As we prepare to observe the day that honors men and women who gave their lives while serving in the U.S. Military, we take a look back at the films celebrating the sacrifice of Black soldiers in cinema.
While war movies have been around as long as cinema has existed, the contributions of Black soldiers has consistently been minimized. Over the course of over a century of filmmaking, there have been countless stories showing the horror, bravery, tragedy and excitement of combat that have audiences clamoring for more.
Instead of focusing on all War movies, we concentrated on the ones featuring Black actors, in leading performances, or through their perspectives, in conflicts in which the U.S. fought from the Civil War through the present.
Without any further ado, and in no particular order, here is our list of the Magnificient Seven Memorial Day Movies; let us know which films we missed.
A Soldier’s Story (1984)
“They hate you, they still HATE you . . . “
An African-American officer investigates a murder in a racially charged situation in World War II. Howard Rollins, Jr. stars as Captain Davenport, the first Black officer many have seen. He is investigating the murder of Sgt. Waters (Adolph Caesar), who many think were killed by the Klan. Some of the most talented actors of the period, who would go on to successful careers, appeared in this powerful film including the aforementioned Rollins, Caesar, a young Denzel Washington, Robert Townsend, David Alan Grier and the late Larry Riley. The scene where Waters explains his motivation for hating C.J. Memphis is both scary and a work of art.
“Y’all’s the onliest family I got. I love the 54th. Ain’t even much a matter what happens tomorrow, ’cause we men, ain’t we?”
Robert Gould Shaw leads the US Civil War’s first all-black volunteer company, fighting prejudices of both his own Union army and the Confederates. Directed by Robert Zwick, the film featured tremendous performances from its talented cast, including an Oscar-winning performance from Denzel Washington as well as winning turns from both Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher. Who can forget Washington’s single tear or the campfire testimonial? A film that has continued to grow in stature over time.
Hamburger Hill (1987)
“Surely, you people must be aware… that the brothers are here because they cannot afford an ed-u-cation.”
A brutal and realistic depiction of war which was based on a true story a squad of soldiers trying to take a fortified hill held by the North Vietnamese, and the extensive casualties they suffer trying to take the famed “Hamburger Hill” which turned assaulting troops into shredded hamburger meat. Future heavyweights Courtney B. Vance, Don Cheadle and Michael Boatman cut their teeth in this brilliantly executed war movie. While not as heralded as its celebrated counterpart, Platoon, this film truly showcases the brutality of combat.
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Miracle At St. Anna (2008)
“Safety is the greatest risk of all, because safety leaves no room for miracles and miracles are the only sure thing in life.”
Set in 1944 Italy, the story of four black American soldiers who get trapped in a Tuscan village during WWII. Director Spike Lee’s six-time Black Reel Award-nominated war story is a fresh perspective on the involvement of Black soldiers during the second World War. While the story shows the miracle of humanity, while focuses on the trials and tribulations of four soldiers and friends, Derek Luke, Omar Benson Miller, Michael Ealy and Laz Alonso, who navigate their way through Italy. Not Lee’s strongest film but a noble attempt, nonetheless.
Red Tails (2012)
“We have a right to fight for our country. The same as every other American.”
A crew of African-American pilots in the Tuskegee training program, having faced segregation while kept mostly on the ground during World War II, are called into duty under the guidance of Col. A.J. Bullard. Financed by George Lucas, who was interested in getting the story told, he tabbed Anthony Hemingway to bring this war tale based on the formation of the Tuskegee Airman to life. Super cast includes several Black Reel Award winners, including Nat Parker, Terence Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr., David Oyelowo and Michael B. Jordan. The film is moving tribute to the unsung heroes who rose above extraordinary challenges and ultimately soared into history.
Sergeant Rutledge (1960)
“Soldier can never think by his heart, ma’am. He got to think by the book.”
Respected black cavalry Sergeant Brax Rutledge stands court-martial for raping and killing a white woman and murdering her father, his superior officer. Described by Cliomuse as “one of director John Ford’s last westerns, Sergeant Rutledge was not a box office success, and it met with a mixed critical reception in the USA. Fifty years on, this mixture of cavalry western and courtroom drama can now be seen as one of Ford’s most intriguing movies. The movie’s subject-matter also offers some valuable insights into the controversial issue of race in early 1960s America, as well as throwing some light on Ford’s attitudes towards racial minorities. Sergeant Rutledge seems to be Ford’s attempt to redeem himself for a frequently criticized feature of his Westerns: their use of racial / ethnic stereotypes, most often found in his depictions of Native Americans.” One of most memorable performances from Woody Strode.
The Tuskegee Airman (1995)
“Friends die in our business, and for a lot of reasons. And the only protection you have against losing one is not to have any.”
The true story of how a group of African American pilots overcame racist opposition to become one of the finest US fighter groups in World War II. HBO’s initial film depicting the story of the pilots that integrated the armed services. The precursor to Red Tails, the film featured an all-star cast, including Laurence Fishburne, Allen Payne, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Courtney B. Vance, Andre Braugher, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Mekhi Phifer. Despite the charges of errors of the airmen’s achievement, the film is a thoughtful and uplifting slice of aerial pride for officers of color.