The Tuskegee Airmen (1995)

 

 

Director:    Robert Markowitz

Starring:    Laurence Fishburne (Hannibal Lee),  Allen Payne (Walter Peoples),  Malcolm-Jamal Warner (Leroy Cappy),  Courtney B. Vance (Lt. Glenn),  Andre Braugher (Benjamin O. Davis),  Christopher McDonald (Major Joy),  Daniel Hugh Kelly (Col. Rogers),  John Lithgow (Senator Conyers),  Cuba Gooding Jr. (Billy Roberts),  Mekhi Phifer (Lewis Johns), Christopher Bevins (Young Hannibal).

Made for TV.

This story portrays the trials and tribulations faced by the first squadron of black pilots in WWII, the "Fighting 99th." Despite all the prejudice against them, they form themselves into a trustworthy, reliable squadron with one the best flying records of all the various squadrons.

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

In Ottumwa, Iowa a little black boy named Hannibal Lee, Jr. is playing in a wheat field with his toy plane as a biplane flies very low over him. He gets up and waves at the biplane.

December 1942. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt speaks to the American people about the war. Hannibal is packing to go away for flight training. His mother comes up to tell him people are waiting to say good-bye to him. He hugs his mother and they go downstairs. Dad gives him a nice pocket watch.

Hannibal gets on the train headed for Chicago. Another black man gets on the train. His name is Billy Roberts and heís from Harlem. Another black fellow, named Walter Peoples, sits down with the two guys. He feels superior because he is already a licensed pilot. They are all headed for Tuskegee, Alabama.

Once the guys come into the deep South, because of the segregation laws, they have to get off. The Jim Crow train is the front train for coloreds. They will go the rest of the way to Tuskegee by an army truck.

They arrive at the training center and are immediately subject to military discipline. Two white officers and one black officer will lead the recent group of recruits. Col. Noel Roberts, the Commanding Officer, says welcome to the Tuskegee Army Airfield. He then introduces them to Major Sherman Joy, Director of Training. And lastly, Lt. Glenn, Liaison Officer, is introduced.

The Colonel explains that this is an experiment. Many people believe it will fail, but the officers are going to do all they can to make sure it succeeds. Roberts turns it over to the Major and leaves. The Major emphasizes the harsh aspects of life in the deep South in a rough manner. He talks like the white southerners: calls them niggers and says this ainít their country. Then he leaves. The Lieutenant says his job is to ease their transition from civilian life to military life.

The group of three that came down together sleep in bunks near each other. They meet some other guys like Lewis Johns, who studies English literature, and Roy Jonas Cappy, who studies art history.

The Major makes the cadets re-take the exam that they already took and passed. Later the Major tells the cadets that many of them will wash-out before they ever even get into an airplane. Some will die during flight training. Walter "Stick" Derrick tells the Major that he already has a pilotís license. So the Major takes Stick up into the sky to see if he canít shake some of Stickís confidence/arrogance. He treats Stick to an aerial roller coaster ride, but he canít get the best of Stick. And the Major is not happy about it.

The guys blow off steam in the barracks by mocking the Major. But a southern black tells them that where heís from, uppity niggers get turned into strange fruit. That is, the whites hang them from trees and the hanging corpses look like strange fruit hanging from the trees. Then he admits it was his grandfather who told him that story when he was a boy. Billy says thatís one hell of a bed-time story.

The Colonel is not happy about the Major making the cadets retake the test. The Major says he was suspicious that the scores were way too high for a group of cadets. He suspects cheating. The Colonel says he has the results of the testing. No cadet scored less than 95. The Major makes it clear that he does not approve of the program and probably is prejudiced against the black cadets. The Colonel is not happy about that.

The cadets go up in the air. One of the cadets stalls the engine and the plane crashes killing him and the white instructor. Another cadet quits the training program. Cappy is angry because three more washed out today: Bradley, Wade and Patterson. He says one-third of the guys in the program are now gone. The guys give him a pet talk and Cappy cheers up and says he knows he is going to make it.

Their group is the 99th. Hannibal goes up for his first flight where he is in full control of the plane. The Major is so impressed with him that when the plane is on the ground, he tells Hannibal to make his first completely solo flight.

The guys watch film on dog fights. The lieutenant is going to lead the class on air combat techniques. Walter asks the lieutenant why isnít Major Joy teaching the class. This hurts the lieutenantís feelings a bit, because Walter is assuming that Major Joy has the most experience. The lieutenant informs Walter and the rest of the cadets that of all the instructors here, he is the only one with actual combat experience in the air. He flew for the Canadians in the war.

Walter buzzes the airfield, which is an absolute no-no. It gives the major the chance to get Walter discharged. He pushes for that with the colonel. The lieutenant says he has flown with white pilots in actual combat that donít have Walterís skills. It seems like the colonel is leaning toward discharging Walter.

The lieutenant has to tell Walter that he is out. Walter appeals to the two white officers, but the answer is no. So Walter runs over to an airplane and takes off in it. He commits suicide by ramming his plane into the outside of a hangar.

Billy and Chappy are mad about the major riding Walter so hard that he finally did break down. Hannibal says Walter was his friend too, but heís not going to let anybody stand in his way of becoming a pilot. The lieutenant tells the fellows in the dispute that the death of a friend is part of the job they do. The only way to avoid losing a friend in this business, is to not have any in the first place.

Flying with the other cadets, Cappy has to put down on a country road. Hannibal follows him. The land right by some black convicts working the field. The white guard is shocked and none too pleased when he sees the fliers are two "niggers" as he says. But the blacks are proud of the men. One fellow says: "Theyís colored fliers."

Whatís left of the black cadets graduate and become lieutenants. The parents of some of the cadets are there. Hannibalís parents are very proud of him. His father salutes him.

US Senator Conyers, a southern conservative, works against having black pilots.

Six months later. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt arrives at the airfield. She asks if the colonel is satisfied with the "Negro" pilots. He says yes in a round-about way and Mrs. Roosevelt say she wants to go up flying with one of the black pilots. She says she will ask later why these pilots are not out fighting like the rest of the boys.

The First Lady of the United States goes for a ride with Hannibal Lee. They both get their photos in the paper. Lt. Glenn tells a couple of the new lieutenants that with Mrs. Roosevelt here they will soon be going into combat.

Morocco, North Africa. The Tuskegee airmen are at the base in Morocco. The meet Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis, another black man and commanding officer of the 99th Pursuit Squadron. He says he is proud of the men and welcomes them to the war.

The very first assignment is to take out a rail yard. They are going after German target divisions also. So they have to find and hit a supply depot. They find their targets and they hit them. The lieutenant colonel says, for their first assignment, they did damn good.

The next morning they go after a German airfield and a power station. Lt. Lee wonders when they will move out to France like the white pilots have done. He wouldnít mind seeing some aerial combat with the Germans.

Gen. Stevenson with Senator Conyers speak with Lee, Cappy and Roberts. Conyers says there have been many criticism leveled at the black pilots, such as inability to locate targets; failure to press home attacks or find secondary targets; and attitude problems. The guys didnít even know there was any criticism. And now they worry if Lt. Col. Davis will be transferred.

The guys are on another run when they see German planes. Cappy wants some kills and he goes off by himself against four German planes. This forces Lee and Roberts to follow him. Cappy gets hit by machine gun fire and then his canopy starts area burning. He goes down with his plane.

Sen. Conyers seems to have success in denigrating the program for the black pilots. One of the senators doesnít like this, so he goes outside the room to talk with Gen. Stevenson. He returns with the general and with Benjamin O. Davis. Davis says that most of his pilots have flown over 50 sorties and white pilots are usually sent home at 50 sorties. Davis says the whites gave the black pilots a stacked deck and then express dismay when the canít win. He gives a rousing speech in defense of the experiment.

The US 22nd Bomb Group over Northern Italy. A lot of the bombers are being lost to German fighters. The pilots are being get shot up. They desperately look fro their fighter escort. Some of the planes have to return early to the airfield. On one flight all the gunners have been killed. The captain complains about the escort not showing up, saying that they always have some excuse for failing to show.

Davis is now a full bird colonel. He tells his pilots that they are going to Italy. The men are pleased to hear that. In Italy, the 99th Squadron will be joined by three new squadrons from Tuskegee ( the 100th, 301st and 302nd fighter squadrons). Together they make up the 332nd Fighter Group. And in Italy they will be escorting the flying fortresses that are taking heavy losses.

Ramitelli Air Base, Italy. Lee, Roberts and the rest of the gang arrive at the base. The other squadrons are already their. Lee is ecstatic when he see they are getting brand new Mustang fighter planes Ė P-51B, 275 gallons with drop tanks, six 50 caliber machine guns on the wings and hauling two 1,000 pound bombs.

Davis tells the pilots that the 33rd and 324th units regularly tangle with the Germans. The guys are still not happy at being relegated to just escorting bombers, but Davis tells them that yesterdayís run into Germany cost 65 out of the 200 bombers (or about one in three). 600 men are killed or missing. He adds: "You want to make your mark. Hereís your chance."

The pilots reach the rendezvous point, but the bomber formation is not there. They do, however, hear over the radio that some straggler bombers. The bomber crew that lost itís four gunners is having problems with German fighter planes again. Lee and Roberts destroy two of the German fighters.

The pilot and co-pilot of the B-17 bomb group based at Foggia come to Ramitelli to find the pilots that saved them from the German fighter planes. Lt. Lee tells the two white fellows that they are looking at the pilots that saved them. The two white guys are flabbergasted. The captain, a southerner, refuses to believe that "niggers" piloted those planes and tells his co-pilot to return to their base.

Lee and Roberts go after a German destroyer. They hit it many times with their machine guns and then it explodes.

During an escorting mission, Roberts knocks two German fighters out of the sky, but then he gets hit by machine gun fire. His plane goes down. Lee has to fight the tears back. Back at base he still thinks about Lee and other black pilots dead and gone.

The southern redneck pilot learns that he is losing the 332nd as his escort. He now tells his superior that he wants the 332nd as his escort to Berlin and back. The pilot says: ". . . since theyíve been escorting bombers they havenít lost one to enemy action, sir."

Lee gets the distinguished flying cross for taking out the German destroyer. In addition, he gets promoted to captain. Their next assignment is Berlin and this time they werenít assigned, they were requested.

The 15th Air Force delivered a massive and successful raid on Berlin. The 332nd shot down three German jet fighters, the first jet planes of the war. Between May 1943 and June 1945, 450 Tuskegee Airmen were awarded more than 850 medals. Sixty-six Tuskegee Airmen died in battle. The 332nd Fighter Group never lost a single bomber to enemy action.

 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

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