BLACK HISTORY MONTH
America’s Black Patriots
For Love of Liberty: “The Story of America’s Black Patriots.” A three-disc DVD. Directed by Frank Martin and Written and directed by Frank Martin and Jeff Stetson. Halle Berry, on-camera host; Avery Brooks, narrator; and Colin Powell introducing various segments.
This three-disc film package is quite an achievement — artistically and pedagogically. In the Ken Burns tradition it integrates photos, archival footage, black-and-white images, historical paintings, voiceover narration, excerpts from poetry and prose, contemporary shots of historical areas, reenactments of historical events, and commentaries by dozens of personalities (among them, Morgan Freeman, Bill Cosby, John Travolta, Ossie Davis, Robert Duvall, Danny Glover), and music. All three discs capture and keep attention. Burns is quoted on the cover, pointing out what should be obvious but may not be — that the over 235-year history of black patriots is “relevant to all Americans.” Indeed, the story should be an integral part of curricula in our nation’s schools, colleges and universities, where textbooks may not adequately address the narrative [see accompanying article on Howard Dodson.] An argument could also be made that the discs be seen abroad, especially in countries where black soldiers in the 20th century fought and died, among them the U.K., France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Japan, Korea, Vietnam (where 7,264 African-American fighters lost their lives), and now North Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The film, which ran on PBS early last year, might now make for interesting small-group viewing, a kind of home movie night series for friends or a gathering of community folk at a local center. For sure, each segment can generate discussion, some segments even eliciting surprise. Remember the Black Panther Party? Is it generally known that the name first belonged to the First Negro Tank Division that landed in Normandy?
Said to be 10 years in the making, the discs feature voices of familiar personalities, an impressive lineup led by the on-air host, Halle Berry, the actor Avery Brooks, who provides narration, and General Colin Powell, who, as the credits say, plays himself. The titles are: “For Love of Liberty,” “Will the Negro Fight?” (as though Crispus Atticks, an escaped slave, didn’t answer that question with his life five years before the Revolutionary War in Boston when he charged the British) and “The World at War.”
The overall theme in all its tragic irony remains front and center on all the discs, starting when enslaved African-Americans are shown risking their lives “for love of liberty” during the Revolution, believing they would be freed. Promises were broken. During the War of 1812, for example, Andrew Jackson said the right thing and praised black heroism, but when he decided to run for president, action didn’t follow words. Still, blacks continued to serve. Even after President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1946, desegregating the military, it would take three more years for it to be acted on (black veterans, especially those decorated for bravery, were often said to be “uppity”; others, like George Dorsey, came home from war only to be murdered. World War I had its own share of horrors: lynchings not infrequently would “mar the triumphant homecoming of the Harlem Hellfighters.” As Colin Powell remarks on Disc I: “[African-Americans] served without their nation ever serving them. Their story was suppressed.” Still, they continued to serve and were often sent to do the most dangerous jobs. Not by accident is the film’s opening shot of a cemetery — a reminder — “The bones of black men whitening the battlefield.”
“For Love of Liberty” is no screed against racism, though it could be — and some might say it should be. Instead, it makes its points by showing what blacks did heroically for their country, even before it was a country, and long after when, ostensibly, equality was a stated given. The film tries to answer the question: Why did black men and women fight so valiantly for freedoms they didn’t enjoy? And why did they continue to volunteer, aware that they were often distrusted, denigrated, despised? In a way, the election of Barack Obama continues the theme of “For Love of Liberty” because the president of the United States is commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Promotional material indicates that “For Love of Liberty” has been “endorsed by a broad coalition of supporters, including all the major African-American veterans groups and civil rights organizations, prominent senators and congressional representatives, along with leading members of the filmmaking community.”
Depending on the education level, teachers can request “For Love of Liberty” in one of three formats: High School, College and University, and Public Library (Education Update screened the university edition). These differ only in length of total time and focus on archival footage. “The High School set includes the entire four-hour documentary, reformatted into seven classroom-length, stand-alone sequences of approximately 31 minutes each. The University set includes the entire four-hour documentary, reformatted into five classroom-length, stand-alone sequences of approximately 45 minutes each. The public library set includes the entire four-hour documentary, formatted into two episodes as it was originally broadcast on PBS.”
Brief summaries of topics covered on each disc can be found at http://www.ForLoveofLibertyeducation.org. #