SOLDIERS OF FREEDOM
The Black GI in Film
The truism "war is hell" did not begin with Vietnam. It was the first war in which the gruesome details came streaming into American living rooms, but it was not the first to be a nightmarish affair. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army's most mortal threats came not from British troops but from starvation, disease and exposure to the unforgiving elements. Throughout American history, warfare has proved a painful and ugly business. War is not something to glorify, but rather to disdain.
Yet, military life has always played a central role in Americans' understanding of themselves. We trace a belief in our national resilience to the epic travails of George Washington's troops at Valley Forge. We imagine the stoic masculinity of the frontier Army to be among our defining cultural heritages. And our troops' brave sacrifices to export freedom and democracy are a recurring theme in America's self-told 20th century history. Whether these traits reflect the realities of either military life or American culture, they are the fabric of our national identity.
African Americans have long been blotted out of the histories from which this identity is drawn. It's an omission that has been both built and reinforced by art and popular culture. Despite the remarkable integration of the Continental Army, the absence of African Americans in art depicting the Revolutionary era is nearly absolute. Only those individuals who served alongside celebrated leaders such as Washington and French General Lafayette are visible, and then only as meek servants. The reality of their contribution is far different. Black soldiers have been at the center of every military saga since Crispus Attucks drew the unfortunate distinction of being the American Revolution's first casualty.
The films featured in this exhibit represent a century's worth of efforts to reintroduce the black soldier in the popular mind. None stands out more in that vein than 1989's Academy Award-winning Glory, the story of the Civil War's all-black Massachusetts 54th Regiment. The regiment was formed after President Lincoln finally responded to abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass' relentless lobbying for the North to marshal black fighters; it would be the first black unit recruited from among Northerners and the first composed almost entirely of freemen. The 54th's tragically heroic charge on Fort Wagner - marching over a thousand yards under fire from five Southern installations and suffering massive loss of life, but still successfully planting the American flag inside Wagner's gates - produced the Civil War's first black Medal of Honor winner.
The black soldiers who have participated in this country's wars, however, have done so not merely in defense of the nation. America's longevity, frankly, has often been but a tangential result of service. From the Revolution through the Civil War, blacks fought primarily in an effort to secure their collective freedom. Each conflict brought a renewed debate within the community about whether and how African Americans should participate, a discussion that always turned on what strategy and which combatant was most likely to hasten emancipation. Following the Civil War and throughout most of the 20th century, blacks by and large fought in a two-pronged effort to earn their birthright of full American citizenship and assert their humanity in the face of charges that they couldn't be trusted on the battlefield. And in more recent years, many African Americans have chosen careers in the Armed Forces largely because they provide greater opportunities than the civilian workforce. This is not to say that the African-American service-member's patriotism is less profound than his or her white colleague's, but rather that it is more complex. Black soldiers throughout history have faced a paradoxical struggle: the simultaneous fight on behalf of and in opposition to America.
This odd balance has been made even more precarious by the fact that the military has always stood at the frontline of our nation's race war. From abolition to the Civil Rights Movement, black political leaders believed the necessities of battle made this particular American institution's unjust racial policies vulnerable to attack, and thus targeted considerable resources at changing them. They hoped progress in military race relations would spark similar reassessments in society at large. During World War I, W.E.B. DuBois spearheaded a relentless campaign for more and better assignments for black troops and led recruiting efforts to enlist them. During the build up to World War II, A. Philip Randolph considered integrating the ranks so important of a goal that he risked all of his hard-fought political capitol in a dangerous standoff with the White House over ending military segregation.
In the short term, few of those leaders' gambles paid off, as liberalized military policies made no immediate impact on the nation's racial caste system as a whole. But they nonetheless forced the services to confront some of America's most volatile racial fault lines long before the rest of the nation. Ironically, as today's military again wades through America's social quagmires-from the debate over whether gay men and women should serve openly to questions about a glass ceiling for women and minorities-those who wish to block progress offer the same argument as did those who stood against moderating racial policies as far back as the Civil War: The military cannot outpace the society it protects. To the contrary, the Armed Forces' legacy is that of a pioneer in American social change. We anxiously wait for the day when this aspect of military life will also weave its way into America's national identity.
TriStar Pictures, 1989 (set in 1864)
President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 cleared the way for many African Americans to join the military. Motivated by a call to arms by abolitionist Fredrick Douglass, over 1,000 recruits, including his own sons Charles and Lewis, joined the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment, the first black regiment to march off into battle.
One day, while Kevin Jarre walked on Boston Common, he realized some of the soldiers on a Civil War monument were black. Although many refer to the Civil War as the war to "free the slaves," it never occurred to Jarre that blacks actually fought in the war. The inspiration for Glory came to him as he stood studying the monument.
Until then, Hollywood had long ignored the role of black soldiers in the Civil War and their fight to maintain their own freedom. Films such as Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939) never addressed the black fighting man and merely depicted them as dependent on white soldiers to keep them free.
Glory is a fictionalized Civil War epic starring an ensemble cast including Denzel Washington (who won an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role), Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, and Raymond St Jacques. The screenplay tooks its stories from the books Lay This Laurel by Lincoln Kirstein, One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard and the letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw written to his mother. The film chronicles the enlistee's struggle to prove themselves worthy soldiers and Americans. It follows them from the training grounds, where they were denied uniforms, rifles, respect and equal pay, to the battlefields of South Carolina where they became a coordinated fighting unit. The action culminates in the summer of 1863 with one of the bloodiest conflicts of the war, an uphill attack against the Confederate Fort Wagner in Charleston.
In 1900, Sergeant William H. Carney of the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment, became the first African American awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in the 1863 Battle of Fort Wagner.
FanFare Films, 1972 (set in 1866)
In 1866, after the end of the Civil War, the U.S. Congress reshaped the Army. Among the reorganization, they disbanded the U.S. Colored Troops and formed four all-black regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalries and the 24th and 25th Infantries. The Army dispatched the units to western territories to keep the peace between white settlers and American Indian tribes. Most of them former slaves, the troops, nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers, developed a reputation for their superb discipline and excellence in battle. Until the United States firmly occupied the entire American Indian territories by 1890, the four black regiments helped settlers inhabit the West. For their contribution to and accomplishments in the Indian Wars, seventeen officers received the U.S. Medal of Honor.
Released during the black-action movie boom of the early 1970s, Soul Soldier (AKA The Red, White and Black) attempted to present black audiences with an historic hero as an alternate to the controversial characters the era's "blaxploitation" genre popularized with such films as Shaft and Super Fly. In Soul Soldier, Robert DoQui, Lincoln Kilpatrick and Olympic gold medallist Rafer Johnson star as members of the U.S. 10th Cavalry.
ASSAULT AT WEST POINT
Republic Pictures,1994 (set in 1880)
In 1876, Johnson Whittaker entered the United States Military Academy. Several African Americans had entered West Point previously, the first in 1870, but there was not a black graduate. Shortly before Whittaker's graduation in 1880, after four years of suffering, humiliation and degradation, three masked cadets assaulted him in his barracks tying him to his bed and leaving him battered, bleeding and unconscious. His superiors charged that he had fabricated the attack, mutilated himself and faked unconsciousness to gain attention. After a court-martial, the Army expelled him.
Assault at West Point is a true story that recounts the beginnings of racial integration and addresses the roots of racism in America's most prestigious military academy. Utilizing courtroom testimony transcripts, the film centers on Whittaker's two defense lawyers, a black Harvard educated attorney (Samuel L. Jackson) who first encouraged Whittaker to enroll in West Point and a white racist attorney (Sam Waterson) who is more interested in upholding the academy's honor.
Whittaker, who was born a slave in Camden, S.C., returned to his roots in the South and received a law degree. He later became a teacher at the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College - now South Carolina State University. In keeping with the Whittaker family tradition, two of his sons served as Army officers during World War I and a grandson flew with the famed Tuskegee Airmen during the Second World War.
In 1995, one hundred and fifteen years after Whittaker's dismissal, President Clinton acknowledged the great injustice and posthumously granted him second lieutenant status at a White House ceremony in his honor.
Warner Bros., 1960 (set in 1880)
The celebrated director John Ford is known for his collaborations with actors such as John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart, his use of the stunning landscapes of Monument Valley in Utah/Arizona, and his Westerns which portray American Indians as villains.
Sergeant Rutledge tells the story of the overlooked but heroic exploits of the all-black 9th and 10th United States Cavalry troops who policed the West after the Civil War, protecting settlers and patrolling the U.S.-Mexican border. Woody Strode stars as Sgt. Braxton Rutledge of the 9th United States Cavalry, a soldier unjustly accused of rape and double murder and assumed guilty because he is black. Told largely in flashbacks, the film is a mix of a traditional western and a military courtroom drama.
Coinciding with the rise of the civil rights movement, Strode took full advantage of Ford's efforts to treat minority cast members with more respect than in his past westerns and to present the black man as dignified and noble. Although some of the 1960's audiences may not have been receptive to the antiracist theme, Ford tried to change popular attitudes about prejudice by presenting a man who is neither black nor white, but a soldier.
Strode, a former pro football player for the Los Angeles Rams, successfully broke the NFL's "color line" in 1946 and made an extremely successful transition from sports hero to credible actor in the 1950s. He appeared in over seventy films including Pork Chop Hill (1959), Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960), John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Professionals (1966) and Posse (1993).
OUR COLORED FIGHTERS
Downing Films Co., 1918 (set in 1918)
On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that "the world must be made safe for democracy," and with great reluctance, declared war against the Imperial German Government. African Americans held differing opinions regarding the European conflict, however, and some quickly "closed ranks" to help defend liberty and democracy in Europe. Black leaders, after obtaining promises by government officials for improved racial conditions after the war, rallied young African Americans to enlist.
One of the most influential black spokesmen in favor of participation in the war was W.E.B. DuBois, editor of the African-American newspaper The Crisis.
DuBois editorialized: "We of the colored race have no ordinary interest in the outcome, that which the German power represents today shall spell death to the aspirations of Negroes and all darker races for equality, freedom, and democracy. Let us not hesitate. Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and go shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy."
Moved by such patriotic discourse, many African Americans eagerly joined the war effort. An even greater influence in their decision was the feeling that black patriotism and loyalty was on trial, thereby viewing the conflict as an opportunity to prove their worthiness and discard their second-class citizenship at home.
The War Department decided to send the 369th Regiment (formerly the 15th N.Y. Infantry) of the U.S. Army, to France. They were the first contingent of African-American combat troops to go to war, and nicknamed the "Harlem Hellfighters" by the Germans who were afraid of their deadly tactics.
In 1918, in order to encourage recruitment, the U.S. government commissioned Our Colored Fighters, a 24-minute film featuring the training and combat participation of African-American troops. The film appeared in theaters throughout the United States, including a screening at the Manhattan Casino, one of Harlem's primary entertainment destinations. Built in 1902, the Casino was renown for being the "proving ground" for black basketball teams, concerts by the 150-piece orchestra of James Reese Europe, activist rallies of Marcus Garvey and parties of socialite Madame C. J. Walker.
THE FLYING ACE
Norman Film Manufacturing Co., 1926 (set in 1920)
Between 1921 and 1928 The Norman Film Manufacturing Company of Jacksonville, Florida produced high quality feature silent films. Although they did not deal with racial issues, they were all-black cast films that were on par technically with Hollywood production standards but were free of derogatory racial stereotypes. Richard Norman, who was white, challenged the odds to make films for black audiences and helped in establishing the independent black cinema movement of the 1920s. While black directors such as Oscar Micheaux and Noble Johnson laid the foundation for black owned film companies, Norman offered roles to black actors that were unavailable to them in mainstream movies.
The Flying Ace stars Katherine Boyd as Ruth Sawtelle, a female daredevil, and Lawrence Criner as Captain William Stokes, World War I hero and flying ace called upon to solve a mystery. Both actors received their training with the original Lafayette Players, the influential all-black theatre group founded in Harlem in 1915.
THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN
Home Box Office, 1995 (set in 1941)
In 1940, the Selective Service Act required all branches of the Armed Forces to enlist people of all races, but long standing segregationist policies prevented African Americans from entering the Army Air Corps in any capacity - flying or support. Under pressure from political leaders, black newspapers, and a lawsuit filed against the War Department for violating the Act, the Corps lifted the ban.
The Army Air Force began the "Tuskegee Experiment," in Alabama in July 1941, aiming to train African Americans as military pilots. Primary flight studies were at the Tuskegee Institute, the famed school founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881. Once a cadet completed training, he transferred to the nearby specially built segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field for advanced flight training and transition to combat aircraft.
The first class of five black aviators graduated March 7, 1942 and formed the nucleus of the 99th Pursuit Squadron. Under the command of Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the Tuskegee Airmen were born. The 99th flew its first combat mission on June 2, 1943. Eventually the 99th became part of the 332nd, a larger all black Fighter Group consisting of four squadrons. By the end of the war, almost one thousand African Americans had trained at Tuskegee and become pilots in the military. Flying over 1,500 escort missions over Europe and North Africa, they never lost a bomber under their protection to enemy fighters. Their success and ability was recognized by Air Corps military brass and they were credited with helping pave the way for President Truman's 1948 order to fully integrate the armed forces. Lt. Davis later went on to become the Air Force's first African-American four-star general.
Robert W. Williams, a decorated fighter pilot who flew fifty missions under Lt. Davis, spent forty-three years pitching his story, The Tuskegee Airmen, to every major studio and TV station. Success finally came in 1995 when HBO accepted the project, which earned three Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award and two NAACP Image Awards. In a fictional account of his experiences, the film, which he wrote and co-produced, details the determination, integrity, and courage of the legendary squadron that helped destroy the myth of racial inferiority. The all-star cast includes Laurence Fishburne, Andre Braugher, Cuba Gooding, Allen Payne, Courtney B. Vance, Mekhi Phifer and Malcolm-Jamal Warner.
Victory Films, 1943 (set in 1943)
One of the few black productions to deal with military life, Marching On, a semi-documentary directed by Spencer Williams, attempted to focus a much-needed spotlight on the segregation of black military personnel. Instead, it became a piece of propaganda for the nation's war effort. In the 1950s additional footage of dancing girls was added to make the re-release, Where's My Man To-Nite?, a more marketable full-length feature.
Williams was one of America's most talented filmmakers and skilled in every segment of production. His career as an actor, director, writer and producer spanned the era from silent to sound and television.
In the early 1940s Williams met Al Sack, a Dallas-based film distributor whose company, Sack Amusement Enterprises, provided ethnic films for many theaters in the Southwest. When Sack offered to back Williams financially in a series of feature films for black audiences, Williams eagerly agreed to write, direct, and act in what became a series of ten films. Mostly shot in and around Dallas, the films varied in theme from religious: The Blood of Jesus (1941), Brother Martin (1942), Go Down Death (1944); to comedy: Dirty Gerty From Harlem, U.S.A. (1946), Beale Street Mama (1946), Juke Joint (1947); to drama: Marchin' On (1943), Of One Blood (1944), The Girl in Room 20 (1945). Sack gave Williams the freedom to shape the films as he saw fit. Unlike most of the genre, Williams's films are generally faithful to reality and unmarred by stereotypes.
Although most Americans remember Spencer Williams only as Andy Brown on the CBS Television version of Amos N' Andy (1950-53), his work in Texas during the 1940s, was his most significant achievement.
Home Box Office, 1995 (set in 1944)
Inspired by true events and set against the backdrop of injustice in the military, The Affair tells the story of two lovers trapped by the conventions of a bygone era.
At the height of World War II, an African-American soldier, Travis Holloway, is stationed in small town in England, but instead of seeing combat action, is relegated to menial service jobs alongside other black GIs. Worse, they find that the realities of racism have also followed them abroad, as they endure taunts and more from their white GI counterparts. Travis becomes smitten and involved with a confused married white Englishwoman, Maggie Leyland, who is still dealing with her husband's recent infidelity. While her husband is away at war, Maggie succumbs to Travis's charms, and the two begin an intimate relationship. Their illicit affair leads to tragedy when her husband returns unexpectedly, discovers the couple making love, and concludes it is a case of rape.
Subsequently, the police book Travis and charge him with the offense. If Maggie chooses to tell the truth, she will lose her husband and custody of their young child. If she allows the rape charge to stand, however, Travis will suffer a very serious punishment, one much harsher than she is lead to believe.
The Affair paints a realistic picture of the treatment of African-American soldiers by the U.S. military during World Ward II. For his role as Travis Holloway, Courtney B. Vance received a 1996 nomination for a Cable Ace Award.
THE COURT-MARTIAL OF JACKIE ROBINSON
Turner Home Entertainment,1990 (set in 1944)
While Jackie Robinson is best remembered for integrating major league baseball in 1947, an incident that occurred before his fame on the diamond heralded his future as a champion in the battle for civil rights. The Court-Martial Of Jackie Robinson concerns a little known and rarely discussed chapter in the life of the legendary American sports hero.
In the Army, as in most of America at the time, African Americans suffered the indignation of racism and Jim Crow laws. While training at Fort Hood, Texas, an event nearly ended his military career and the future that he did not know awaited him. Boarding a non-segregated military bus to a hospital for an examination, Robinson chose a seat near the front. The driver ordered him to move to the back, but Robinson refused and following a heated exchange of racial epithets, military police arrested and escorted him back to base. The confrontation set in motion the court martial of Jackie Robinson; The United States v. 2nd Lieutenant Jack R. Robinson.
His attorney argued that Robinson was not on trial for violating the Articles of War, but "because a few individuals sought to vent their bigotry on a black soldier that they considered 'uppity' because he had the audacity to seek and exercise rights that belonged to him as an American and as a soldier." Cleared of all charges by the military brass in Washington, Robinson received an honorable discharge from the Army on November 28th, 1944.
Only a few years later, he would step onto a baseball field in Brooklyn and strike an even bigger blow for equality by breaking racial barriers and paving the way for other black athletes to participate in professional sports.
HOME OF THE BRAVE
United Artists/Astor Pictures, 1949 (set in 1944)
Shot on a shoestring budget without big name stars and with an offbeat subject matter, Home of the Brave launched Hollywood's cycle of "message films" in the late 1940s. In the successful Broadway play by Arthur Laurents on which the film is based, the hero was a young Jewish soldier, the victim of anti-Semitism within the military. In the film, however, producer Stanley Kramer substituted a black character for the Jewish protagonist.
Through a series of flashbacks, Home of the Brave describes the emotional breakdown of a young African-American army private, Peter Moss, played by James Edwards. As he undergoes examination by a sympathetic medical captain, Moss unravels his tale, revealing a number of racial incidents he endured while on a special five-man mission to a Japanese-held island during the Second World War. Repeatedly harassed by his fellow soldiers, Moss cracks up under the pressure. The viewer learns, however, it is not the island experience alone that leads to the black soldier's breakdown. It is the crippling frustration of a lifetime of discrimination.
The film was the first post-war film to focus directly on racial discrimination and was also the first in which caustic words and phrases such as nigger and nigger lover, were uttered on screen. Its forthrightness and honesty was historic and marked the turning point for African Americans and their depiction by Hollywood. Ultimately, it led the way for other films to explore and condemn prejudice.
THE NEGRO SAILOR
U.S. Navy Dept., 1945 (set in 1944)
Filmed by Navy camera crews and completed in Hollywood, this docudrama featured Joel Fluellen, in his first starring role, as a navy recruit in training for duty during World War II. The story chronicles an African-American newspaperman's induction into service and the process in which a recruit learns the teamwork expected of him and the training necessary to support the nation's war effort. The film recounts the events surrounding some of the famous African American heroes of naval history including Dorie Miller, who won the Naval Cross for his actions in 1941 during Pearl Harbor. No more than just propaganda, The Negro Sailor emphasized the need for racial harmony in what was then a largely segregated American society.
Of special note, the Department of Public Relations Office of the Navy withheld the film from release until 1946 when a special showing to representatives of twenty-five civic organizations in New York gave their approval for distribution.
A SOLDIERS STORY
Columbia Pictures, 1984 (set in 1944)
Award winning Hollywood producer/director Norman Jewison brought Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize winning drama A Soldier's Play to the screen. The film version is performed largely by cast members of the Negro Ensemble Company, the highly respected premier American black theater troupe, who first staged the play in 1981.
Re-titled A Soldier's Story, the film takes place in 1944 at an army base deep in Louisiana, where the sergeant of an all-black platoon, Sergeant Vernon Waters (Adolph Caesar), is shot to death. Washington sends Captain Davenport (Howard Rollin's Jr.), a military attorney, to investigate. He is the first black commissioned officer anyone at the segregated base has ever seen and his appearance meets with resentment among the whites and pride among the blacks.
Davenport, aware of the racial tensions at Fort Neal and in the nearby town, questions the soldiers who knew the slain sergeant. Through flashbacks evoked during interrogations, the complex character of the murder victim emerges. Davenport eventually solves the case, but not before revealing the hidden insecurities and fears that breed racial hatred among suspects, black and white. The ensemble cast also includes Denzel Washington, David Alan Grier, Robert Townsend, Art Evans, David Harris, Larry Riley and William Allen Young.
Director Jewison has had a longtime interest in racial issues. In 1967, he directed In the Heat of the Night, with Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Picture. More recently, his film The Hurricane (1999), also starring Denzel Washington, garnered a nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
CALL TO DUTY
Astor Pictures, 1946 (set in 1945)
Because of the heightened demand for manpower during World War II, the U.S. military increased opportunities for African-Americans in the Armed Forces.
The black soldier received prominence in three documentaries made by the War Department, Teamwork, produced by the United States Signal Corps, The Highest Tradition, and Call to Duty. Each portrayed the dignity and courage of the many thousands of African-American troops who had fought in recent years for the U.S., while helping to dispel the hatred and prejudice rampant in America. Call to Duty, narrated by award-winning Hollywood actor Walter Huston, also focuses on the Navy and Coast Guard's first-time recruiting of black women into their reserve units.
Producer William D Alexander's association with the Office of War Information permitted him to travel extensively and allowed him to make many historical films and television newsreels. In 1946, he also formed the Associated Producers of Negro Pictures and went on to make several all black cast pictures including The International Sweethearts of Rhythm (1947), The Fight Never Ends (1947) and Souls of Sin (1949). He was the only black film producer and director of this period to cross over to mainstream Hollywood, having produced The Klansman in 1974.
Lux Productions, 1948 (set in 1945)
In cinema and literature, "Neorealism" is a cultural movement that brings elements of true life into the narrative it describes. The movement developed in Italy after the end of World War II and is characterized by stories set amongst the poor and working class. Filmed in long takes on location and frequently using non-actors in lead roles, Italian films of this genre typically portray the difficult economic and moral conditions of postwar Italy.
Produced by Carlo Ponti and scripted by Frederico Fellini, Senza Pieta (Without Pity), is set in the black-market waterfront of Livorno during the postwar occupation of Italy. It tells the tragic story of an Italian woman who, trapped in a life of prostitution and crime, falls in love with an American black soldier (John Kitzmiller) mixed up in a robbery at the U.S. Army base.
In the post-war era, organized gangs stole from U.S. military depots to resell the goods at black-market prices, often with the complicity of base guards. In his preliminary research, Fellini resorted to disguises in order to penetrate the underworld. Passing himself off as a returned prisoner of war, he settled near the docks in an old boardinghouse and went along with hijacking gangs to loot supply depots.
Michigan born Kitzmiller participated in the liberation of Italy during World War II and after achieving the rank of captain in the Army, began his acting career while stationed there. Reluctant to return to a segregated and racist America where jobs were scarce, he made Italy his permanent residence. Kitzmiller became Italy's leading black actor, appearing in over forty films and in 1957 was the first black actor to win a Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival for his work in the Yugoslavian film Peace Valley (1956). He died in 1965 in Rome, virtually unknown to African-American movie audiences.
MEN OF HONOR
Fox 2000 Pictures, 2000 (set in 1948)
Directed by George Tillman Jr., Men of Honor is based on the true story of Carl Brashear and his struggle to become the first African-American deep-sea diver in the U.S. Navy and the first amputee in Navy history to return to full active duty.
From Brashear's humble beginnings on the family farm in Kentucky to his demeaning dishwashing in the Navy mess hall to the merciless hazing inflicted in diving camp, he faced all the odds rigged against him. His strength was his unwillingness to break his promise to his sharecropper father to "never give up."
The film stars Cuba Gooding as Brashear and centers on his confrontational relationship with a tough old World War II veteran and commanding officer Master Chief Navy Diver Billy Sunday played by Robert Deniro. In real life however, Sunday did not exist. Screenwriters effectively fabricated the character into the script based on a composite of various Navy officers.
As is typical in Hollywood, Men of Honor is a good example of playing with truth and history to fit its own needs. Certainly, this story is one of inspiration, and the occasional compelling invention or poetic license is acceptable. However, it does potential disservice to true stories that are worth telling and reminds us that one should not learn history from the movies.
THE STORY OF A THREE DAY PASS
Sigma III, 1967 (set in 1965)
Melvin Van Peebles, the self-proclaimed "godfather of modern black cinema" made his directorial debut with The Story of a Three-Day Pass, alternatively titled La Permission. Based on an original story by Van Peebles, the film focused on Turner (Harry Baird), an African-American GI stationed in France who receives a three-day pass to celebrate his recent promotion. After traveling to Paris, he begins an interracial affair with Miriam (Nicole Berger). But, when he returns to the base, his bigoted captain expresses disappointment that Turner is not the trustworthy "good Negro" he believed him to be and busts him for fraternizing with a white woman. What makes the low-budget romantic drama so compelling is the fact that all of the events are seen from Turner's perspective.
Made by Van Peebles with a grant from the French Cinema Center, The Story of a Three-Day Pass was the French entry in the San Francisco Film Festival and established Van Peebles' reputation as a director. He went on to direct the major studio production Watermelon Man (1970), a parody about a racist white man who wakes up one morning to discover that he has turned black. However, it was the landmark Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (written, composed, produced, and edited by Van Peebles, who also starred) which proved that black film could indeed reach mass audiences and offered a radical new black hero to whom black (and some white) moviegoers could relate.
Paramount Pictures,1987 (set in 1969)
From May 10th - May 21st, 1969 at Dong Ap Bia, in the Shau Valley near the Laotian border, the fight for Hill 937 is characterized as one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. An uphill carnage with 70% casualties, it was nicknamed Hamburger Hill.
John Carabatsos, who wrote the film, was a member of the 1st Air Cavalry Division in 1968-69 and spent five years interviewing servicemen involved there in the combat. The film, which tells the heroic story of fourteen soldiers from a unit of the Army's 101st Airborne "Screaming Eagles" Division, covers such issues as race, friendship, love, anti-war statements and the resentment against American GI's returning home. Its depiction of the realities of war, courage, camaraderie and dedication to the mission among troops serves as a grim reminder of what it was like for young men to live and die in Vietnam.
Though the soldiers successfully captured the hill, and soon abandoned it, critics charged that the battle wasted American lives and exemplified the irrelevance of U.S. tactics in South East Asia.
20th Century Fox, 2002 (set in 1970)
Antwone Fisher, based on Fisher's autobiography, is the story of a troubled young sailor, Antwone "Fish" Fisher. After his explosive temper threatens to get him kicked out of the Navy, he is ordered to see Dr. Jerome Davenport, a military psychologist.
At first, Fisher refuses to open up to the psychologist; but eventually he breaks down and reveals his abusive and turbulent childhood. With the support of Dr. Davenport, who helps him come to grips with the serious issues of violence in his life, and becomes the father that he never knew, and his loyal girlfriend Cheryl, Fisher embarks on a painful search to find the family that abandoned him as a baby. After reuniting with them, he finds the courage to stop fighting and start loving, and is able to make a dramatic turn in his own life.
The film marked the directorial debut of Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington, who also starred as the psychologist, and the film debuts of Derek Luke, who played the title role, and Joy Bryant, the model-turned-actress who appeared as Cheryl. Fisher himself was credited with writing the film's screenplay. Today, he is a Hollywood writer and producer and a best-selling author.
THE WALKING DEAD
Savoy Pictures, 1994 (set in 1970)
Set in Vietnam in 1972, The Walking Dead is not solely a film about war. It also examines the notion of military service as a ticket to the American dream, for an America tainted by racial unrest and oppression.
Four African Americans who join the Marine Corps to better their futures are dispatched by helicopter to assist in the rescue of POWs and under attack find themselves the only survivors of a mission gone wrong. Through a series of flashbacks with a black point of view, actors Allen Payne, Eddie Griffin, Joe Morton and Vonte Sweet look at the individual circumstances that led them to service.
Writer-director Preston A. Whitman II, who makes his feature debut, puts a black perspective on the Vietnam War while questioning the disproportionate weight of the war that landed on African-American shoulders.
SOME KIND OF HERO
Paramount, 1982 (set in 1973)
Eddie Keller, a soldier in the United States Army, spends five years in a North Vietnamese POW camp, ultimately signing a statement denouncing U.S. involvement in Indochina. That denunciation catches up with Eddie when he returns home and is denied his back pay because of it. Moreover, he learns that his wife has taken up with another man, his business is bankrupt, and his mother institutionalized. Hitting bottom, Eddie finally finds comfort in his relationship with a sympathetic prostitute, but not before beginning a desperate foray into the world of crime. The film's lead actor is an interesting departure from the norm; the groundbreaking comedian Richard Pryor plays it straight for a change.
Pryor, who enlisted in the Army in 1958 and served for two years in Germany, soon went on to become a true pioneer of comedy. His emancipated style of African-American humor pushed every boundary and secured him legendary status. An actor, writer, and influential stand-up artist, his irreverent albums sold in the millions. In the 1980s however, at the height of his popularity, his career began a disastrous turn when he suffered the dire consequences of drug and alcohol abuse, a heart attack, a suicide attempt, and the onset of multiple sclerosis. Pryor all but retired from performing in the 1990s and lived a reclusive life, confined to a wheelchair, until his death in 2005.
FOR QUEEN AND COUNTRY
Zenith Entertainment, 1989 (set in1983)
After fighting nine years for the British army on the streets of Belfast and in the Faulkland Islands, Reuben James (Denzel Washington) anticipates a hero's welcome from his final tour of duty. Instead, he finds the usual homecoming veteran's dilemma: the struggle to adapt to civilian life.
He moves back to his old neighborhood, a housing project in Southeast London, and finds an urban hell where drugs, violence, theft and unemployment run rampant and where his sterling military record as a paratrooper means nothing. His poverty, his race, and his background all seem to conspire to keep him locked into a go-nowhere hopeless existence.
For Queen and County makes a broad political statement about social conditions, race and class relations in England under the rule of Margaret Thatcher's government in the 1980s.
THE ENEMY WITHIN
Home Box Office, 1994 (set in 1990)
Conspiracy theory films are a time honored Hollywood tradition. The Enemy Within, based on the political thriller Seven Days in May (1964), succeeds in taking an unthinkable premise and making it credible.
Forest Whitaker stars as a loyal Colonel in the Joint Chiefs of Staff who stumbles upon a plot by his commanding officer, a high-ranking General, to overthrow the weak U.S. President, whose defense cuts prompt the planned coup. In a race against time, the Colonel finds the hard evidence to prevent the power-hungry generals from declaring the President incompetent and taking over the government.
For his lead performance in this HBO suspense drama, the Screen Actors Guild nominated him for an award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries.
COURAGE UNDER FIRE
20th Century Fox, 1996 (set in 1991)
The first movie to use Operation Desert Storm and the war in the Persian Gulf as a backdrop, Courage Under Fire examines the nature of truth, honor and courage.
In this fictional story, Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), a MedEvac chopper pilot, becomes the first female candidate nominated for nation's highest award for bravery: the Medal of Honor. Lt. Col. Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington) is the officer assigned to investigate her qualifications. However, discrepancies surrounding her death, military cover-ups and a publicity-hungry White House looking to rubber-stamp her posthumous commendation prompt Serling to conduct a formal investigation for the truth.
For director Edward Zwick the film was another opportunity to explore a theme similar to his 1989 epic Glory: the role of minorities in American military history (blacks in the American Civil War, women in the Gulf War).
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Paramount Pictures, 2000 (set in 1996)
A Defense Department term, Rules of Engagement (ROE) is a set of principles and procedures that dictate the actions U.S. military forces may use in protecting themselves against a perceived enemy. The fine line between the rules of war and the moral issues that can arise amid the terror and confusion of actual battle, make up the backbone of Rules of Engagement. The fictional film addresses the conflict between the strict interpretation of military regulations and a personal sense of honor.
Col. Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) is a thirty-year veteran and decorated hero with combat experience in Vietnam, Beirut, and the Persian Gulf. On a mission to evacuate an ambassador during a siege of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, a split-second decision results in the death of eighty-three men, women and children from Marine gunfire. The result is an international scandal in which the government makes the colonel the fall guy for an ugly diplomatic crisis. Facing a court-martial for allegedly breaking ROE, he chooses Col. Hays Hodges (Jones), a military law expert and colleague for 30 years, ever since their stint together in Vietnam, to defend him and clear his name.