Friday, February 6, 2015

Great War Centennial, Popular Culture, Sony Pictures, and the Legacy of Our Forgotten Heroes

I begin by apologizing in advance for breaking my rule of keeping this blog of mine focused entirely on my hobby and various historical topics, however a certain serendipity of events compels me to do so this once, as I regard the topic to be of too great an importance for me to remain silent on the matter.

I was recently contacted by the nonprofit organization Color of Change asking me to sign a petition directed at Sony Pictures calling for the firing of studio head Amy Pascal in light of revelations of Pascal's appallingly racist beliefs exposed in her e-mails made public by hackers.  While I do not condone hacking in principle as it is a grievous violation of privacy even on a good day, the exposure of Pascal's disgustingly self evident racism was simply too egregious for me to feel much sympathy for her being the victim of such an event. As a consequence and given both the gravity of Pascal's comments and her level of authority within one of the largest corporate media entities on the planet, I felt compelled to add the following comment to my signature on the petition to Sony Pictures:

"Amy Pascal has demonstrated through her comments and correspondence that she is an American willfully ignorant of our nation's history, and willfully disrespectful of and ambivalent to the service of many tens of thousands of Black Americans in our Armed Forces in harm's way as I write this comment. 

Ms. Pascal's despicable lack of respect and frankly wretched lack of awareness of this irrefutable reality demonstrates a gross lack of fitness on her part to serve in any capacity of responsibility public or private sector alike. 

Ms. Pascal has demonstrated that she is either unaware of or simply dismissive of the fact that many hundreds of thousands of Black Americans have served in every war our nation has been engaged in since our War of Independence, and many tens of thousands of them having given their lives in defense of our nation. 

Ms. Pascal has through her racist, willfully ignorant correspondence and pathetically tone deaf responses to the all too predictable outrage of Americans of every ethnicity and faith over her revealed comments shown she has either no knowledge of or a gross disregard for the history of service of the Black American veterans of the 332nd Fighter Group, the 761st Tank Battalion, the 369th Infantry, the 371st Infantry, the 372nd Infantry, and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment just to name a handful of the Black American combat units that served so gallantly in our nation's defense.

Amy Pascal has demonstrated that she cares not one whit for the heroism of Corporal Freddie Stowers or Sgt. Henry Johnson during the First World War. She has shown she has no respect or regard for their memories, nor the memories of Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers or Private George Watson, who gave their lives in the service of their country, sacrificing themselves to save the lives of their comrades. 

Amy Pascal has shown she cares not one whit for the heroism and sacrifices of men like 1st Lt. Charles L. Thomas, who suffered grievous wounds while commanding his gun battery under fire, yet continued to lead his men in an exemplary fashion until he was overcome by blood loss. She has shown that she has no respect for the heroism and sacrifice of 1st Lt. John R. Fox, who gave his life in the struggle to liberate Europe from Nazi occupation. Lt. Fox singlehandedly held back a German attack to enable his unit to escape being overrun and wiped out by a superior enemy force, remaining in a second floor observation post directing artillery fire on the attacking Germans. Lt. Fox single-handedly accounted for circa 100 German soldiers, and saved his comrades from death or capture at the cost of his own life.

These are just a few of the Black Americans Amy Pascal has demonstrated she holds in such utter contempt. Now that Amy Pascal has stepped down, the question is begged, does the leadership of Sony Pictures share her contempt for these brave Americans who risked their lives in defense of our nation, many at the cost of their own lives, or not?

The actions of the leadership of Sony Pictures will answer this question. I for one speaking as a military historian and educator am fully aware that this is the centennial of the First World War. I am also as an avid filmgoer fully aware that to date no feature length motion picture depiction of the sacrifices and gallantry of the Black American doughboys who served with extraordinary courage and determination on the Western Front during the First World War has ever been made. 

This means that to date while the world may yet remember the story of Corporal Alvin York thanks to Gary Cooper's depiction of him in the film Sgt. York, we have no movie depicting the heroism, leadership by example, and battlefield skill of Henry Johnson or Freddie Stowers. While we have movies representing the valor of the Lost Battalion (The Lost Battalion) or the exploits of the Lafayette Escadrille (Flyboys). we have no film to date dramatizing the life and adventures of Eugene Bullard or the tremendous endurance and courage of the men of the 371st and 372nd "Red Hands."

I personally am challenging you, Sony Pictures, to step up to the plate, and put your words of contrition into action. "

So there you have it. We are at this moment in the centennial of the First World War, a global conflict the consequences of which we are still very much experiencing, a conflict that had a profound impact on the shaping of the world we live in today. Further, for all of their billions of dollars spent upon movie productions that result in endless retellings of formulaic fluff and nonsense entertainment, I for one have yet to see anyone pick up the gauntlet of presenting the tales of courage and fortitude of the Black American doughboys of the Great War, let alone present on the silver screen the life in some reasonable depth and honesty of the first Black American fighter pilot, Eugene Bullard.

While I have few doubts that Sony Pictures will actually heed my comments on the deplorable Ms. Pascal, hope springs eternal, and perhaps someone will finally use the medium of film to recreate the astonishing heroism of and tragic injustices heaped upon the "Red Hands" during their time of service in the Great War. Or perhaps the memory of Eugene Jaques Bullard will be immortalized in film as it deserves, his tale of tragedy, injustice at the hands of Jim Crow racism, triumph as a decorated soldier in the Legion Etranger and later a fighter pilot for France, only to end his days in impoverished obscurity, unknown and unrecognized by his native land, but rnot forgotten by a grateful French Republic.

For those of you interested in an in-depth look at the experiences of the Black American doughboys during the First World War, I very highly recommend The Unknown Soldiers: African-American Troops in World War I by Arthur E. Barbeau and Florette Henri. 

You can also pick up a crash course in the subject matter in Osprey Publishing's Buffalo Soldiers 1892-1918 by Ron Field. This is the second installment of Mr. Field's works for Osprey on the subject of the Black American soldiers of the U.S. Army covering the period spanning aftermath of the American Civil War through the Indian Wars of the last half of the 19th century, to the end of the First World War. I highly recommend all three books as a quick yet readable and very informative education on this neglected subject matter.