The Call to Arms:
A all-Black regiment in the Union Army is formed during the American Civil War of the 1860s. While fighting against the Confederacy for their freedom, they also have to stand against the bigotry within the Northern Army.
Review and Analysis:
If there was a movie where things can go so very wrong in a big hurry, Glory brings the whole store through the window. When you are dealing with the pillars of White Supremacy and White Privilege, you start finding that even stories that center around Marginalized People (People of Color, non-European Immigrants, Women of Color, Gays, Lesbians, Transgendered/Transsexuals, and Disabled Persons) still have a focus of White (and Male) Privilege in mind.
The Perfect Film:
For White Privilege, Glory is the perfect film.
First, it is set during a time when Black Men and Black Women could be nothing more than Slaves. Since there is still too much fawning nostalgia for what is called the “Antebellum Era,” a movie which is supposed to represent Blacks rising up to fight for their freedom could fit with this nostalgia.
Second, because records and histories of the Black soldiers of this time period are scarce, you would not need worry about looking up any actual biographies or documented sources, nor would you need to flesh out histories or backstory for the Black characters. Thus, you can get away with making your Black characters, even with speaking parts, into broad caricatures and stereotypes. You can even make up character conflict between them and not have to be held accountable for false characterizations.
Third, you can actively segregate the movie. Your black characters all talk one way – that poor man’s Southern Drawl, ethnocized by their skin color and inflection; your White characters all talk another – closer to the Aristocratic English, but still with a more Euro-centric accent. The black characters dress in mostly tattered clothes, with some minor exceptions, and the White characters get to play Victorian dress up, except for the faceless and nameless Confederates.
Four, the most wonderful part of this movie for White Privilege? The final battle gives you a great Two-for-One: You can show the bravery and courage of the Black soldiers fighting for their freedom (within the Union Army), and then….
They all die in the process.
This is part of the reason why major productions for other, more recent American Military Units never get made. An example would be the 761st Tank Battalion (nicknamed Patton’s Panthers), an all-Black Tank Unit that was used as a spear-head against the Germans after the invasion of Normandy. They fought as hard as the 54th Massachusetts in this movie, but unlike the 54th, they won many of their battles against the Germans.
Or what about 442nd Infantry Regiment, comprised of mostly Japanese-Americans (one member was Korean-American)? A regiment that has more recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor than any other unit ever deployed? Would be surprising to find out that Ken Watanabe has been trying for years to get a film made about them? The last news that was reported was more than 18 months ago, and the project might be in development limbo.
Arrest This Man:
Denzel Washington’s meteoric rise in Hollywood begins with this film. After breaking into Hollywood with A Soldier’s Story, Denzel takes the same character he played in that film, Private Peterson, and imports him here as the proverbial “Field Slave” Trip. His character is the Angry Black Man, one who is willing to take on the Confederacy AND the bigots within the Union Army AND those whom he believes serve as impediment to Black freedom (often called “Uncle Toms”).
Trip is forced to grow from being a lone wolf to being a full-fledged member of the group. His long-running battle with Thomas ends up being resolved with the two of them fighting side-by-side in the final battle. The other thing that Trip does is act as a temporary flag bearer as he attempts to continue to rally the other members of the 54th to continue Col. Shaw’s charge of the Fort. He is shot and killed while holding a flag he once said that he would never hold.
The mark of a very special actor is one that not only shines brightly in their performance, but has that glow and charisma rub off on everyone in the scene, making those performances seem better than the actor’s actual talent level would provide. For a long time, Denzel’s performances had this quality, which is why poorly written movies like this one can sometimes be tolerated.
The Academy gave him an Oscar for this role.
The White Savior:
Matthew Broderick (yes, that Matthew Broderick) plays Col. Shaw, who is the young and idealistic commander of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. To best describe his role, he comes off acting as “Friend and Ally of Black People,” even as his former Personal Slave, Thomas, has also joined the Regiment. Shaw also acts as their “White Voice” when confronting bigoted attitudes from other (White) Union Officers; like the Quartermaster who withholds their supplies, the Commanding General in the South Carolina tactical theatre who uses the Black soldiers in his command to pillage towns and perform manual labor, as well as a host of “enlightened racists” who believe in Black Inferiority, but oppose the South nonetheless.
You see his enlightened outsider status clearly during the monologue of his Christmas letter (around the 42 minute mark). His is the only White character that is the Enlightened Outsider at the start of the film; the other White Union soldiers are either active in the bigotry and disdain of Black soldiers OR they tacitly approve of the mistreatment by doing nothing to help them. This is necessary in Hollywood parlance to show how Col. Shaw is not only different, but a trailblazer for benighted White characters who are working to save People of Color from the other “Evil” White People; in this case, the Southern Confederates (a favorite target for Hollywood productions from the 1970s on when it comes to displays of racism). The attitude would actually rub off on to the subordinate Commissioned and Non-Commissioned Officers under his command as time progresses.
An example of his willingness to stand against a soft power racist method comes when the 54th is receiving their first pay slip. Trip (played by Washington) manages to organize a semi-revolt when Shaw tells them that they were going to be paid less because they were Black soldiers. Shaw then decides that no one would be paid if the Black soldiers were going to refuse their pay because they were being paid less, which was seen as an act of solidarity by the Black troops. I suspect, however, that Shaw was more worried about the fact that the regiment was uniting around a cause against the Union Army itself, rather than out of enlightened self-interest.
The Slave of the House:
Where Denzel’s Trip was supposed to be Angry, Defiant Black Man, Thomas (played by Andre Braugher) was supposed to be more a House-bound Slave. He grew up with Col. Shaw, and Shaw considers him a “friend” (as much of a friend as man who owns you, literally, could be). Unlike most of the slaves, Thomas is well-read, and talks with less “Slave” drawl than the others. He is also the most naive (or simply docile) of the main cast, although he does show more bravery as the film goes on. But it is through his character that we see several conflicts: Thomas’ want to be free versus his possibly losing his place in the Shaw household; Thomas’ ability to read and his understanding of White American Aristocracy versus his battles of Authenticity with the rest of the Black troops of the Regiment (as characterized with his running battles with Trip); and Thomas’ perceptions of living versus the reality of war.
His growth is different from Trip’s. Where Trip is shown having to come together with the rest of the group in solidarity because he is “apart,” Thomas has to grow apart from his life with Colonel Shaw and his Boston roots. The moment that shows Thomas’ final step is when he is injured in his first combat action in South Carolina; Thomas accepts the field treatment of his bullet wound, but refuses to be removed from the front. In fact, he volunteers to carry the Regimental American Flag if the flag-bearer fell in battle. It is also at this battle that he and Trip are shown as being comrades-in-arms.
More on the House and Field:
This is a long-running discussion within Black circles, online and off. Because of the consistent reinforcement of White supremacy and White Privilege, much of the discussion about this centered on those who were working in the service of dismantling White Privilege and Supremacy, and those who were seen as working to maintain both systems. Many of the ‘signs’ of House Slaves are ones that mentioned by Trip in his confrontations with Thomas at 40 minutes in, but especially at 1hr and 13mins. It is in this tenor that the conversations take place.
Unfortunately, the “keys” by which Trip uses, like everything else, have either been co-opted or misunderstood completely. The thing is, however, is that these keys are not a good indication of whether someone is working to dismantle or maintain White Privilege. More often than not, these keys are used to silence discussion and dissent, and used to enforce a groupthink in which the end result is the reinforcement of a specific cultural slant…in order to market things tagged as “urban,” usually by large companies with so-called Urban Subsidiaries to make them some authentically Black or Ethnic.
The Final Battle Choir:
Most final battles which involve the use of choirs tend to fail for a multitude of reasons. Often times, the feel of the choir tends to skew towards a pseudo-religious feeling. Also, most composers don’t know how to score effectively with a choir (which is about 90% of the working composers within the Film Industry).
Glory, however, proves exception to this rule. James Horner collaborated with the Harlem Boys Choir in scoring this movie, and is an emotional, if somewhat formulaic (for Horner) soundtrack. Further, the song that is played as Col. Shaw dies and the 54th leads a final (if fatally futile) charge on Fort Wagner (incidentally called Charging Fort Wagner) is the one sequence where Horner’s compositions and the Harlem Choir blend together at its most powerful – the sequence as played in the movie is moving; heard on its own, the song is haunting and emotional…which is something that can’t be said for Horner’s usual scores.
It’s a Final Battle Choir done right. It almost makes me want to forgive the movie itself because of it.
Almost. But I don’t issue Handwaves.
The Other Failure of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment:
It’s not what you might think it is.
After watching Glory, watch the Dogfights episode of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. As a side note, read about the experiences of the 761st Tank Battalion, the 442nd Regiment, or any other unit consisting of Soldiers of Color (usually, however, they would be Black). You’ll start noticing a pattern of many things, including the usual “Lack of Intelligence” memes found often in racist tracts. Remember that the 54th was created in 1863.
And these attitudes continue even today. Admittedly, it would have been a very tall order to dismantle such an attitude when it has been ingrained in American consciousness since the establishment of chattel slavery in the US back in the 18th century.
Glory, as a docu-drama, should be avoided. The story it tells is supremely incomplete, and it tries to segregate Good [or Benignly Racist] White People (Northerners) from the Completely Evil White People (Southerners and Confederates). The contrasts between the scenes with Black troops versus the White Aristocratic Soldiers is a stark contrast in texture versus blandness. It also gives excuse to dress up in Victorian-Era garb, which is a staple in Hollywood. The 54th makes a Noble Sacrifice at the end of the movie, which is both sad (emotionally) and disappointing – watching Soldiers of Color actually win the final battle is taboo.
The Black soldiers, although allowed to fight for their own lives, are nothing but faceless one-dimensional characters whose actors worked as hard as they could to “flesh them out.” But when the movie centers more on Col. Shaw than the Freed Slaves under his command, then it is left up to Matthew Broderick and his talent to salvage the film. Sadly, neither he nor Cary Elwes are really up to the task. If there were less emphasis on these two, this would have been a better film. But Hollywood prefers White Heroes, so we get Glory.
And nothing changes.