The Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen (1995)
HBO Home Video
Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Andre Braugher, Malcolm Jamal Warner
Extras: Cast and Crew Biographies

On July 19, 1941 the United States Army Air Force began training the first African-American fighter pilots in our nation’s history. Primary training took place at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and the pilots who graduated from that program came to be known as the Tuskegee airmen. By the end of World War II, close to 1,000 men had completed training and about half that number were sent overseas to fight as part of the 99th and 322nd Fighter Groups in North Africa and Italy. Forced to fight not only a determined enemy but also the rampant racism within their own ranks, the Tuskegee airmen compiled an envious combat record — not a single bomber escorted by these Red Tailed Devils (so called because of the unique tail markings on their planes) was ever lost to enemy aircraft.

’The Tuskegee Airmen’ is a made for television movie that chronicles the story of these remarkable fighter pilots. The film opens with a shameful scene in which Hannibal Lee, Jr. (Laurence Fishburne) and Billy Roberts (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) meet on a train bound for Alabama. Coming from Iowa and New York respectively, these two men who want to serve their country meet head-on with the reality of segregation as their train lurches across the Mason-Dixon line and they immediately become second-class citizens. This scene sets the uneasy tone for the rest of the movie in which exciting combat flying is juxtaposed with the racism and woeful behavior by those the Tuskegee Airmen are trying to serve and protect.

The video on this DVD is something of a mixed bag. As an HBO original that was made for television I was more than a little surprised when I popped in the disc and realized it was in anamorphic widescreen. The aspect ratio appears to be a true 16×9 (1.77:1) image so it’s obvious that someone was thinking ahead when the movie was being filmed. The picture is fairly sharp, although there is an ever present graininess. Black levels aren’t quite deep enough to handle the darkest scenes and colors are a bit washed out as well although the drab military palette certainly contributes to that problem. The biggest issue with this transfer is the severe damage to the source materials. For a film that’s barely six years old I was shocked at how constant and distracting the nicks and blemishes were.

Additionally, many of the effects shots are just plain bad. The rear projection system used to place actors sitting in a cockpit on the ground into real fighter squadron footage is about on par what you see in 1940s war movies. Many of the backdrops are also shoddy with plywood fighter planes being the norm. On the other hand, most of the aerial scenes do use real, live warbirds and are quite exciting.

Audio comes in an English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix as well as Spanish and French mono mixes. Overall, I was quite pleased with the soundtrack. Spatiality is very good with a wide front soundstage and active surround use. Dynamic range is also good with many of the combat and flight sequences offering a nice, deep thump. The sound is well balanced as well with no one aspect overpowering the rest.

The only bonus features on the disc are in-depth cast and crew bios and filmographies. Even a small amount of historical background material would have been most appreciated.

’The Tuskegee Airmen’ tells an important story and combines a rousing, old-fashioned war movie with a strong moral and social component. While I have a few issues with the DVD, especially the poor condition of the video, I can’t help but recommend the film.