The Tuskegee Airmen (Blu-ray Review)

The Tuskegee Airmen, winner of three Emmy awards, comes to Blu-ray disc this January.  Debuting just days before the theatrical release of the George Lucas-produced film Red Tails, which was inspired by the story of the Airmen, the film is encased in a stunning 32-page hard-bound book featuring sweeping unit and historical photography.  Featuring an outstanding cast lead by two-time Emmy award winner Laurence Fishburne (Miss Evers’ Boys, Tribeca), Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire) and Emmy nominee Malcolm-Jamal Warner (The Cosby Show), The Tuskegee Airmen tells the story of the first squadron of African-American pilots allowed to fight for their country.  It is 1943 and the Germans are winning the Second World War as the U.S. suffers huge losses on the ground and in the air. Four newly recruited pilots are united by a desire to serve their country, at a time when African-American flyers are not welcomed in the Air Force. Now, through the brutal demands of their training, to the perils of flying over nations at war, the men they call “The Tuskegee Airmen” must undertake the riskiest mission of their lives – to prove to America that courage knows no color.


This story of the challenges and racism faced by the men who made up the Tuskegee Airmen is an early effort to tell their story.  The newest effort coming soon, will be Red Tails which is being produced by George Lucas and will have the effects done by ILM.  I was already excited about seeing Red Tails, but after watching The Tuskegee Airmen, my excitement has grown since I’ve learned more about their history.  The one thing that this movie is missing is unified aerial combat which isn’t dependent on stock footage, which I know Red Tails won’t suffer from.

The movie introduces us to a core group of men who have enlisted in the hopes that they will be allowed to fly.  The new recruits include Hannibal Lee (Laurence Fishburne), Walter Peoples III (Allen Payne), Billy “A-Train” Roberts (Cuba Gooding Jr.), and Leroy Cappy (Malcolm-Jamal Warner).  When they arrive for their training, they are met with a variety of superiors who each have different beliefs.  The commanding officer Colonel Rogers (David Hugh Kelly) wants to give the recruits a fair chance while his subordinate Major Joy (Christopher McDonald) is determined to make sure each of them fail since he believes they are wasting his time and the taxpayers’ money.  However, the air combat instructors Lt. Glenn (Courtney B. Vance) who is also black, tries to help the men the best he can without appearing to make excuses for them.

The normally rigorous training to become a pilot is even harder for the men who also have to suffer from Major Joy’s repeated attempts to set up situations where they could fail.  When Walter decides to showboat while flying, during which he knowingly breaks several rules, Joy is happy to have another reason to try to convince Col. Rogers that the Tuskegee experiment should be ended.  Rogers disagrees, but is forced to kick Walter out of the program because of the violations.  For Walter, who was already a licensed pilot before arriving, that decision is basically a death sentence which he carries out himself when he steals a plane and commits suicide by crashing it.  His death isn’t the only one to occur during training since we see another cadet accidentally kill himself and his instructor when he lost control of his plane.

The pressure for the men is enormous since they are trying to succeed for themselves, their families, and even their race since the nation is watching to see how this “experiment” will turn out.  Their fortunes are lifted when the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arrives for an inspection and requests to be taken for an airplane ride.  Rogers orders Joy to take her but she forces them to allow a black pilot to fly her instead.  With the publicity of the First Lady’s trust and the successful flight, it gives the men and the program a much needed boost.  The fight behind the scenes continues as opponents of the Tuskegee program including Senator Conyers (John Lithgow) do their best to end it.

Eventually, the remaining cadets graduate the program and are deployed to North Africa to join the 99th Pursuit Squadron.  Even out in the field, they discover the same racism and mistrust they faced in Tuskegee.  They are still segregated and there’s still attempts to make them look bad and they are relegated to ground attack missions.  During one of their missions, Cappy notices a group of German Messerschmitt Bf 109a and ignores orders not to attack them.  He manages to shoot one of the Germans down but is shot down himself which only gives Senator Conyers more ammunition that black aviators are too impulsive and shouldn’t be allowed to fly.

A congressional hearing is called and a questionable medical study is used to claim that “Negroes are incapable of handling complex machinery.”  The hearing is decided in the Tuskegee airmen’s favor thanks mostly to a speech given by their superior officer Lt. Colonel Benjamin Davis (Andre Braugher) and the end result is that the 99th Pursuit Squadron is merged with two new squadrons out of Tuskegee to create the all black 332nd Fighter Group.  The 332nd is assigned bomber escort duty which they initially complain about until their track record in successfully protecting the bombers is noticed and their reputation improves.  Soon they aren’t being ordered to escort bombers but instead they are specifically being requested to do so by the bomber crews themselves.  During this time, they even manage to sink a German Destroyers solely with gunfire from their planes which hadn’t been done before.  More and more losses happen before they join the big bombing run against Berlin, but we see that they’re finally appreciated and honored for their record and service even if it’s not universal.

The film does a pretty good job in showing the good and bad aspects of both races in the movie.  While many of the white characters are racist and ignorant, they are balanced out with characters like Colonel Rogers who believes that the men deserve a fair shot.  Not all of the black characters are without flaws either since Walter’s arrogance ends up costing him his dream and his life, as does Cappy’s decision to ignore orders.  The aerial footage filmed for this is excellent but the constraints of being a low budget film pop up every time there’s any combat since any combat footage is obviously taken from real footage which never meshes well with the rest of the movie.  That reliance on stock footage really distracts the viewer every time it switches back and forth since the quality veers drastically.  I’m not sure if the Red Tails cast will be as good as this one, but one thing I know for sure is that the aerial combat will be much better integrated and done a lot better than this movie’s.  It’s too bad since Fishburne and Braugher especially do a great job in this and it’s too bad that the rest of the film doesn’t come off as strongly as they do.


This 1080p (1.78:1) transfer looks far better than it should considering its age and the budget the film had to work with at the time.  Colors are striking and there’s some very nice detail present that’s good enough to allow you to read the cadet’s names off their uniforms.  Black levels are decent but not completely solid but textures are pretty good.  There’s some light grain present but it doesn’t detract from the picture quality as it just gives it a film-like look.


The Tuskegee Airmen’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is decent but nothing spectacular.  This revamped mix does offer some clear and concise dialogue but lacks the punch that modern audience crave.  I was hoping that this would be an immersive mix especially when it came to the aerial combat, but unfortunately that’s not the case.  There’s some minor rear channel use for planes but it was pretty disappointing.  This is primarily a front channel affair for better or worse and a new remastered mix would have added a lot to this Blu-ray.

Special Features  

The only extra found on this release is the digibook commemorative booklet that is part of the Blu-ray case.  It offers some photographs of the actual aviators and even has a picture of the First Lady at Tuskegee.  Unfortunately, there’s no trailers, no commentaries, or even any behind the scenes EPK fluff on this disc which is fairly surprising.

Final Thoughts

The Tuskegee Airmen is a well made film with a lot of good intentions and a good cast.  The film’s reliance on stock footage hurts it as does the overall low budget feel of the movie.  This Blu-ray offers a surprisingly good video quality but it could have benefited from a remastered audio mix and some special features.  Other than that, this is a movie that I would recommend due to the performances.  HBO was smart to release this movie days before Red Tails to drum up some publicity for themselves.  Check this out and then go see Red Tails!

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2 Responses to “The Tuskegee Airmen (Blu-ray Review)”

  1. Gregg

    Done deal. Buying.

  2. Sean Ferguson

    I think you will like it Gregg. I’m more excited about Red Tails though!