Give 'Em Hell, 54

David Tomas Martinez

The first time I watched the 1989 movie Glory I was unimpressed, but that was mostly because I had just discovered girls, and Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington death-spooning on a South Carolina beach in the final shot held little sway over my hormones, and even less on my emotions. As an undergraduate in college, I watched it again. This time with wine, with a woman I loved, and with a little more heart. But unlike before, I was stirred by the camaraderie and bravery of the soldiers, moved by the message, which showed minorities, in this case black men, strong men, overcoming obstacles and oppression to gain their freedom. And most importantly, they deserved their freedom because they had fought for it. Through attrition and fortitude, they earned their dignity, and isn't that what everybody wants: a chance. Captain Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry earned the right to call themselves free. At least it seemed to me then, not now. As I watched the movie again this evening, I began to wonder why this was even in question. Why would I question the soldiers' freedom? It is a truism to attach "inalienable" to "rights," when discussing freedom. And it is a product of redundancy to state all are born with the god-given right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. But why doesn't it feel this way to me? Allow me to explain myself, as not to seem too naïve or bitter or out-of-pocket. I sit in place of privilege. Not financial privilege, but privilege nonetheless. I'm a man. I'm an American citizen. I'm able of body and mind. And career-wise, I'm doing fine. But there is something from the American experience I feel excluded from. Something that can't be printed, spent, or counted. Something supposedly earned at birth. It's what Denzel wanted. It's what I want not to do. I don't want to carry your flag. And I came to understand this while watching Glory. Shaw [Matthew Broderick]: You fought very well yesterday, Trip. Sergeant Rawlins has recommended that you receive a commendation. Trip [Denzel Washington]: Yes, sir? S: Yes, and I think you should bear the regimental colors. T: Well-- S: lt's considered quite an honor. Why not? T: Well, I'm...wantin' to say somethin', sir, but l-- S: Go ahead. T: All right. See--I ain't fightin' this war for you, sir. S: I see. I mean, what's the point? T: Ain't nobody gonna win. lt's just gonna go on and on. S: It can't go on forever. T: But ain't nobody gonna win. S: Somebody's gonna win. T: Who? I mean, you get to go on back to Boston to a big house and all that. What about us? What do we get? S: Well, you won't get anything if we lose. What do you want to do? T: I don't know, sir. S: It stinks, I suppose. T: Yeah, it stinks bad. And we all covered up in it. Ain't nobody clean. Be nice to get clean though. S: How do we do that? T: We ante up and kick in, sir. But I still don't wanna carry your flag. This is one of the few true moments of the film, but I want to briefly discuss the next scene before coming back to this exchange between Trip and Colonel Shaw after their first battle. The scene around the campfire, where the soldiers sing and pray, which is one of the most amiable scenes in the movie, endears the characters to the audience and reflects their growth from misfits to soldiers, and accentuates their becoming truly free men who are about to earn their dignity. It's also one of the scenes most blatantly depicting the kind minority narratives with which the dominant perspective feels most comfortable. The scene begins with the once-illiterate crack shot eloquently leading a prayer. He shows the potential for what people, minorities specifically, can achieve. His holding a Bible while preaching (how the movies love to depict black people singing and being rhythmic) physically exemplifies how far he has come. Even more, his learning, though it came from studying with another black soldier, has really been supplied by the North (because the educated soldier studied at fine Yankee schools). So right away, we get the familiar Horatio Alger narrative of "rags to riches." Next, Morgan Freeman speaks (who is alive, people!). Morgan always is the levelheaded guy--the guy who knows best, like an uncle. Now I don't think Morgan Freeman is an Uncle Tom, but he frequently plays one of the most user-friendly minority characters for the dominant perspective. He played God. He drove an old white lady around without implication of sexual contact. Morgan Freeman's played the Jim to many Hucks in many films. I love the guy. I really do, but aside from when he played Crazy Joe, he's never scared anyone in a film. (I would argue that character, from Lean On Me, affirms the dominant perspective while using tactics no longer socially acceptable by the dominant culture.) Last to speak is Denzel. He is sexy. He is angry. Same dude, different movie. But he represents the possibility of change. He can be whipped severely and will still pick up the flag knowing he will get lit up, but lit up for his country, in the end of the film. That is loyalty. That is insanity. That is not reality. The dominant perspective wants to believe that all wrongs are forgiven. That everything is all right. At the very least, that everything will be all right. I sure as hell hope everything will be all right. But I still don't wanna carry your flag. I don't want to hold, nor respect, a perspective that belittles or narrows my perception of myself by the portrayals I see of others like myself in the media. Please believe these portrayals matter. As a child I saw no brown representation in the media, not beyond the cursory characters in the periphery of a plot, and the show Cops doesn't count. On TV, I saw white. On TV, I saw black. That's it. This void of identifiable characters, personally, made me feel a sense of inferiority. People like me were for the back door, for the lawns and kitchens. They could peek but not speak. Yes, things have begun to change; and now, as we enter an election, Julián Castro emerges on the scene. He is the first Latino to give the DNC keynote address, and his image and popularity conflagrated across screens around the nation. I was proud, as I was of the Olympic long-distance runner holding American and Mexican flags. But for Castro, in his moment of glory, what was the dominant story line? How hard his mother worked to put him through college--the same tired Horatio Alger narrative. The same bullshit, different dude. This is a shame, and a belittlement of this man's achievements and character. I do not blame Castro, or his handlers, or even American society for these narratives that we so tacitly accept. But it is time that we begin dissecting how we characterize individuals in the media and in our own lives and private conversations, and stop with the shorthand depictions of race, gender, religion, sexual preference, etc. It is time we end these gross generalizations that inhibit the growth of those under the microscope. Like Trip, I believe most people, regardless of race or creed or religion or gender or disability or sexual orientation, or any of the multiplicity of distinctions separating us, just want to do their part, want to be a productive part of society. Most just want a chance to succeed. Ending narratives that feebly feed the dominant perspective's comforting cut-outs of individuals is a start. "Oh my lord, lord, lord. Oh my lord, lord, lord. Oh my lord, lord, lord. Mmmmhhhhmmm. Mmmmmhhhmmm. Mmmmhhhhhmmmm."

Comments (2)

  1. Oscar C. Peña:
    Sep 26, 2012 at 02:48 AM

    These soldiers, these men of the 54th Regiment already had freedom. They were willing to fight because that's what the Civil War was about to them; fighting and defeating the system from which they had escaped. But enough about the movie, it is after-all just a dramatization of a piece of Civil War history. You describe the scene where the soldiers are singing and praying. You say this scene is used to bring character development to conclusion. You see this scene as portraying men who are about to earn their dignity. Maybe that's the problem. You think men have to earn dignity. Dignity is what one bestows on himself and is not dependent on another being. Dignity: 1. Bearing, conduct or speech indicative of self respect. 2. Nobility or elevation of character; worthiness. 3. Elevated rank, office, station, etc. 4. Relative standing; rank. -- You even find fault with the singing and praying and clapping because it was staged simply for the gratification of some "dominant perspective". I am assuming you are referring to white people in general or maybe middle class Americans or whatever group would most enjoy seeing black men performing rhythmic performance. I wonder, are you also of the opinion that it is only black folks who can truly play and sing the blues and jazz? In my understanding of the history of jazz, that "kind" of music started in the fields where people communicated while they worked as slaves. Seems to me the choice of music, singing, praying was correct for that time period. As for the illiterate soldier eloquently leading a prayer; do not make the mistake of thinking a man, who does not know how to read; does not have a high school diploma, or college degree or even a PhD, cannot be eloquent or know scripture. Civilization has had thousands of years of practice in learning and teaching through spoken words. As for Morgan Freeman. . ."He drove an old white lady around without implication of sexual contact." Really? Are you serious? That sounds like those old red-neck boys; assuming that the black man was going to do something to their women. What is it about a "rags to riches" narrative that bothers you? Yes Mr. Castro's mother worked hard to put him and his brother through school. What's wrong with that? Maybe it's because you think he isn't getting enough credit, but his reward is in the life that he now lives. He is willing to give his mother credit for much of his success. He doesn't feel the need to tell the world or anyone else, "Hey! Quit looking at my mother. I'm the one who did this, I'm the one who studied and worked hard." How is that belittling? What would you rather the story be? His mother was a drug addict and didn't work, but he and his brother managed to overcome their surroundings. They stole, and sold drugs and heisted cars to get through college, but now they don't have to do those things. Now they can just sit around and brag because they are "homeys" who've done well for themselves? You don't want to carry the flag? Then don't carry it or at least you can pretend you don't carry it. But you do. We all do.

    1. David Tomas Martinez:
      Sep 29, 2012 at 09:47 PM

      Well first off, thank you for taking the time to reply to my post. I appreciate any opportunity for dialogue of an issue that is commonly subsumed to silence scoffs and head shaking. Now let me attempt to address some of your qualms. Your point about dignity seems misplaced to me because I believe dignity or rights is not a distinction to be given. The bestowal of dignity (as if there is some criteria or point system where one could be dignified one day and a scoundrel the next is hilarious to me) is a subtext running through this whole movie. Por ejemplo, the dignity of the 54th opposed to others is a major theme of the movie, and by juxtaposing the other black regiments behavior to the 54th, the movie accentuates the 54th's regal behavior compared to some of their less "enlightened" brothers. The movie also contrasts how a white regiment reacts initially to the 54th before they have entered battle and after. The white regiments gives respect to the 54th when they know they will enter battle first and probably die later in the movie. One could argue that this is just a manly custom of earning respect, but I would argue gender roles, and how men garner respect among men, is heavily influenced by race and other factors. The 54th had to, essentially, volunteer for a suicide mission. Often movies depict minorities, or other sections outside of the dominant perspective, as groups that must earn their respect, and these groups must achieve or attempt some goal to earn their respect that is outlandish. It is always implied that the dominant perspective has achieved more, done more, is just better. Why is that an implication? I believe that is commonly called white privilege. As for jazz. No I do not think Cal Tjader or Dave Brubrick is better than Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or countless other jazz legends. I would not go as far as Miles said in his autobiography, "Miles: the Autobiography" by Quincy Troupe, to paraphrase, that he could hear jazz from outside the club and tell if the musician was white or black. But when it comes to jazz, I do happen to prefer "the original man." Besides, how is this pertinent to my post except for letting me paraphrase a quote from an autobiography I read over 13 years ago straight from my dome piece? Thanks, for the alley-oop, Oscar. You're playing for the home team now, baby. In reference to oral tradition, a point you aptly bring up, my intention wasn't to belittle this tradition. There are plenty of anachronistic thinking (I would say dominant perspective, you would say white) scholars who have done this; however, my point was to show the stock characters that the dominant perspective tends to construct because of a limited context (compounded in part to being exposed to limited narratives of others), when discussing characters outside of their angle of vision. This is a major problem; it is dehumanizing, setting the scene for rejecting wholly any person outside of your own milieu. This is dangerous thinking. This is how objectification begins. Objectification is how a country can enslave a whole section of people, and sleep at night without so much as a pitter-patter of anxiety. The "rags to riches" narrative is a truly horrific problem, and is statistically, and from my own experiential knowledge, a nicely constructed lie. I would say it is on par with telling women to sit around and brush their hair until Prince Charming arrives. And my own personal narrative in no part influenced my comments about Sr. Castro. I think part of the problem is you seem to construct binaries for every situation, or at least in your rebuttal to my post, you have set up either-or options. One can only be black or white. Rich or poor. A good guy or a bad guy. (I mean come on, even the idea of Mexican is absurd. How much Indio; how much Spaniard; how much French, German; how much African?) Yes, I heisted cars and sold drugs and ran with a gang and had a kid in high school, and yes I am currently getting my PhD, but that in no way encapsulates my experiences as a human being, nor can it even begin to express why I have attained any of my achievements. Unfortunately, life is not so easy that we can say: he is right and she is wrong absolutely and with complete confidence. There are gradations and levels. For instance, dominant perspective is not coded language for white. It can mean white. But it can mean any ethnicity, gender, race, religion, etc. Viewing reality through the dominant perspective's lens means aligning yourself in your perceptions and opinions with the dominant class in this country. I do not. And if I hold the flag for this country-- I am taking it a different direction, added a star, put it upside down, given the eagle atop the pole a cactus for perching, something to change the flag. To make the flag more representative of reality and the actual social conditions of the world and this country. I hope you are doing the same, and not, on the important issues, with the others, beep-beeping on down the road.

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