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For Love of Liberty: The Story of America's Black Patriots

Harlem Hellfighters celebrate Armistice

By Andrea Appleton | Posted 2/18/2010

For Love of Liberty: The Story of America's Black Patriots has a promising premise. The new four-hour documentary, presented by Maryland Public Television, chronicles an aspect of American history that has been largely ignored: the role of black servicemen and -women in war. The two-part series begins with the American Revolution—in which more than 5,000 blacks fought—and proceeds chronologically through every major conflict up to the present day, cataloguing acts of heroism that will be unfamiliar to many viewers. From the dawn of the republic, African-Americans consistently fought for a country that denied them basic rights, often for commanders that did not consider them fully human. By way of introducing the documentary, on-camera host Halle Berry poses a very good question: "Why, despite enormous injustices, did these heroic individuals fight so valiantly for freedoms they themselves did not enjoy?"

The mini-series—a project of actor Louis Gossett, Jr.—was 10 years in the making, and it shows. The filmmakers dug up reams of historical footage and countless photographs and paintings, as well as hundreds of letters, journal entries, speeches, and newspaper articles. The format borrows heavily from Ken Burns, with an impressive cast pitching in for dramatic readings of historical texts. (Ice-T, Kris Kristofferson, Bill Cosby, John Travolta, Danny Glover, Susan Sarandon, Morgan Freeman, and Jeffrey Wright all take part. The list goes on.) Dozens of ordinary soldiers, as well as historical figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells, are given voice, as are numerous forgotten "firsts," like Capt. Riley Pitts, the first black officer to receive the Medal of Honor. If For Love of Liberty isn't comprehensive, it's certainly a valiant attempt.

Unfortunately, much of that rigor is wasted due to poor storytelling. Early on, the words of Spanish-American War historian Edward Johnson appear on the screen: "Let it be said that the Negro soldier did his duty under the flag, whether the flag protected him or not." Like lawyers arguing a case, the filmmakers proceed to prove this point, exhibit by exhibit. The documentary begins with Crispus Attucks, the first casualty of the American Revolution, and moves swiftly through history, never lingering long. The bulk of the story is told through voice-overs of letters and journal entries. While these original sources are often fascinating, it's a format that grows tired after four hours. (And when those sonorous voices start quoting web sites, as they do in describing the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, it's downright embarrassing.)

Instead of interviewing historians or people who actually fought in these wars, the producers put their energies into historical reenactments. For the most part, they are impressionistic and inoffensive. Most dramatize the act of letter-writing itself: Think quill pens and inkwells. But by World War I, when reenactments of soldiers in action begin to alternate with historical footage, they become frustrating. It is difficult to tell which shots are authentic, distracting the viewer into checking for graininess in the film stock. (And reenactments of the Persian Gulf War? Give me a break.)

All that said, parts of For Love of Liberty are quite powerful. The long litany of heroic feats by black Americans, while poorly contextualized, makes one realize the extent to which American military history has been whitewashed. And the documentary covers many figures that should long have been in the history books. Many Americans know about Crispus Attucks, the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, and the Buffalo Soldiers, the black regiment that helped "tame the West." But how many have heard of Robert Smalls? Smalls was a slave who worked aboard a Confederate steamer during the Civil War. One night, while the white officers were ashore, Smalls commandeered the ship and delivered it into the hands of the Union. Smalls became a hero, and the ship was hailed as "the first trophy from Fort Sumter." He later became a South Carolina state legislator, and helped draft a new constitution of the state in which he had been a slave.

Or what about Eugene Jacques Bullard, World War I's only black combat pilot? Bullard flew accompanied by a pet monkey named Jimmy, and the insignia on his plane read: "All blood runs red." He was known as "The Black Swallow of Death" for his flying--and shooting--prowess. He flew for the French; the American military barred blacks from flying. Each bio in the documentary is disappointingly brief, but like a good encyclopedia, For Love of Liberty leaves you wanting to know more.

The quoted letters, too, are often moving. "Why did black men die here in France 3,300 miles from their homes?" soldier William Hewlett wrote during World War I, echoing the writings of many a soldier before and after him. "Was it to make democracy safe for white people in America, with the black race left out?"

But as the series moves into the modern era, its flaws become more glaring. Its coverage of the Vietnam War makes barely any mention of the draft, which was clearly a great motivator for soldiers of all colors. And the feats of black soldiers who fought in Vietnam are celebrated with only scant mention of the "war" at home. What of those black Americans, like Muhammad Ali, who exhibited that other kind of bravery: resistance?

In their single-minded effort to be laudatory, the filmmakers sometimes bang the war drums a bit too loudly. Midway through introducing the current conflicts in the Middle East, narrator Avery Brooks says: "The war on terrorism spilled into Iraq." Millions of Americans might beg to differ that the lead-up to the war was quite that simple, but such lack of nuance is unfortunately the norm in For Love of Liberty.

At the end, host Halle Berry returns to the question of motivation. What led generations of black Americans to fight and die for a country that didn't even afford them basic freedoms? The patriotic music—too loud and too constant throughout—swells, and Berry reveals the long-awaited answer. It's simple, apparently. "Like all Americans in all wars," she says, "African-Americans fought for love of liberty."

For Love of Liberty: The Story of America's Black Patriots airs on Maryland Public Television Monday, Feb. 22, and Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 9:00 p.m.

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