David Tomas Martinez is a PhD candidate at the University of Houston, and Reviews and Interviews Editor at Gulf Coast. His first collection of poems, Hustle, will be released by Sarabande Books in 2014.
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.
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."