The Secret to Making a Good Black War Movie
Two words—Denzel Washington
A Soldier’s Story is a film about an all-black U.S. Army unit in World War II. The 1984 surprise hit has action, mystery, suspense and—more importantly—a 30-year-old Denzel Washington in a small role.
It’s one of Denzel’s first film appearances. And the first instance of a peculiar Hollywood phenomenon. Besides A Soldier’s Story, the only other successful movie about African-Americans in the military also features Denzel Washington in its cast.
In 1989, Denzel portrayed Pvt. Trip, an ex-slave turned soldier for the Union Army in director Edward Zwick’s Civil War film Glory. The role snagged Denzel an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Glory remains one of the best war movies ever.
It’s not for no reason that Denzel was able to pretty much corner the good-black-war-movie market. There really aren’t that many movies about African-Americans in the military. The two most recent ones flopped.
The public, and critics, were ambivalent about Spike Lee’s 2008 World War II flick Miracle at St. Anna. The film cost $45 million to shoot and ended up making just $9 million at the box office.
Lee’s ambition doomed the joint. “There is too much, too many characters, too many subplots,” critic Roger Ebert wrote about Miracle at St. Anna. The movie has a 34-percent approval rate at the ranking Website Rotten Tomatoes.
Red Tails, George Lucas’ 2012 stinker about the black Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, was worse. “Though relying too heavily on computer technology and musical rah-rah, it’s the plot that sends the film hurtling to earth,” Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote. “You leave Red Tails thinking of what might have been instead of what is—a missed opportunity.”
There was one near-miss. Writer-director Quentin Tarantino said his 2009 movie Inglourious Basterds was supposed to include a subplot featuring black American troops.
“My original idea for Inglourious Basterds way back when was that this [would be] a huge story that included the [smaller] story that you saw in the film but also followed a bunch of black troops, and they had been fucked over by the American military and kind of go ape-shit,” Tarantino said.
But with the film possibly clocking in at more than four hours, Tarantino nixed the subplot.
It’s worth noting that Denzel Washington had nothing to do with Miracle at St. Anna, Red Tails or Inglourious Basterds.
Now, things could be turning around for African-American war flicks. Thanks to Denzel, of course. He’s set to direct and star in Brother in Arms, about the all-black 761st Tank Battalion in World War II’s Battle of the Bulge.
The source material is a book by, of all people, NBA Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Actors Morgan Freeman and Will Smith are also attached, lending the film serious star power besides Denzel.
Also, Sony recently acquired the rights to Max Brooks’ graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters, about an African-American infantry unit in World War I. The film isn’t casting yet, but we can think of someone who might fit the bill.