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), traveling by train to Tuskegee, Alabama, is joined by fellow flight cadet candidates Billy “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 Rogers (Daniel Hugh Kelly), the commander of the base; Major Joy (Christopher McDonald), director of training; and second lieutenant Glenn (Courtney B. Vance), liaison officer. The cadets are briefed by Rogers & 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’s thoughts at the time, belittling the cadets and questioning whether or not they were up to the task. Afterward, Lt. Glenn told the cadets that he hoped they took note of the differing views of the two different officers. Later that evening, the cadets are chatting amongst themselves, and began to introduce themselves and what their college majors were (e.g. “Lewis Johns, English Literature”). It was during this time where Walter Peoples “guaranteed” that no one’s name would be called above his on graduation day.
While the cadets begin their classes, Major Joy began his ploy to discredit the cadets. During a classroom session, Joy had them to retake the same flight exam they had to take to get into the program to begin with. Later, he takes Peoples on a flight after it’s revealed that Peoples has a commercial pilot license. Joy takes the training aircraft, a PT-17, through very tricky & dangerous moves in order to try and break People’s will, but the tactic didn’t work-which seemed to frustrate Joy even more. Afterwards, Major Joy had to explain to Colonel Rogers on 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 informed Joy that no one scored less than a 95 on the retest, and scourned 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 would end tragically for cadet Johns (Pheifer), as he struggled to get his aircraft out of a stall. The instructor also tries to regain control but it was too late, as the plane crashed 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 & watching others leave the program. Cadets Lee & Peoples give Cappy a stern pep talk, telling him not to quit. The cadets continue on with their training, flying with their instructor pilots and controlling the planes on their own. Major Joy even let cadet Lee make several solo flights around the base. While watching a film on air combat, Lt. Glen steps in and begins to teach the cadets. Cadet Peoples questioned Lt. Glen on why he, not Major Joy, was teaching air combat class. At this point, Lt. Glen 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.
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) in order to impress Hannibal, but this results in him being removed from the training program. Peoples admitted to Colonel Rogers and Major Joy that he made a mistake & pleaded with them not to put him out of the program, but to no avail. To avoid going home in disgrace, 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 began 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 acarbine 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 was going to continue with his attempts to break them as well. Cadet Lee fired back, saying that Major Joy’s gameplan was to make them quit, and that he wasn’t falling for it. He emphatically said that he wasn’t going to let Major Joy, anyone else at the base, or “the God d***ed Commander-In-Chief himself” stop him from his dreams of flying.
Lt. Glen and cadets Lee, Roberts & Cappy are on a routine training mission when Cappy’s plane begins to experience trouble. Cappy & 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 & curiosity when the cadets exit the aircraft; their emotions turn to utter shock when Lee & 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.
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, 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.
A congressional hearing of the House Armed Services Committee is convened to determine whether the Tuskegee Airmen “experiment” should 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.) 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.