' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Glory (1989)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: Glory (1989)

“Glory”, the white Edward Zwick’s recounting of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Civil War regiment, concludes with the infantrymen’s fateful charge on Fort Wagner. It is a stirring, stunning, sad sequence, one capturing just how willing the 54th Massachusetts was to push forward against all odds, which was not an unimportant statement at the time, when many dismissed, absurdly, the notion that black soldiers would fight. “The 54th’s attack did more than prove that Fort Wagner was impregnable to infantry assault,” the historian James McPherson noted in a New Republic piece at the time of “Glory’s” release, “it disabused hundreds of thousands of Northerners of their stereotypes.”

The film opens amidst a different battle – namely, Antietam, the war’s bloodiest. There, a young idealistic captain, Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), the tide turned against him and stricken by shell shock, passes out. Eventually he is rousted awake by a gravedigger, Rawlins (Morgan Freeman). For a moment, in that light, with Rawlins looking down from above, seeming to emerge from the mystic, you’d swear that Rawlins portends The Magical Negro, that terrible archetype in which black film characters are presented merely as quasi-mystical aide de camps to white protagonists. But once Shaw is up, Rawlins moves on because he has his own life and story to lead, one that will eventually loop back around to the 54th.

“Glory”, however, while sometimes trafficking more in two-dimensional than three-dimensional characters nonetheless takes care to try and shatter such stereotypes, emblemized, as McPherson notes, in a later scene where Shaw gallops along, hacking away at watermelons with his saber. Of course, it is still a white character doing the hacking, and it is a white character through whose eyes we principally see this story of the all-black regiment, which not did not sit well with everyone, like the esteemed Roger Ebert who wondered “(W)hy does the top billing in this movie go to a white actor? I ask, not to be perverse, but because I consider this primarily a story about a black experience and do not know why it has to be seen largely through white eyes.”

I have been thinking about “Glory” in the wake of this summer’s “Detroit”, recounting the city’s 1967 race riots, which has raised infinite questions about a movie’s ownership, who has the right to tell its story, considering it was directed not by an African-American but by a white woman, Kathryn Bigelow. Owen Gleiberman, a white critic, wrestled with this question for Variety, perhaps inevitably landing on the observation “That the only factor that should dictate who tells it is, ultimately, the power of the telling.” Perhaps, but many details factor into the telling, such as perspective, and it is perspective that troubled Angelica Jade Bastien so much in her impassioned “Detroit” critique, writing “I realized that I’m not interested in white perceptions of black pain.” This sort of mirrors what Wesley Morris spoke about on his and Jenna Wortham’s podcast Still Processing in a conversation centered on “Detroit” when he commended the all-white southern rock band Drive-By Truckers 2016 song “What It Means” as “a real attempt at looking at black people as a white person looking at black people.” What angered Jade Bastien, I think, was not Bigelow failing to consider black people as a white person but attempting to speak for black people as a white person.

“He wrote it,” Morgan Freeman said of Kevin Jarre, the white screenwriter of “Glory”, “from a place he could write a story from, the only place he could get a grip on it from.” That is why Gould Shaw becomes the protagonist. Kevin Jarre was not trying to speak for black people in “Glory.” The story was seen, as Ebert wrote, largely through a white person’s eyes because it was Kevin Jarre’s attempt as a white person to look at black people. That’s what Gould Shaw is doing, at one point writing home to his parents, “Try as I might, I do not know these men.” But he wants to, and it yields the film’s strongest sequence, when Gould Shaw approaches Pvt. Tripp (Denzel Washington) not long after the 54th’s first battlefield triumph on James Island.

Shaw wishes to award Tripp a commendation, which Tripp refuses by citing the whole conflict’s futility, which Shaw pushes back against with platitudes. In this moment, Shaw is essentially dictating to Tripp, telling him what a commendation means and explaining how you can’t win for losing. But then, he reconsiders. And rather than talking at Tripp, he decides to talk to him.

Shaw: “What do you want to do?” 
Tripp: “I don’t know, sir.” 
Shaw: “It stinks, I suppose.” 
Tripp: “Yeah, it stinks bad. And we all covered up in it. Ain’t nobody clean. Be nice to get clean though.” 
Shaw: “How do we do that?” 
Tripp: “We ante up and kick in, sir.”

That this scene precipitates the scene in which Shaw volunteers the 54th to lead the assault on Fort Wagner is no accident. He might be the one speaking in this scene but he is not speaking for the 54th. No, by essentially giving Tripp’s call a voice, he is letting Tripp, and by extension the 54th, speak for themselves, and Shaw equally commits to listening along, following his men unto the breach, militarily determined to see what it means.

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