Rated PG-13. Our contents rating: Violence 3; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1. Star rating: 4.5
Released 1995 Running time: 106 minutes Director: Robert Markowitz
Characters/Cast: Hannibal Lee (Lawrence Fishburne); Billy “A-Train” Roberts (Cuba Gooding Jr.; Leroy Cappy (Malcolm-Jamal Warner; Walter Peoples (Allen Payne); Leroy Cappy (Malcolm-Jamal Warner); Lt. Glenn (Courtney Vance); Col. Rogers (Daniel Hugh Kelly); Major Joy (Christopher McDonald); Eleanor Roosevelt (Rosemary Murphy); Andre Braugher (Lt. Colonel Benjamin O. Davis); Sen. Conyers (John Lithgow); B-17 Capt. Butler (Ned Vaughn).
Themes: Racism; justice; overcoming obstacles; courage; patriotism
Scriptures: Psalm 69:1-4); Psalm 103:6-7; Proverbs 18:1-3 (RSV best here); Luke 4:4:16-21; John 4:9; Acts 17:26 (KJV preferable because of “one blood” translation)
Based on true events of the 332nd Fighter Group during World War 2, The Tuskegee Airmen chronicles the uphill battle fought by African American men to earn the right to defend their country in a more meaningful way than by digging ditches and waiting on tables in the armed forces. A good companion film to Glory, the film shows that little had changed in American society or in the armed forces since the Civil War. President Truman’s order to integrate the armed forces was still several years away, and indeed, it could be argued that the incredible combat record of the Tuskegee Airmen provided the support for Truman’s order.
The film makes a major point at the beginning, when the newly arrived candidates at the pilot school introduce themselves, that this is an extraordinary group of African Americans—all are college men, one of them even has a pilot’s license. If they had entertained any illusions of a warm welcome or easy acceptance into the training program, these are quickly dispelled by the racist Major Joy. They are in “his” territory, Tuskegee Alabama, where Jim Crow reigns supreme. Their failures and successes make us appreciate the cost endured by those who had to fight for freedom on the home front as much as on (or over) the battlefield. Both this and Boycott are good films that can be used with youth or adults, there being but a swear word or two that might have earned the films an R-rating were they shown in theaters.
332nd squadron. According to the movie, the 332nd was made up entirely of African-Americans. By the end of the war, 450 airmen had received 850 medals. T
What are the backgrounds of the various candidates, and why is this important to emphasize in regard to the prejudice they meet? What happens on the train when they cross the Mason Dixon Line? Compare Major Joy to the base commander. From what region of the country did most of the officers come from in those days? What does Joy’s statement reveal of his knowledge of the airmen: Major Joy, “You, people. Don’t you know how bad we treat you, people? Serving your country? This ain’t your country. You country is full of apes and gorillas, malaria, missionaries…”?
- How do the various men stand up to the intense pressure they are subjected to? Do you think you could do so—or have you done so? How do they often let off steam when they are together? How has humor always been a survival tactic for the oppressed? Think of the Brer Rabbit stories and the jokes from the old Iron Curtain countries.
- How does Eleanor Roosevelt make a difference? It is worthwhile to check out her role in championing the rights of the oppressed during her husband’s administration. For example, what did she do when the D.A.R. barred singer Marian Anderson from giving a concert at the D.A.R.’s hall in Washington, D.C.?
- At what points are expectations reversed? (The men’s expectation of their combat instructor; the chain gang members and their guards when the airmen make an emergency landing; when they meet their new commander in North Africa…) Compare the racist major’s demand that the airmen retake their examination with that of the school board requiring the Hispanic students to retake their math tests in Stand and Deliver.
- What do you think of Sen. Conyers’ “scientific study of Negro inferiority”? How was this typical of the budding science of genetics, both in this country and in Germany at that time? How is the Senator typical of a large block of Congressmen, even during the Sixties? Did he ever seem interested in the truth? How were the facts twisted around and used against the airmen?
- What did you think of the Senate Hearing? Again, how do we that not all whites were prejudiced? How does the African American officer win the Committee over?
- Why do you think the white bomber captain refuses to believe his co-pilot from California that “colored” airmen came to their rescue? Have you heard similar claims by whites, “I’m from Texas, and I know the colored!”? What does he really know about “the colored,” even though he has lived closer to them physically than northern whites? A good poem to look up and share is Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask.” I experienced this in 1964 when I was a civil rights worker in Mississippi and picked by an old African American hitchhiker. At least 40 years older than me, he used “Sir” whenever responding vaguely to my questions. However, when he learned that I was with the Movement, he dropped the “Sirs” and began to talk frankly. There was an angry edge in his voice when he told me, “These white folks here—they think they know us! They don’t at all!”
- How do the Tuskegee airmen earn the respect at last of the white bomber pilots? How did they always carry an extra burden on their shoulders throughout their careers?
- What does Hannibal Lee reply to “Why would you want to fight for a country that rewards you by lynching?” What symbolism do you see in the lighting as Lee, at the end of the film, walks through the door? How were he and other African American servicemen ready for the changes in American society that followed the events of the Montgomery Bus Boycott?
- For a Bible study, divide into groups of 2 to 4, and pass out slips of paper with one of the suggested Scripture references printed on them. Ask them to discuss how the passage relates to the film. Allow for 10 to 15 minutes of reading and discussing, and then call everyone together to share their observations.
For groups interested in discussing the morality of war, the following might provide food for thought:
In a briefing the commanding officer speaks of the “unacceptably high” casualties suffered by the bombing squadrons—in one raid 1 in 3 of the bombers were shot down, 600 men in all. This is a side issue, but do such films ever deal with the civilian casualties of such bombing raids? Especially when, as at Dresden and later at Tokyo and other Japanese cities, firebombing became a tactic that resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths? How is a Christian to reconcile the reality of war within the definition of what constitutes a “just war”? (I.e., one in which civilian lives are spared when possible.)