African American Soldiers in War Movies

It is a fact that until recently African American actors were almost nonexistent in war movies. This is quite unfair since they were also fighting for their country. Even though they are not omnipresent in today´s war movies, they seem to get a fairer share.

The makers of Generation Kill faced quite some questioning as to the reasons why there was no African American cast in the series. As fishy as this may have seemed initially there was a very good explanation for this. Generation Kill is based on the true story of the First Recon Company, a highly specialized troop, in which there were actually no African American soldiers, or only one, as we can deduce from the group photo in Evan Wright´s book.

The questioning however was very justified since there is really no war movie on contemporary conflict in which there are no African American actors. Be it Battle for Haditha, Redacted, The Hurt Locker, Stop-Loss, Home of the Brave and many more. There are always African American actors and this is highly justified since many of the troops are of said origin.

How does the situation look regarding other wars? For example Vietnam? When it comes to combat movies – with the exception of We Were Soldiers – black soldiers are very often present. The best example is certainly Hamburger Hill that has a big African American cast. But they are not absent from Platoon or Full Metal Jacket either. Now what about We Were Soldiers? I honestly don´t know. Since it is based on a true story it might be possible that there were no African American soldiers in that company. If anyone knows the reason, tell me please.

WWII is another story altogether. Looking at the massive production of WWII movies it is incredible how absent African American actors are. Sure there are a few exceptions. A Soldier’s Story that I reviewed a while back is a good example. And then we have the Tuskegee Airmen based on the true story of the African-American 332nd Fighter Group of the Army Aircorps (see my movie review). This fine movie illustrates how unjustified the belief was that Blacks were not capable of flying modern fighters. But apart from these two examples? And what about Flags of our Fathers? It´sad to say that there were 900 black troops participating in the battle of Iwo Jima but not one of them is represented in Eastwood´s movie. He has been questioned many times and asked to clarify but he did not reply. This infuriated many people, among them the film director Spike Lee. I think his Miracle at St. Anna might be a direct response to Eastwood´s omission. It is actually incredible but the absence of African American actors in Flags of our Fathers makes Pearl Harbor look good in comparison. At least  Cuba Gooding Jr had quite an important role. Spike Lee´s just mentioned Miracle at St. Anna focuses on the 92nd Infantry Division that fought in Italy. This division was the result of the segregation of the times. It was a purely African-American division, also called Buffalo soldiers  (I must admit that I have not seen Miracle at St. Anna but read many reviews that did NOT appreciate it). I think we are still waiting for a truly good depiction of African American participation in WWII.

And WWI? I am lost. Have no clue if there ever was  a WWI movie with African Americans in it.

Let´s rewind some more: The Civil War. And yes here we finally find an outstanding movie with a largely African American cast. One of my Top 10. Yes, I am talking about Glory. If you haven´t seen it yet, watch it.

Looking at the whole picture again we can say, it is getting somewhat better, but a contemporary movie, based on a conflict younger than the civil war, with an African American main actor is still outstanding. Now, don´t mention Hotel Rwanda (Don Cheadle was actually also in Hamburger Hill). Although it is an impressive movie  there was really no chosing a white main actor. Not even Clint Eastwood would have had the insipidity to do so.

Is Passchendaele (2008) the new Pearl Harbor (2001)?

“The British couldn´t do it, the French couldn´t do it. It´s  only us, the Canadian corps” (quote from the movie).

I was  tempted to write: “Once we had Pearl Harbor now we have Passchendaele” and leave it at that. But that won´t do. I´m afraid I must say, that this would have been an easy escape in terms of criticism for Passchendaele. And extremely unfair to Pearl Harbor. This coming from someone who thinks that Pearl Harbor does not even deserve the label “war movie”.

The story in a few words: As the war went on Canadians were getting more and more involved. Being only a little nation at the time, the participation of 600000 was enormous. 1 out of 10 did not come back. At Passchendaele alone 4 000 Canadians died and 12 000 were wounded. This unspeakable tragedy is meant to be shown. To illustrate this we see the exemplary story of one Sgt. who comes back after having fought at Ypern, on Vimy ridge etc. He’s a decorated war hero but shell-shocked. He has done something unspeakable and cannot forgive himself (apparently this bit is taken from Paul Gross´grandfather´s story of his participation in WWI). He is really bad off and won´t have to return. But, as some sort of love sacrifice (not going into details here I leave all the enjoyment of watching this movie and discover a piece of subtle sophisticated filmmaking to you. YES… I´m being sarcastic.), he goes back and ends up fighting at Passchendaele. This is one of the biggest and most notorious battles off WWI. Initially a success for the Canadians and their allies, in the end a failure due to the fact that a few months later Passchendaele was lost again to the Germans.

Watching Passchendaele I was feeling extremely stupid. Why did it escape my attention that this was again a hero + nurse + absurd conflict romance disguised as war movie? Unfortunately the romance part is nowhere near as good as the one from Pearl Harbor (Yes, I think Pearl Harbor is a very entertaining romance, well done). And the war parts? They are odd to say the least. We do see quite a bit of fighting. Between town ruins and in moors and muddy trenches. The odd bits reminded me of  Windtalkers (so watch out all you who liked Windtalkers). Many explosions, one unconvincing “in the trench of the enemy scene” plus, this was quite original, people keep on flying like puppets. Oh and… I almost forgot this…the way the Canadians are depicted is priceless. What a jolly crowd. Jolly, jolly, jolly. They never stop laughing not even when they are torn apart or their comrades come flying over their heads. Why? What in the name of everything does this mean? One last word: the conversations are among the worst ever heard. In the trench Sgt Dunne actually says to his lover´s young brother, explaining the war : “Forests burn cos they have to, oceans go up and down cos they have to…and I don´t think we are that different…(…) this is something we do cos we are good at it…” Forests burn cos they have to, eh? The inherent nature of the forest is to burn? Very deep. Abysmal.

You know what? Even though many Canadians appreciated this movie (probably purely because at last their heroic participation was brought to our awareness. NO. I´m not being sarcastic now.). … I think they would have deserved better. To be really blunt: I think this movie is shit.

Be it as it may, there is one good bit related to the death of the nurse´s father – no I won´t tell what it is – and I am sure: this movie has and will have its fans.

If I had watched the trailer before buying the DVD I would at least have known about the romance bit. Can´t judge a film by its cover, can we ? (Liked this one too much for my own good).