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The Tuskegee Airmen
History vs. Hollywood: The Tuskegee Airmen
The Tuskegee Airmen in Real Life:
In the 1930s, the U.S. military was racially segregated - reflecting the racial standing of the rest of the country at that time. A majority of military branches had segregated or separate African-American and White units, but the U.S. Army Air Corps simply did not have any colored pilots. The colored men were believed to be inept to serve as pilots in the U.S. Air Corps due to lower intelligence, worse coordination, and slower reflexes. Urged by President Roosevelt, who wanted to win African-American support while running for his second term, the U.S. Air Corps conducted an “experiment” to determine whether colored men were capable of serving as pilots.
The pilots involved in the “experiment” eventually became known as The Tuskegee Airmen. Ultimately, the Tuskegee Airmen became part of the elite the African-American 99th Fighter Squadron led by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. Overcoming prejudice and segregation, the Tuskegee Airmen made great contributions by fighting for the United States and became one of the most highly respected fighter pilot groups of World War II. Their achievements have proved that African-Americans are as capable as anyone to fly and fight for their country, and have paved the way for full integration of the U.S. military.
The Tuskegee Airmen in “Reel Life”
Made in 1995, The Tuskegee Airmen is an HBO movie based on the true story of the first African-American fighter pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Hannibal “Iowa” Lee, the main character, is the focal point of the film. The movie begins with Lee leaving his Iowa home to head to Tuskegee, Alabama to become a fighter pilot. The plot follows Lee and his fellow cadets through their grueling training, and experience of racism in the military along with the impossible obstacles they face as colored pilots. The Tuskegee Airmen focuses primarily on the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the 332nd Fighter Group and their deployment to North Africa and Europe during World War II. Lee proves to be an extremely determined man and skilled pilot. Eventually, he is promoted to Captain and earns the Distinguished Flying Cross for sinking a German destroyer. In the end, Lee and his unit are even requested by a white bomber pilot, who first did not believe colored men could fly fighters. The last scene shows Lee and his squad escorting a bomber mission to Berlin.
The film accurately portrays the turnaround of the racist myth that African-Americans could not pilot complex planes or serve as worthy airmen.
The Comparison of the “Reel” and Real Lives of the Tuskegee Airmen
Generally speaking, the story told in the movie is faithful to history regarding to its setting, time, characters and events. The film does not portray one side as “evil” or the other as “good”; but honestly presents the viewpoints, behaviors, language and regulations of the time period. Yet, for the film to be more historically accurate, there are a few things that could be changed. However, these minor discrepancies throughout the movie are not detrimental to its entertainment or historical value.
The setting of the movie reflects history accurately with its time being set during World War II and its settings being in Tuskegee, Alabama where the training of the pilots took place, and in Northern Africa, Italy and Germany where the pilots were deployed and where they served valiantly.
The events and incidents in the movie are mostly true to historical facts as well. For instance, the origin of the movie is accurate since it is based on the fact that the training of the Tuskegee Airmen was an “experiment” for the U.S. Air Corps to see if black men can fly as their white counterparts. Then, as the film progresses, the precision is maintained.
In reality, the first class of Tuskegee Airmen had to wait for over a year after graduation for deployment because no white commander would allow a black unit under his control. This is depicted in The Tuskegee Airmen by showing the pilots milling around their air base completing mundane, inconsequential tasks. The movie also shows Eleanor Roosevelt being taken on a plane ride by Hannibal Lee to convince the generals in Washington, D.C. to give the Tuskegee Airmen a combat role in the war. The portrayal can be traced back to history when the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took a ride with Charles “Chief” Anderson, the first black flight instructor at the Tuskegee Institute. Eleanor Roosevelt insisted a photo be printed for her to take to D.C. to show President Roosevelt; all the while, P.H. Polk documented the event. The photograph was crucial in convincing the President to allow the Tuskegee Airmen a combat role. A photograph taken as documentation is shown in The Tuskegee Airmen.
The 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group of colored pilots in the movie existed in real life and served in the European Theater during World War II. The real achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen -- the destruction of countless targets during ground missions, the superb escort provided for bombers, and the sinking of a German destroyer with machine gun fire, appear in “Reel Life” as well.
Though The Tuskegee Airmen is an incredibly accurate portrayal, there is one obvious incongruity in the movie to history. The movie is bursting with typical war movie clichés. The most prominently one is a catastrophic death rate of cadets and new recruits. In The Tuskegee Airmen, nearly every trainee of the 1941 class meets a horrific death. Several die during training and practice flights, one commits suicide, and several more are killed by enemy fire during combat duty. In the end, Hannibal Lee is the only survivor of his class. In actuality, the 332nd was known for the high number of kills among the enemy, with low casualties among itself, and no loss among their escorted bombers. This is one of the few aspects that the movie could eliminate due to the glaring inconsistency with the true low casualty rate.
The characters in the Tuskegee Airmen are a combination of a few real people from history with mostly fictional characters. The representations of the historical people are done quite well. Eleanor Roosevelt and Benjamin O. Davis are portrayed in the film, which adds to the movie's credibility greatly. Roosevelt is a vital character, as she played a huge role in the campaign for the right of the colored pilots to fly combat missions. Davis is important since he was the commander of the famed 332nd Squadron.
The other characters are created from nameless people merged with stereotypes of the time. The main characters of Hannibal Lee, Leroy Cappy, and Billy Roberts are fictional characters crafted out of the 99th Squadron. In the film, they are three of the five graduates to earn silver wings to become military pilots. Also, I believe Charles “Chief” Anderson, a pioneer of African-American aviation and instructor for these African-American men is depicted in the film. The character “Lieutenant Glenn” is based on Anderson since Glenn is the only man out of the hundred fifty on base to have had air combat experience, having been a member of the Royal Canadian Air force. Anderson was a very prestigious African-American pilot, as is Glenn.
A few characters are created purely for the script. There is the cliché drill sergeant (Major Joy) who is extremely harsh on new recruits. More characters include the white pilots who believe colored men cannot pilot and the group of racist senators who try to prove that Negros were too incompetent and unintelligent to be pilots. I believe the movie would be more realistic if The Tuskegee Airmen has used more real stories and names of people from the time period.
The uniforms, clothing of men and women, types of cars, passenger trains, music played and people's speech shown in the movie are fairly accurate of the time period in America. For example, people seemed to dress more formally- with women frequently wearing hats and dresses and men wearing suits and ties. The blatant racial verbal abuse by the white officers (calling the cadets “gorillas”, for instance) along with the gathering of senators (showing “medical research” that African-Americans were mentally incapable of managing a plane) in the film are true reflections of the discrimination in the US military and society at that time.
The technology shown in The Tuskegee Airmen is quite accurate as well. The true Tuskegee Airmen were first equipped with P-40 Warhawks, then with P-39 Airacobras, next with P-47 Thunderbolts, and finally with the P-51 Mustangs. The P-51 Mustangs are the planes that the Tuskegee Airmen were most commonly associated with, as they painted the tails red for their combat and escort flights. In the film, Lee and his pilots are identified by the red tails of their planes. This is accurate, as the actual Tuskegee Airmen were well known for the crimson tails on their P-51 Mustangs.
This movie is an exceptional work of historical accuracy and entertainment. The Tuskegee Airmen is about a highly significant historical situation in American history and in the history of the US military as well. As the movie presents the story in a factual manner with only negligible fictionalization, it is a great tool to learn about the history of the Tuskegee Airmen.