The movie starts off by introducing Master Chief Leslie W. ("Billy") Sunday (Robert DeNiro), a US Navy Diver, who has recently gone AWOL. He is badly beaten and awaiting disciplinary actions. Sunday and several other Navy members watch TV coverage of an ongoing salvage operation, when Sunday recognizes a familiar face on the screen. One of the other sailors makes some crude racist jokes, Sunday attacks him and applies a choke hold.
We then flash back about 25 years, where a young African-American boy named Carl Braschear (Chris Warren Jr.) is watching his father Mac (Carl Lumbly) work the plow on their farm. Carl wants to quit school so that he will be able to help work and then prevent the farm from financial ruin. Mac is dead-set against his son being "like him" and stuck working on a farm, but he allows Carl to help.
Time passes quickly and a grown-up Carl (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is leaving town to join the Navy. Mac gives his son a custom-built portable radio as a memento of home, and tells Carl to be the best, even if it means breaking the rules.
Carl winds up working in the kitchens on the USS Hoist in the South Pacific. He and the other black officers joke about the so-called "bright future" the Navy promised them. Their superior points out that black men in the US Navy have only 3 career choices- cook, officer's valet or "get the f*ck out of the Navy."
Afterwards, Carl and his friends go up on deck where the white officers are swimming (the black crew members are assigned a specific day when they can swim). Carl, tired and hot, decides to jump in the water. The white officers try and chase him down, but Carl out-swims all of them.
Carl's actions get him thrown in the brig. The ships' captain meets with Carl and, impressed with the boy's speed, decides to transfer Carl to the search & rescue swimmers, a group assigned to rescue anyone who falls overboard on ship.
A few days later, Carl is writing a letter home to his parents when the ship is...