GLORY: a critical analysis

By

Mateen O. Kemet


Blaxploitation?

Glory is a film that can be discussed on many fronts, genre, ideology, perspective, adaptation, and even auteurship.  While these are all worthy and interesting topics, the brunt of my critique will fall on the broad shoulders of genre and ideology.  My purpose here is to show that this film is a genre film and as such is an unabashedly exploitive film for Blacks and therefore should be placed in the canon of films labeled Blaxploitation; and to illustrate clearly that the ideology contained in Glory overwhelmingly conforms to Americana.            

How have I arrived at such conclusion?  Let me take the exploitive nature of the film for starters.  Glory uses the unfortunately popular tactic of bail and switch.[1]   It advertises itself as a film about the untold story of the fighting 54th – an all black regiment during the civil war – but instead the film focuses on the life and internal conflicts of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commanding officer of the 54th.  From the opening scenes we are brought in as a spectator with voice over narration to the perspective of Robert Shaw.  We are informed of his concerns and we even see his mother; in fact we don’t see the Black, soon-to-be soldiers, until around minute 15.  I am fully aware that this time frame is the screenplay’s point of attack—the time when we, the audience are given critical information as to plot and central theme—in the Hollywood movie making schematic and so their appearance at this time would seem to negate my argument.2[2]  If the Black volunteers appear at the point of attack then the film must be about them, right?  I say No.  Furthermore, I would say appearance alone is not enough; the perspective of the information given at this crucial time is what determines the plot direction of the narrative.  Whose point of view are we privy to?  Whose perspective is the director letting us follow.  Not the Black soldiers but Robert Gould Shaw.

This type of exploitation in many ways is more painful than the standard fare of stereotypes and such, due to the fact that there is so much hope that goes into a story like Glory.  The viewers are expecting their story to finally be told, and the screen is full of our favorite stars, giving powerful performances.  Actually, let me digress briefly to address the performances.  Because of a dearth of positive roles for Black actors this type of film is seen as a fantastic opportunity for meaningful work.  And in this sense, the film was solid—if not a triumph.  The characters were dignified and there was balance.[3]  In fact, Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his performance and both Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher were spectacular in their supporting roles.  Give n the performance factor, this film could clearly be classified a breakthrough film.  Yet, this is not where the exploitation occurs, it occurs with the manipulation of the viewers.  This was the story, as I stated earlier, of a White man from a White perspective.  Even when we get a chance to feel some of the emotional eight of the Black men, Robert Shaw’s perspective was still given.  Once scene that clearly illustrates this manipulation is the scene when, after the 54th was cleared to fight, they were reduced to manual labor, again enslaved and used as mules, clearing the forest and such.  Their morale low, we start to fell their frustration, but this empathy is only momentary for the scene is accompanied by colonel Shaw’s voice over narration “telling us” about their frustration, and of course voicing his seemingly empathetic point of view.  Actually, there are only four scenes where the 54th’s point of view and history come into play. [4]   It is no coincidence that these are the most powerful and engaging moments of the film (along with the final battle scene). 

                The first scene is when Trip, Thomas, John, Sharts, and the mute drummer boy are in the tent meeting each other for the first time.  We get an opportunity to see their mutual pain through their nervous laughter, the confrontationalism and recalcitrance of Trip, the understanding and wisdom of John Rawlins, the elitism and sensitivity of Thomas, and the inexperience and fear of Sharts. [5]  We are privy to this emotional depth by the film’s formalism, through it’s narrative, and certainly through its performances. [6]

The second scene takes place once again in the tent when Denzel chides Andre Braugher (despondent over the coldness the Colonel has shown him of late), for believing the Colonel was actually his friend, and for foolishly thinking that Thomas himself was perceived differently due to his Western cultural entrenchment.  Here we see the real struggle for Thomas and the cost of assimilation.  We also have ea chance to deliberate on the politics behind Trip’s statement, a statement, or issue, still being debated today.

The third scene takes place around a campfire and is spiritual in nature.  The men of the 54th, who are going into battle the next day “testify” to their fellow man and to their GOD, one would think in the hopes of purifying their souls if they should die during battle.  Even here, in a shining moment of cinematic brilliance, the Black soldiers, with power and emotion, telling their stories with certain death looming on the horizon, we are slipped a full dose of Judeo Christian, American, and conventional Hollywood movie ideology.  By huddling around the campfire, testifying under duress they succumb to pure Hollywood war film convention.  By praying under gospel hymns they have endorsed the Christian repentance paradigm.  Lastly, by fighting and knowing they will die, they endorse the American “home of the brave” ideology. 

The fourth and final scene where we get a glimpse of the story of the Black soldier’s perspective is the scene where after a battle, colonel Shaw asks Trip to carry the flag “as an honor”.  Trip responds by rejecting the request saying “I’m not fighting this war for you”.  I can remember the loud applause I heard in the audience when I saw this film in the theater.  This is what the audience came to see—the perspective of the soldier of the 54th, what is his motivation for fighting?  His contradictions, bafflement, etc.?  Unfortunately, again in the end even this powerful self determining reply would be turned in favor of the main character’s wishes and his ideology.

With only a few scenes in the whole film that actually capture the essence of the 54th, their story and struggle, I think is  painfully obvious, glory is exploitive.  It is not only exploitive of the subject matter but also to the Black audience who were counted on to buy tickets and therefore should be labeled Blaxploitation. [7]  In fact, we can further categorize this film under a sub-genre heading of bait and switch – films about Black subject matter, usually political, but which use a White catalyst as the means to explore the “problem”.  Moreover, this problem is explained from the White protagonists’ point of view, normally at the cost of ostricization by his peers, thus entrenching him as an altruistic champion for justice.  This phenomenon is also accompanied by a resounding endorsement of America and its ideology.  Other films that are in this sub genre include but are not limited to: A Time to Kill, To Kill a Mockingbird, Colors, and 1997’s disgusting rendition of one of the most legendary battles for freedom of all time – Speilberg’s Amistad. [8] 

Ideology

            What is Glory really saying?  What is it really about at its core?  If not about the 54th then what?  Yes, we’ve established the bait and switch phenomena, but let’s go deeper, into the language, into the structure.  What is this film’s ideology?

            I can name this turn in one note or word, as it were; Assimilation.  Throughout this film this beacon shines its light on the character and mise-en-scene of the film, subordinating the ideology to the film’s text. 

            For example, let’s start with Robert Shaw himself.  He has to assimilate the ways of a commanding officer although he is admittedly not ready to do so, in order to seem as though he is in control of the regiment.  To this end, he must adopt harsh ways to his best friend, the major and to Thomas.  He in a way, adopts these stances in order to, as assimilation is want to do, allow him to believe in the seemingly impossible (the perceived implausibility of shaping the Black men  into disciplined soldiers and their subsequent allowance into battle by the War Department).

            Then there’s Thomas, the living embodiment of conformity.  Here is a Black man who has clearly dedicated his life to imitating every aspect of American ways, mores, values, and ideology, eschewing his ancestral cultural embodiments, despite his obvious physiological affirmation of Africa, in an attempt to prove himself worthy of citizenship.[9]


                Morgan Freeman’s character John Rawlins is sympathetic to the White Establishment from the beginning.  He never mentions his own feelings and certainly hasn’t any recalcitrance or nationalism in his spirit.  He is a sentry, literally and symbolically, a trusty translator serving as a middleman for both world – Black and White.[10]  During one scene, a White Union soldier and Trip almost get into a fight.  John Rawlins intervenes, breaking up the fight and then speaks up for the white soldier, who really hates his guts, helping him to not be “brought up on charges”.   Yet, he says nothing when Denzel is caught off camp and charged with desertion, knowing all along that Trip did not desert, but was looking for shoes.  He tells the Colonel later, but only after Trip is nearly beat to death.  He is instrumental in breaking “the buck”.  He breaks Trip’s spirit by denouncing him in public for his anger an feistiness, telling him that he should be honoring these white soldiers.  In fact, he goes on to say that no matter what trip has been through, (which must include all the inhuman horrors of slavery, branding, lynching, mutilation, rape, we even find out later that his mother was killed on the plantation), no matter what his specific horror is, it does not compare to a White soldier dying in battle, presumably for him and the cause of slavery. 

            This again is an endorsement of the dominant ideology.  The dialogue reinforces the warped belief that a White life is somehow more valuable than its darker counterpart.[11]  This reinforced the belief that the Civil War was a fight over slavery and that Lincoln was a friend of Black people, so morally just and against Chattel Slavery that he would be willing to use his political might to engage in war.  This is one of the most egregious deceptions of U.S.  History and can be labeled as none other than blatant propaganda.  Without going on a diatribe about Civil War politics or embarking on a historical/sociological treatise, I will keep it simple and let Lincoln’s own words, during his 1858 debate with Stephen A. Douglas, elucidate my point:

“I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races… I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.  And insomuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” [12]

The last and perhaps most telling case of the assimilationist ideology is with the character Trip.  He is the most crucial because here is where I think the message lays.  Trip is clearly the freedom fighting, angry soul of the collective Black man.  He represents the every day “brother” on the corner, on the train, in the mall, etc.  Throughout the film we are with him fighting side by side (of course this is also due to Denzel’s sterling performance).  We admire his strength; he gets beat but doesn’t budge, and vocalizes what we want to say.  In regard to the colonel he is clearly more valiant, and basically tells him to go to hell when asked forgo a weapon and carry the flag.  He then articulates that this would be an endorsement of America, that he is not fighting for America or at least not the same America for which the Colonel is fighting; for he does not think much will change.[13]   Then after all his recalcitrance, heroics and political consciousness, he gives in, picks up the flag and is immediately shot to death. 

            I would sum up this ideological action this way: Black people – historically disenfranchised, ostracized, and exploited – whose plight is a beacon for champions of injustice world wide, Black men who lead in every major category of death –  heart disease, cancer, murder, AIDS, and suicide, who have the lowest life expectancy of any group in America, who have the highest rate of infant mortality, should, no, must, pick up that flag and assimilate the ideology of the prevailing culture; and do it knowing their impending doom!

There is so much more that I can talk about in this film as it is so wrought with idealism and exploitation.  So complete is this film in that regard that it pains me to watch it.  I think it is clear that I have issues here.  I would like to elaborate on the other huge ideological mantra this film presents: the Judeo-Christian/Jesus construct, but unfortunately I will have to expound on this at a later date as I have already exceeded the boundaries of the length of this critique.  Therefore, I will conclude, stating that Glory is one of the most exploitive and ideologically permeating films of the last quarter century, if not in all of film history, and should be duly noted as such in the annals of cinema. 



[1] When racial history or politics is a prominent feature of the narrative this technique is used to suck ethnic moviegoers into the theaters.  I will elaborate fully later in this paper.  Also note that when I refer to veiwership, I am talking about primarily Black movie viewers whom purchase 25%-30% of all movie tickets.

[2] Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, ed, Film Theory and Criticism, 5th ed.  (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1999)  Cinema/Ideology/Criticism p.755,757.  This film, sits somewhere between Comolli and Narboni’s fourth case scenario where they place films “which [are] explicitly political in content but which do not effectively criticize the ideological system in which they are embedded because they unquestioningly adopt its language and imagery”, and their first case scenario where they place films that are “imbued with the dominant ideology in pure unadulterated form.  The question is; is this an unintentional unconscious promotion of ideology or is it a deliberate manipulation-using cinema as the tool for propaganda (see Walter Benjamin: The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction).

[3] The issue of balance is often a sore point for the Black viewer, we understand that everyone cannot be the hero and are not upset when we are shown in a negative light because we are sophisticated enough to understand our race/class has its share of bad guys just like every other race/class; however, where the problem occurs, is when the negative is all that we see, there isn’t any balance between good and bad Black characters

[4] This is the meat of the movie and should take most of the screen time.  What is each man’s story?  9the characters—Trip, John Rawlins, Thomas, and Sharts.)  We are only given a gander at Thomas’ story –

[5] “civilized” northerner, whereas the other men are seemingly just ex slaves not worthy of detail.  But why are they there.  Where do they come from?  Is each man’s view and story of slavery the same?  What did it take for them to get to the union?  Who or what did they leave behind?  This is the real story of the fighting men of the 54th and this is what should have been cinematically presented.  Yes the internecine difficulties within the union collective concerning the entry of Black men into the army is an important part of the story, but only a subplot.

[6] The formalism is evidenced by the use of warm but low lighting, the use, or better yet, the lack of space, and the cramped camera composition. 

[7] Leo Braudy and Marshal Cohen, ed., Film Theory and Criticism, 5th ed. (New York, N.Y. : Oxford University Press, 1999) p. 755.  Again, note this analysis is built on the perspective of the Black viewer.  If we were to look at this from the perspective of the White viewer, representing the dominant ideology, we would need to go back to Comolli Ann Narboni’s first case scenario where they discuss at length the unconsciousness of ideology, and viewer demand.   The following excerpt should help clarify: “…The majority of films in all categories are the unconscious instruments of the ideology that produces them.  Whether the film ‘commercial’ or ‘ambitious’, ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’, whether it is the type that is shown in art houses, or in smart cinemas, whether it belongs to the ‘old’ cinema or the ‘young’ cinema, it is most likely to be a re-has of the same old ideology.  For all films are commodities and therefore objects of trade…this merging of ideology and film is reflect…by the fact that audience demand and economic response have also been reduced to the same thing…Certainly there is such a thing as public demand, but ‘what the public wants’ means ‘what the dominant ideology wants’.  The notion of a public and its tastes was created by the ideology to justify and perpetuate itself…” thus, perhaps this is the rendition of the Civil War that White audiences want to see, what their ideological blinders will allow them to see: a story about the turmoil of a White colonel leading a Black regiment and his passions, contradictions etc.  Movies allow us to see ourselves in a character’s shoes, maybe white audiences don’t want to see themselves in Trip’s, John Rawlins,  Thomas’ or Sharts’ shoes.

[8] The accurate portrayal of racial subject matter from the perspective of the culture in which the story is set is not solely defined by membership in said culture.  I am not saying that white directors cannot make films with black subject matter as main plot, no do I believe the converse, that Black directors can only make “Black” films.  However, I am saying that when one does cross over, the story should be true to that culture’s point of view.  Several directors achieve this level of filmmaking; John Sayles, Norman Jewison, John Cassevetes, Carl Franklin, Ang Lee, and Antoine Fuqua.

[9] I discuss this in a purely academic analytic sense, and do not demean this characterization, for it was believed by many Blacks that the method of entry in White society was through complete imitation, thereby showing society that they were as genteel, urbane, aristocratic, and intelligent as Whites.  This was popular all the way up to the late 60’s, and is still seen as a technique by some segments of the population today.

[10] This is a role he has perfected: the wise, old, sexless companion to a white lead.  See Amistad, Unforgiven, Seven, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, The Power of One, The Shawshank Redemption and Driving Miss Daisy.  The problem is he is such a fine actor and has an innate regalness, that he exudes with each performance.  He gives these roles such dignity and morality, one can’t help but enjoy the performance; however, the roles themselves are, in my opinion, assimilationist and many times exploitive.

[11] This belief is proven true empirically when the practices of the U.S. judicial system is reviewed, particularly interesting is the issue of capital punishment.  As of 1990, there has been no White person ever given the death sentence for killing a Black person, no matter the heinousness of the crime.  Whereas the majority of the Black death row inmates are convicted of crimes against Whites.  This holds true especially when the crime is allegedly committed by a Black man and the alleged victim is a White female. 

[12] Roy Basler, ed., The Collected works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953, III. 145-146.

[13] He is right when you look at the fact that it took 100 years after the war for Blacks to acquire the basic democratic right of voting.