By John Barron
The Tuskegee Airmen, aired on August 26, 1995, was directed by Robert Markowitz and stars Laurence Fishburne, Allen Payne and Malcolm-Jamal Warner. This made for T.V. movie garnered three Emmy Awards, an Image Award, and a Peabody Award along with 16 various nominations, including a Golden Globe. Robert Markowitz has produced many other award-winning movies and some that hold with the same themes as The Tuskegee Airmen including All Deliberate Speed, a film detailing the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education and the following struggle to desegregate schools in the South.
The Tuskegee Airmen follows the story of the first African-American fighter pilots, their journey through training, and their life in the military. The movie begins with Hannibal Lee, played by Laurence Fishburne, playing with his toy airplane as a child and then shows the normal path that any army recruit would have to go through once recruited: saying good-bye to family and friends, last hugs at the Chicago train station, and taking the train to the base. This is where the journey of the black and white recruit begins to differ. On the journey down, Hannibal and his fellow black recruits must switch train cars to make room for German P.O.W.s as the train travels into the segregated South. The discrimination does not end when they enter the base but is witnessed further when the standards are set higher for the black recruits. As they fight overseas, white squads are refreshed with new recruits while the black squadrons are left to tire out. White bomber squadrons avoided partnerships with the black fighter escort until the squadrons witnessed the skill of the group. Back in America, a political battle was being waged over the legitimacy and success of the experiment. Fictitious Senator Conyers doubts the intelligence of blacks citing the lack of success the group had seen in combat. Left to defend the group, Colonel Benjamin Davis successfully argued for the group’s legitimacy at a congressional hearing, and the experiment continued. The discrimination and the goal to earn victory at home and abroad, alongside the group’s incredible combat record, defined the group’s place in the war, in the American military, and gave it a place in America’s fight for Civil Rights.
Historical and Cultural Context
In 1941, an isolationist America was thrust into World War II under the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Also in this year, the United States Army decided to do an “experiment” by letting the first African-American pilots train to become Army Air Corps pilots. 996 pilots and more than 15,000 ground personnel served in the group called the Tuskegee Airmen, named after the main training center in Alabama (History.com). The group faced severe discrimination at home and abroad and an uphill political battle to earn legitimacy. This included one group being moved to a base that could barely house them. While staying on the base, the cadets were prevented from entering an officer’s club, club where whites of equivalent position were permitted, highlighting the discrimination that African-Americans faced in the military and amplifying the Jim Crow era discrimination blacks were subject to. In 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which says, “…there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin” (“Who were they?”). Truman’s Executive Order can be considered the first event of the modern Civil Rights movement as it changed the long-standing policy of segregation in the military.
America did not always implement this segregationist policy. The first militias that were formed to protect towns from Native American raids were integrated. It was not until the Revolutionary War that the races were kept apart in combat. George Washington did not allow for blacks to fight in the Continental Army until his white recruits began to run low. Washington proceeded to tell commanders to fill their ranks by any means necessary. The commanders interpreted this to mean that blacks were permitted to serve and began enlisting blacks into their ranks (Lanning). In the Civil War, the Union saw enrollment by 179,000 blacks in the army and 19,000 in the navy, all with hopes of helping to end slavery. This enrollment was not without discrimination. The troops were kept segregated and received barely over half the pay a white soldier would receive until an equal pay bill was passed by Congress in 1864 (“Black Soldiers…Civil War”). World War I would see the enlistment of 370,000 African-Americans with many enrolling to make Woodrow Wilson’s idea of making the world “safe for democracy” a realized idea at home and abroad (Williams).
Themes and Style
In 1993, HBO became involved with the project for The Tuskegee Airmen. Bob Cooper, the HBO president of the time, was inspired to make the film because he wanted HBO to make a movie about something “different” and “unique”. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen proved to be just that. It broke the stereotype of “African-Americans being outsiders and outcasts” and shows men who used courage to break through the status quo. The Tuskegee Airmen became a story following the paths of the men who went out and broke the barriers society wanted African-Americans to remain within (Harrison). This theme of breaking barriers revolves around three different kinds of barriers: the blatant racism, the subtle racism, and the systematic racism that was seen in society then and is seen in society today.
The blatant racism of the 1940s was often not regarded as racist in those days. Coming down to Tuskegee, the airmen were forced to change cars on their train as they entered the South, making room for white German prisoners of war. Hannibal, who calls Iowa home, was shocked when requested to move but is informed of this standard by his southern acquaintances. Arriving at the base, one of the commanding officers forces the men to retake the admission test because he did not believe that any black could be so intelligent to pass it. In Congress, Senator Conyers waged a war with words to have the experiment ended because he did not believe they were intellectually qualified to fly let alone complete any combat missions. Each of these scenes is not uniquely shot, nor is the acting style much different than the characters in the rest of the movie compared with scenes of racism in contemporary film where there is disbelief on the faces of the actors. Everything is expected, as if this was the expectations for blacks in those days, mainly because it was. This expected racism was easier to be found and criticized by higher figures and figures who had more morality. Senator Conyers is shown the abilities of the airmen when Eleanor Roosevelt is taken for a flight by Hannibal to invalidate the
Senator’s ideals. Many politicians today are quick to denounce anything that shows blatant racism, as they should. After the Charlottesville riots, white supremacist groups saw criticism from both parties for their blatant acts of hatred and discrimination. Confederate statues were quickly removed in many cities. Blatant racism is much easier to locate and denounce. The other forms are much more difficult.
After breaking the code of conduct and “buzzing” the airfield by flying too close to the airstrip, one of the airmen is immediately punished for his violation. Such a punishment would generally warrant a suspension. For the black cadet, the consequence was expulsion from the program. This is a subtler racism. Nobody knows about it, nobody can denounce it. It exists in the mind of the racist and comes out when the opportunity is present. This is what happens when a manager reads over an application and sees the name “Tyrone” and discredits the accomplishments and experience the applicant has. While the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has helped taper such incidents of racism, not all of these crimes can be discovered, especially when hidden under the disguise of another excuse.
Systematic racism is by far the most contentious form of discrimination in a modern context. It can be debated whether the system was already blatantly or subtly racist in those days, but it has become more vague moving into modern times. The Tuskegee Airmen shows systematic racism when Col. Davis, a West Point graduate that commands the Tuskegee squadron, explains the bureaucratic inefficiencies arising exclusively with their group. Paperwork to replace a cadet always show some form of inefficiency. The movie shows that the distinguished Colonel still needs another white senator and a white general to support him just to be heard by the committee. These are white men who recognized the privilege they held and used it to prevent others from letting racist inhibitions discontinue the Tuskegee Airmen. Moving into the modern era, this racism takes form with the War on Drugs. In the year 1995, the same year The Tuskegee Airmen was first shown on television, the rate of black men that were under the watch of the criminal justice system, either in jail, on parole, or on probation, was one in three.
This new way to segregate society has yet to come to an end and has led to the suppression of black communities by creating broken families and communities. This “war” led to African-American prisoner population in state prisons by 27%, compared to an increase of 14% for whites despite higher rates of illicit drug use (Roberts). Where are the speakers who know they have a bigger voice, who society views as worthy of listening to because of their skin color? Only recently have speakers emerged to denounce the system that has held blacks back. Racism was still a relevant conversation in the 1990s despite the passage of Civil Rights legislation thirty years earlier and continue into our society today.
The response to The Tuskegee Airmen has been mostly positive. Regarding the storyline and the cinematography, TV Guide, The Los Angeles Times, and Variety all give positive commentary, with TV Guide saying it is a “superbly crafted production”, The Los Angeles Times calling it “stirring” and giving credit to the well shot combat sequences, and Variety recognizing the stellar editing, score, and camerawork, even though the air combat script was “familiar”. Paris records the many different reactions to the event in his book including one of the Tuskegee Airmen himself regarding the film as “Typical Hollywood.” This was in part due to the budget constraints of the film. Budgeting brought the film team to be granted free use of government property but led to the Department of Defense requesting that certain elements of racism be toned down. Another crucial inaccuracy the airman recalled is that no Tuskegee Airman claimed discrimination from white instructors during training. Many more news-sources continue the theme of the film being filled with clichés and rather lack-luster, but often go on to say that it still gives inspiration. As one reviewer put it, “you’ll find yourself cheering at the end.”
In a rather critical perspective, Stanley Sandler of the United States Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg gives an account of the film that tears apart its historical inaccuracies. Stanley points out that films that retelling the past are always “playing” with the past. He points out small inaccuracies, such as referring to the Army Air Corps after it became the U.S. Army Air Forces and using characters that never existed. One instance of a character that never existed is the raving racist that welcomes the Tuskegee Airmen to the base. In real life, every officer at the base was required to hide their feelings and the airmen were to receive equal treatment to their white counterparts. Something Stanley credits Markowitz with is making the characters’ purpose to become pilots, rather than proving that blacks could fly planes. In a discussion about the desegregation of the American armed forces, Higginbotham argues that the desegregation efforts would have been strongly hindered if not for the Tuskegee Airmen. This does bring Stanley’s view into question and show disparities in the airmen’s purpose.
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Keywords: The Tuskegee Airmen, Racism in Film, Robert Markowitz, Military Segregation, Civil Rights Movement, Laurence Fishburne