When it comes to the Greatest Generation, African-Americans are usually seen as having only a small part in it. Whenever a movie has taken us back to those proud times when U.S. soldiers valiantly went overseas to defeat Hitler, the result has frequently been a lily-white affair. Sometimes, a filmmaker would make a bold move and include at least one token soldier of color with the brigade. (Often, that soldier would be played by the same guy in movie after movie — we’ll talk about him later.)
On the occasion of the impending theatrical release of Dee Rees’s Mudbound, which gives audiences a portrait of how a brave Black man went to fight for his country — only to come back home and fight again, this time to become a first-class citizen — BAMcinématek has rounded up a collection of thematically linked features and shorts, “Strange Victories: Black Soldiers and World War II.”
The name of the series comes from Strange Victory (screening November 13), the radical filmmaker Leo Hurwitz’s cynical 1948 critique of postwar America. Even though this hybrid doc ends with a Black fighter pilot trying to land a commercial flying job, Victory is more about Hurwitz showing how America’s continual oppression of other races — specifically Blacks and Jews — doesn’t make this place all that different than Nazi Germany. This hour-long film will be shown in conjunction with Illusions (1982), the first film piece from Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), with Lonette McKee as a light-skinned Black woman passing in plain sight as a white studio assistant in Hollywood, attempting, against the odds, to make sure military minorities get their silver-screen time.
“Strange Victories” will also screen (on November 11) the U.S. government–made propaganda shorts The Negro Soldier (1944) and Wings for This Man (1945), which together provide an idea of how the military actively sought to enlist young Black men into the fight. The mostly maudlin Soldier was produced by Frank Capra — and his stewardship shows glaringly in a scene of a Black pastor preaching to his Black congregation about how fighting for this country is the greatest, most patriotic, most Blackest-ass thing you could do. The ten-minute Wings cuts more to the chase and has then-actor Ronald Reagan narrating gloriously histrionic, manipulative copy — “You can’t judge a man here by the color of his eyes or the shape of his nose… you judge a man by the way he flies” — as footage plays of Black bombers flying the “friendly” skies. (Following this dual screening, the series programmer, Ashley Clark, will lead a discussion with the archivist and writer Ina Archer and the journalist Mark Harris, author of the must-read Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.)
As for the features on offer here, they’re mostly a dramaturgical bunch. Carmen Jones (November 14), Otto Preminger’s Technicolor 1954 adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein’s modernized Carmen reboot, sticks out like a sore thumb. Though it was seen as a liberal breakthrough at the time, and despite even its all-Black cast — including Dorothy Dandridge as the bad-girl lead and Harry Belafonte as the G.I. who chases after her — it doesn’t necessarily tell us anything specific or vivid about the Black experience. The movie could’ve had an all-white cast and it still would’ve played the same. (If anything, such an ensemble probably would’ve made the badly-dubbed operatic numbers more believable.) Of course, 1984’s A Soldier’s Story (November 12), directed by Norman Jewison, will be shown, giving us yet another filmed adaptation of a play about Black men in World War II. (A very young Denzel Washington is a bright spot here.)
For a blunter assessment of racism during wartime, there’s Home of the Brave (November 14), the melodramatic, Stanley Kramer–produced version of a play that dealt more with anti-Semitism than with anti-Black racism. Released in 1949, when “social problem films” featuring Black characters were becoming all the rage, this movie deals with a Black private (James Edwards), originally Jewish in the play, who is assigned to a predominantly-alabaster reconnaissance patrol (whose number includes a fresh-faced Lloyd Bridges as an old high-school chum). Needless to say, things get tense, the N-word gets thrown around, and our boy nearly goes crazy as he fights off both ignorance and the enemy. Edwards, to circle back on an earlier point, would become the go-to guy in Hollywood for African-American soldiers, landing thankless roles but often doing good work in such films as The Manchurian Candidate, Pork Chop Hill, and Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet.
BAM will also present Miracle at St. Anna (November 10), a very long war epic from Spike Lee (who will be in attendance for the screening), and Red Tails (November 12), the George Lucas–produced (and partly directed), CGI-ed-AF story of the Tuskegee Airmen. Both are well-meaning but continuously clumsy, recent examples of Hollywood finally giving dark-skinned WWII vets their due. Perhaps the most intriguing selection in the entire batch is the 1956 Yugoslavian war film Valley of Peace (Dolina miru) (November 15), in which a Black sergeant (Jim Kitzmiller) protects two runaway orphans during the war.
To close out the series, the documentarian Stanley Nelson will be around to screen his PBS film The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (November 16). The work mostly centers on the early days of Black newspapers giving brothas and sistas the real story, their efforts eventually seen as a threat by white people who wanted to keep these folks in their place. The most revealing material is that involving J. Edgar Hoover, who was ready to indict Black newspaper publishers for treason for daring to report on the race riots and murders of Black soldiers that were happening at army camps. As The Black Press and some of the other movies in the “Victories” lineup will show audiences, African-American soldiers weren’t just fighting the enemy: They had a lot of other things they were worried about – and they should be always remembered for that.
‘Strange Victories: Black Soldiers and World War II’