Robert W. Williams, WWII pilot in the legendary U.S. Army Air Force Fighting 99th, first African-American combat squadron out of Tuskegee Air Force base, and scripter T.S. Cook have combined fact and fiction to create a sentimental, even traditional, service teleplay in which Laurence Fishburne quietly, commandingly limns an Air Force cadet. With characters based on a combo of real-life people, worthy telefilm brought in for a budgeted $ 8.5 million salutes the courage and determination of young black men demanding to fly during World War II.
Under Robert Markowitz’s tight, sure-fire direction, the vidpic kicks off with recruit Hannibal Lee (Fish-burne) leaving home to meet fellow would-be cadets Walter Peoples (Allen Payne) and Billy Roberts (Cuba Gooding Jr.) on a train headed for Tuskegee Army Air Field, Ala., where they’ll train in the first all-black flying unit.
In 1995, the idea of a segregated flying group may seem outlandish, but in 1942 it was a fact, with the trainees flying single-engine planes. In one persuasive scene, enlistees, asked why they want to fight for a country that so sets them apart, respond with a few answers loaded with dramatic punch.
Lee and his buddies go through their training. One cadet crashes, and Peoples, buzzing the airfield, is tossed out with further, more serious consequences to come. The white instructor isn’t enthusiastic, the black officers are sympathetic but limited; a third of the class washes out.
The men, now officers, want to fly against the Germans, but some higher-ups, including a senator (John Lithgow), don’t want a Negro outfit going overseas because they refuse to believe that blacks have the brains or the courage to fly combat missions.
When Eleanor Roosevelt (Rosemary Murphy) visits, she asks to go up in a plane piloted by Lee (in real life it was Williams himself). Thanks to her intervention in Washington, the squad goes off to war in North Africa.
But missions are restricted to strafing enemy installations, and then a War Dept. committee tries to scrap the experimental venture. But Lt. Col. B.O. Davis (Andre Braugher), an African-American who graduated at the top of his West Point class, heads for Washington on behalf of the Tuskegee pilots; they might not fly immediately into battle as they want, but they get pretty much involved. Eventually the 99th, in real life flying P-40s, joined up with three other fighter squadrons to form the 332nd Fighter Group.
The telefilm looks impressive thanks to Ronald Orieux’s rich and imaginative camerawork, Christiaan Wagener’s inventive design. Director Markowitz gives the vidpic sensitivity and depth, with second unit aerial director Kevin LaRosa handing over superb footage filmed by David L. Butler and Frank Holgate.
The script’s familiar, since air combat isn’t a new genre by a long shot, but the additional mission of the men proving themselves gives telepic its extra dimension.
Payne’s Peoples is dignified. Malcolm-Jamal Warner is terrif as the popular Cappy. Braugher’s version of the real-life squadron commander Davis has authority, and Gooding does a good job as Roberts, Lee’s flight buddy. Red-headed Ned Vaughn as a bigoted B-17 captain is believable, and Murphy’s Mrs. Roosevelt suggests the woman’s spirit.
Williams, trying for decades to get the Flying 99th’s story told in film, met exec producer Frank Price 10 years ago and found someone sympathetic. Their persistence has paid off.
David Beatty’s editing establishes a solid pace. Lee Holdridge supplies a supportive score.