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Case Number 01099

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The Tuskegee Airmen

HBO // 1995 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // May 9th, 2001

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All Rise...

You know, it's sad that any group would have to fight their own country for the opportunity to die for it. Judge Norman Short takes a look at this historical film about a group of African-American pilots during World War II.

Editor's Note

Our review of The Tuskegee Airmen (Blu-ray) Digibook, published January 23rd, 2012, is also available.

The Charge

They were our country's best defense…and its greatest glory.

Opening Statement

Based on the true story of the 332nd Fighter Group in WWII, The Tuskegee Airmen is an inspirational and powerfully told story of some of the men among the first black aviators in the US military. Well acted and written, its only drawbacks come from its low-budget origins and straight to HBO release. The film is now available on DVD, with a fine anamorphic transfer but only a bare bones presentation. The film is strong enough to stand on its own, however, and is well worth a look.

Facts of the Case

The first black cadets arrive at the Air Base in Tuskegee, Alabama to mixed reactions about allowing "coloreds" to become Army Air Corps pilots. Among them are Hannibal Lee (Lawrence Fishburne, The Matrix), Billy "A-Train" Roberts (Cuba Gooding Jr., Jerry Maguire), and Leroy Cappy (Malcolm-Jamal Warner, The Cosby Show), all college graduates who tested high on the entrance exams. The commanding officer is sympathetic to the idea of black aviators, but is contrasted sharply with the flight instructor Major Joy (Christopher McDonald, Requiem For a Dream), who does everything possible to make the cadets wash out of training.

The second act takes us to North Africa, long after the cadets have earned their wings. It took months for the powers-that-be to allow them into combat, with a certain Southern senator (John Lithgow, Cliffhanger) always trying to prove that blacks are unfit for flight duty. Finally they are given a chance, but are relegated to ground target duty. Only their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis (Andre Braugher, Frequency) manages to save the squadron from being dismantled.

Finally the 332nd is given its chance to prove itself in the European Theater, and acquits itself so well that it never lost a bomber under its protection. These men and their bravery and skill earned them respect and helped open opportunities for blacks in military service.

The Evidence

The Tuskegee Airmen does for the black aviators of WWII what Glory did for the black soldiers of the Civil War—reminding us of the bravery and sacrifice blacks showed under fire even while the country was heavily racist. Such stories deserve to be told; our memories should not be so short as to overlook the great contributions these men made to our nation. While I'm certain dramatic license was taken with the personal stories, the facts are accurate as portrayed in the film. The story is authentic throughout, and can be both painful and inspirational as we see how these men fared serving a country that didn't really want or deserve them.

The performances are powerful; Lawrence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Jr., Andre Braugher, and Alan Payne (The Perfect Storm) each brought great depth and strength to their roles. The supporting cast is also excellent; I didn't find a false note anywhere. This is a superbly acted film that belies its straight to cable origins.

The film uses a combination of filmed footage of the vintage airplanes in flight and gun camera footage from the war. The filmed sequences in the air looked terrific, the maneuvers looked realistic, and the effects of the targets being shot looked realistic enough. The film is ably shot and directed as well; television director Robert Markowitz outdid himself bringing a feature film look to a made-for-television piece, and on a low budget.

Though the film was produced for HBO, and has had many repeat viewings, the picture quality is excellent. The transfer is done in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, which exactly fills a 16x9 display, and is anamorphically enhanced. Other than a few blemishes the picture is nearly always sharp and has a high level of detail; colors are a bit subdued but bright when called for and well saturated, and there are virtually no artifacts to be found. The audio is a serviceable Dolby Surround, with a well-integrated front soundstage with good imaging and directionality, and very clear dialogue and musical cues. The low end is carried well; especially the noise from the airplane engines in flight.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

The one exception to the sharp and detailed image is when the film uses old gun camera footage from WWII to substitute for action in the air. The picture becomes extremely grainy and soft, as you would expect from such footage, and can be forgiven as it appears like it is coming from the pilot's camera on the scene. I'm certain the budgetary restraints forced the use of such footage instead of shooting all the flight scenes themselves.

The biggest disappointment of the DVD presentation is the lack of any significant extra content; only cast and director biographies and filmographies are offered. I'd have liked a feature or other historical extra content about the real 332nd Fighter Group.

Closing Statement

The Tuskegee Airmen is a film well worth watching, both from a dramatic and a historical viewpoint. The anamorphic widescreen transfer allows for a better view of the film than you might have gotten from cable, and therefore is worth seeing in the DVD format. The lack of extra content is a shame, but the film stands on its own. Give it a rental if not a purchase.

The Verdict

There is a long-standing indictment against white America for the discrimination and racism we have practiced throughout our history, and that indictment still stands. Hopefully the day will come when charges can be dropped entirely. The film is offered as evidence that the reasoning and rationalization for racism are flawed and wrong, both ethically and legally. HBO is commended for bringing this story to modern audiences, but admonished that DVD viewers expect some value added content in addition to the film.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 90
Audio: 85
Extras: 45
Acting: 95
Story: 94
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: HBO
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
• Drama
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Cast and Crew Info


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