scene in the movie is when Lee and Leroy Cappy (Malcolm Jamal Warner) are forced to make an emergency landing on a country road where a chain gang of Black men appears to be cutting wheat or grass. The armed guards that are supervising them assume that Lee and Cappy are White because they’re pilots. The guards are unpleasantly shocked but the convicts beam with pride when they remove their masks and reveal themselves to be Black. I could only imagine the amount of pride that real Black people of the time felt in seeing the real Tuskegee Airmen.

The guards’ reaction shouldn’t have been surprising as there was quite a fight within the military establishment as the men trained. Despite taking exams and completing training there were still forces at work behind the scenes trying to prevent the men from seeing combat. And it took the subtle intervention and influence of Eleanor Roosevelt to get them overseas and off the ground. But even with that, the racially motivated passive-aggressive sabotage of the Tuskegee pilots continued.

The men don’t receive the same resources or support as other groups but are then criticized for things that go wrong because they’re exhausted. Because some within the government and military establishment want them to fail, the bar is set far higher for the Tuskegee Airmen than for others. They’re held to unreasonable standards and then disparaged for falling short with the blame being placed on their race rather than the unfair circumstances.

From a visual standpoint, I liked that the movie mixed in clips of flight and combat footage as well as photos of the real Tuskegee Airmen. Usually, with movies like this, you see the training where a higher-up is trying to force the person to fail but the cadet makes it through and goes on to see combat. Here we get all of that but also because at this point there are at least some officers in the military, we also see them going to bat for the Black cadets.

In some ways, this film reminds me of Glory but there is a different feeling here as there are Black officers and they’re not only witnessing the discrimination against their men but experiencing it themselves. Andre Braugher who portrays the legendary Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. tends to bring a certain gravitas and panache to all of his roles and that’s also the case here. I enjoyed seeing Davis push back against the microaggressions of racists within the military establishment, especially during the scene at the Senate hearing.

Imagine saving someone’s life and them going from grateful to offended when they discover that you’re the one that rescued them. Such is the case when Lee and Roberts come to the aid of some other pilots. Realizing that the pilots need assistance, Lee and Roberts provide them with an escort that helps them safely reach the base. But even after finding out the identity of the pilots that saved them, one of the men’s prejudice prevents him from giving them their dues. Instead of recognizing their actions as being heroic and giving them their props he makes excuses and downplays the importance of what they’d done.

As with the 54th Regiment, about 80 years earlier, the Tuskegee Airmen were still serving while fighting enemies both external and internal. A younger serviceman shares the story of how a friend of his father who was a decorated veteran in World War I went missing and was later found hanging from a tree. The other men celebrate Lee and Robert’s attack on an enemy naval destroyer but the men privately discuss that while they’ll be heavily criticized for any mistakes, as usual, they won’t get any kudos for the things they do right.

Flying at that time was a dangerous endeavor, especially doing so in a war with someone shooting at you. And as is to be expected, lives are lost along the way. We get to know the characters and become attached to them so it’s sad when some die. It’s bittersweet but the men’s sacrifices are eventually recognized and they begin to receive some respect as a result of their role as escorts for bombers.

I’d seen The Tuskegee Airmen years ago and thought it was a pretty good film. Rewatching the movie as an adult was still fairly enjoyable though I think I noticed more issues with the story and production this time around. Some of the dialogue wasn’t the greatest and I couldn’t quite get a handle on how old some of the characters were supposed to be because the actors portraying them threw me off.

All things considered, The Tuskegee Airmen is a decent movie and worth checking out. You might also consider watching Red Tails for a different view of their time in combat. A few years back I visited the Tuskegee site in Alabama and it was a rather cool experience with a lot of historical information, photos, and memorabilia from the time. And based on what I saw, neither The Tuskegee Airmen nor Red Tails are the definitive movie on the subject. I would love to see a reimagining of the Tuskegee story that has the production value of Red Tails but with a story like The Tuskegee Airmen that covers both the difficulties of training and fighting within a racist organization while also dealing with enemies in combat.

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