Remembering Black Soldiers in Films

This Memorial Day, take a look at the way Hollywood has portrayed our heroes.

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  • Red Tails 2012

    Red Tails 2012

    From film mastermind George Lucas, 2012’s Red Tails pays homage to the Tuskegee Airmen. Lucas, who started conceptualizing Red Tails more than 20 years earlier, sought to offer filmgoers a lesson in history without sparing the in-your-face special effectst hat come with Lucasfilm movies. From thrilling aeronautics to realistic war scenes, Red Tails offers an exciting movie-watching experience that harkens back to one of the brightest triumphs for black soliders. Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. top off the film’s roster of stars.

    Captions by Nick Charles

  • The Hurt Locker (2008)

    The Hurt Locker (2008)

    From my glowing review on The Root: ”It’s an explosive and honest rendering of what happens in war zones. The film, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, focuses on the experiences of a group of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.” Anthony Mackie plays Sgt. J.T. Sanborn, a member of an elite team of bomb-squad technicians. In the prologue, New York Times reporter Chris Hedges says, ”… war is a drug.” It beat out James Cameron’s Avatar for the Oscar for Best Film. Well-deserved.

  • Miracle At St. Anna (2008)

    Miracle At St. Anna (2008)

    Based on the book of the same name by James McBride, this Spike Lee vehicle follows soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division (the famed Buffalo Soldiers) as they combat in Tuscany in 1944. The film itself involves a mystery that stretches from the end of the war to 1983. Well worth seeing if only for the historical significance and contribution of this real-life segregated group.

  • The Manchurian Candidate, 1959 and 2004

    The Manchurian Candidate, 1959 and 2004

     

    There were two versions of this iconic film based on Richard Condon’s 1959 iconic novel. The first starred Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury. The second showcased Denzel Washington, Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep. The first takes place during and after the Korean War, extending into the Cold War; the second, during and after the first Gulf War. My choice: the first one. Lansbury is unrivaled.

  • Antwone Fisher (2002)

    Antwone Fisher (2002)

    The autobiographical book Finding Fish was the basis of Denzel Washington’s directorial debut. Fisher had a traumatic childhood in foster care and joined the U.S. Navy to escape homelessness. He met a psychiatrist who helped him work through his considerable issues. The film, which is faithful to the book, stars Derek Luke as Antwone Fisher and Washington as psychiatrist Jerome Davenport.

  • Hart's War, 2002

    Hart's War, 2002

    Based on a novel by John Katzenbach, the film follows the murder trial of a Tuskegee Airman (Terrence Howard) inside a 1944 German POW camp. Spoiler alert: The trial is a sham being used to distract from a mass escape. Bruce Willis is his stoic self, while Colin Farrell as 1st Lt. Thomas Hart, gives a bravura performance.

  • Men of Honor (2000)

    Men of Honor (2000)

    Inspired by the true story of Master Chief Petty Officer Carl Brashear, the first African-American Master Diver in the U.S. Navy, the film stars a potent Robert De Niro and a subdued Cuba Gooding Jr. Aunjanue Ellis plays the future wife of Brashear, transforming what could have been a thankless prop role into a resonant performance.

  • Buffalo Soldiers (1997)

    Buffalo Soldiers (1997)

    The legendary black soldiers who served during the Civil War and beyond are depicted here in pursuit of an Apache renegade who had been slaughtering settlers in the West. Danny Glover heads up a fine cast that includes Carl Lumbly and Glynn Turman in this made-for-television movie.

  • Courage Under Fire, 1996

    Courage Under Fire, 1996

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    More Denzel Washington. This time he plays an Army lieutenant colonel who investigates whether a female soldier, played by Meg Ryan, warrants the Medal of Honor. The film was one of the first to depict the first Gulf War.

  • Crimson Tide (1995)

    Crimson Tide (1995)

    Against the backdrop of possible nuclear war, the film focuses on the potential munity aboard an American submarine that has its genesis in the battle of wills between the ship’s commanding officer (Gene Hackman) and executive officer (Denzel Washington). In the end, Washington prevails and disaster is averted. Whew!

  • The Tuskegee Airmen, 1995

    The Tuskegee Airmen, 1995

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    An HBO made-for-television movie, with a stellar cast including Laurence Fishburne, Andre Braugher and Cuba Gooding Jr., pays homage to the first black combat pilots in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. The claim that the 332nd Fighter Group never lost a bomber to enemy fire may be a source of controversy. What is not in doubt is the courage and excellence of the men in the ground-breaking unit.

  • Glory, 1989

    Glory, 1989

    The searing image from this classic is of a defiant Pvt. Silas Trip, played by Denzel Washington, being flogged. Washington went on to earn an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and to establish himself as a preeminent American performer. The film conjured up interest in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an all-black group that fought during the Civil War.

  • Full Metal Jacket, 1987

    Full Metal Jacket, 1987

    On the heels of Platoon came this Stanley Kubrick film, which was based on the novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford. The first part of the film follows a group of marines through basic training, while the second half looks at the experiences of two marines during the Tet Offensive in 1968 in Vietnam. Visceral and unflinching, the film lays bare the truth that ”War is hell.” Dorian Harewood plays Corporal ”Eightball,” the squad’s lone African American.

  • Hamburger Hill, 1987

    Hamburger Hill, 1987

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    The tag line for this Vietnam War film was, ”War at its worst. Men at their best.” One of the most realistic depictions of bloody battle, as well as the interaction between soldiers on the battlefield. Don Cheadle, Michael Boatman and Courtney B. Vance were part of a first-rate cast.

  • Gardens of Stone (1987)

    Gardens of Stone (1987)

    Another film based on a novel of the same name, authored by Nicholas Proffitt, the plot revolves around a hardened veteran played by James Caan, who tries to dissuade a young man from signing on during the Vietnam War. Caan’s Sgt. Clell Hazard is assigned to The Old Guard, which conducts the funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. His best friend is Sergeant Major ”Goody” Nelson, played by James Earl Jones. Francis Ford Coppola directs; ”Larry” Fishburne plays Sgt. Flanagan.

  • Platoon, 1986

    Platoon, 1986

    Awarded the Oscar for Best Picture in 1987, the film is Oliver Stone’s counterculture view of what went on during the Vietnam War. Stone based the film in part on his own experiences during the war, and it was the first of his trilogy (Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven & Earth) to explore Vietnam and its impact on the American psyche and its culture. Keith David and Forest Whitaker are part of an excellent cast.

  • A Soldier's Story 1984

    A Soldier's Story 1984

    A slain black solider brings suspicions to the racially charged battlefiled of World War II in A Soldier’s Story. Featuring well-known talent during their infancy of their careers, including Denzel Washington, David Allen Grier, Robert Townsend, among others, A Soldier’s Story offers top-notch acting alongside a drama-filled storyline that offers sobering insight into the turbulance black soliders faced in the segregated world of the U.S. military during World War II. 

  • An Officer and a Gentleman, 1982

    An Officer and a Gentleman, 1982

    No, the part of Gunnery Sgt. Emil Foley was not written for Lou Gossett Jr., who won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Jack Nicholson originally turned down the role and the filmmakers didn’t tap Gossett Jr., until they found out that all of the top drill instructors were in fact black. During the filming, Gossett Jr. resided in separate living quarters from the other actors, so he could better intimidate them during scenes.

  • Apocalypse Now (1979)

    Apocalypse Now (1979)

    This film goes back to when Laurence Fishburne was still ”Larry Fishburne.” The fact that he lied about his age (he was 14 when production started) was the least of the behind-the-scenes drama. Marlon Brando showed up looking like a failed contestant from The Biggest Loser, and Martin Sheen, who had the marquee role next to Brando, had a heart attack. But despite all that (and the three years it took to produce), the film is one of director Francis Ford Coppola’s greatest achievements.

  • Black Brigade, 1970

    Black Brigade, 1970

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    If you don’t recognize the title, it’s because the movie was originally a made-for-television offering, Carter’s Army. The plot involves a prejudiced white officer who leads a ragtag group of black soldiers to secure a dam from the Nazis. It’s memorable because of its cast that includes Richard Pryor, Billy Dee Williams, Robert Hooks, Rosey Grier and Glynn Turman.

  • Home of the Brave 1949

    Home of the Brave 1949

    The magnificent James Edwards, who died of a heart attack in 1970 at the age of 51, stars as Pvt. Peter Moss in this seminal film examining how a black soldier endures serving in a racist military. (Based on the play by Arthur Laurents, Moss was originally a Jewish soldier. The decision to change the character’s race was made because President Harry S. Truman integrated the Armed Forces in 1948.) Edwards was a pioneer; he did Sidney Poitier years before Sidney Poitier did Sidney Poitier.

    Additional captions by Joshua R. Weaver