The P-51 Mustang, spewing smoke, swoops down in an emergency landing on a strip of highway in rural Alabama, circa 1943. As the pilot climbs out to inspect the damage, an all-black chain gang nearby looks up in amazement, then misty-eyed pride. Under the goggles and oxygen mask, Hannibal Lee (Laurence Fishburne) turns out to be black, too. It is a stirring movie moment in HBO's "The Tuskegee Airmen," the true story of the U.S. Army Air Forces' "Fighting 99th"--the first squadron of African-American fighter pilots.
This segregated group was established at tiny Tuskegee Institute to challenge the common belief that blacks lacked the intelligence to fly planes in combat. The 992 men who flew in the Fighting 99th went through grueling training, battled bigoted officers, then finally silenced their critics in World War II's European theater. With devastating precision, the black pilots shot doom more than 400 German aircraft without losing a single plane to enemy fire in more than 200 bomber escort missions.
But "The Tuskegee Airmen," which debuts on Aug. 26, is more than just an overdue history lesson or a showcase for aerial hardware. Under director Robert Markowitz's hand, Fishburne and a hunky supporting cast that includes Cuba Gooding Jr. ("Boyz N the Hood"), Courtney Vance ("Panther") and Andre Braugher (of TV's "Homicide") evoke a romantic heroism rarely seen in TV movies--or theatrical ones--about the black experience. Perhaps "The Tuskegee Airmen" will clear a path for other unsung heroes of black history. How about the Buffalo Soldiers?