Sound the Trumpets
It’s that time again . . .
Time to watch, react, and write about another, surely, highly historically accurate piece of American cinema. And this week it was quite a treat, where I got to watch Glory for the first time.
Released in 1989, starring Hollywood icons Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and . . . Ferris Bueller, Glory follows the somewhat true-to-life story of the 54th Massachusetts regiment of the Union army. I say somewhat because, well, it could have been better, to say the least.
Along with the viewing of this movie, I had the great pleasure of reading Martin Blatt’s essay on the film, written in the year 2000. In my opinion, it’s garbage, but let’s talk about it!
Just Missed the Mark
Although I have my own reservations about Blatt’s criticism, he’s mostly right on a historical level. The film grossly omits many historical truths regarding the 54th Massachusetts, and to name a few:
- The 54th regiment was made up of mainly freemen, rather than former slaves as depicted in the film
- Most of the troops were NOT from the South but in fact from the North
- Frederick Douglass actually had a large part in recruiting for the regiment but was almost completely left out of the movie, with only a short scene depicting the American legend
- Douglass also had a son among the ranks of the 54th
- One William Carney was awarded a Medal of Honor for his efforts at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, one of the first Black recipients of the award (but not the first) and was completely omitted from the story
- One of the most troubling scenes of the film, the whipping of Private Trip, is categorically inaccurate; those in the Union army, Black or White, were subject to an appropriate legal process when handed punishments
But the reason I say Blatt’s criticism is “garbage” (to put it lightly) has nothing to do with his historical qualms over the film, but for his blatant misunderstanding of Hollywood filmmaking.
And to combat his unequivocal misunderstanding of Hollywood, he instead resorts to calling the film industry “racist”, dominated by white filmmakers looking to push alternative narratives. To that, I can only disagree. Maybe in the 80s black filmmakers and actors were not as widely celebrated as they are today, but in 2022 things are much different. Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, both starring in the movie, are considered by every measure industry gods. Probably the most famous Black director, Spike Lee, has produced some of the most culturally significant pieces of contemporary cinema and continues to do so. And as far as newcomers to film, Jordan Peele (more commonly known as part of the Key & Peele duo) has made three highly successful films in the last five years both commercially and critically, containing largely Black casts, with another movie set to release in the summer (and looks very promising).
There are a multitude of critiques that Blatt expressed or cited to bolster his opinion of the Hollywood process.
The most glaring and universal gripe with the film is the chosen perspective of Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the 54th, mainly because it’s a white perspective. I, for one, don’t really have any problems with Shaw as the driver of the story. I think it makes sense to have the perspective of the 54th through the eyes of someone overseeing its operations and leading their charge into battle. Also, Shaw lends well to the narrative process because he left behind multiple letters and primary documents from the time up until his death at Fort Wagner (which were given to the journalist character at the end, but I’m not sure if that was accurate).
Relating to this problem of perspective is the perceived lack of a strong Black presence. Again, I have a problem with this. This opinion completely undermines the performances and stories of the Black characters in the film. For example, Thomas, a good friend of Shaw in the movie, was a born-free Black man in a prominent position but joined the ranks of the 54th as a grunt, having to completely step out of his comfort zone. Trip, a former slave and the rebel of the group, who is, understandably, skeptical of White leadership, eventually forms a mutual respect for Shaw. And lest we forget John Rawlins, played by Morgan Freeman, who represents an intermediary between the Black soldiers and White officers and becomes Master Sergeant of the regiment. To call these Black voices “weak” is an absolutely deplorable take.
And as far as the much-maligned whipping scene, I saw it as profoundly impactful. Although historically inaccurate, it’s Holywood. It’s a point in the film that is a decided character shift for Shaw, in seeing what these men have most likely already gone through before the war, helping him empathize with his troops. But how impactful would that scene still be if it was held in a courtroom, and the punishment not being enacted by a whip, but instead a gavel? It would be the truth, but unless you’re To Kill a Mockingbird, I doubt it would be very effective in storytelling.
If anything, I’m critical of Matthew Broderick’s portrayal of Shaw, being a complete 180-degree change in character from the beginning, to the middle, and again at the end. It was highly inconsistent, and whether that’s a narrative decision or a poor job by Buell- . . . I’m mean Broderick, that’s a debate in and of itself.
Lastly, Blatt seemingly dismisses the accolades of the film. Other than referencing in passing Glory‘s Oscar noms and win by Denzel Washington for Supporting Actor, he tables the rest of them.
Let me provide a list of achievements the film has garnered:
- Five Oscar noms and THREE wins for Supporting Actor, Cinematography, and Sound
- Five Golden Globe noms and win for Supporting Actor (Denzel)
- A Grammy for Instrumental Composition for Movie or T.V.
- Two NAACP Image Award wins in 1992 for Outstanding Motion Picture and Supporting Actor (Denzel)
- Writer’s Guild of America nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay
- Nominated by AFI (American Film Institute) in 1998 for the AFI’s 100 Years . . . 100 Movies list of the greatest American films
- #31 in AFI’s 100 Cheers list in 2006 for most inspiring American films
And now I leave you with Denzel accepting his award for Supporting Actor at the 1989 Academy Awards. What a legend.