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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 4, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Songs, Soldiers, and Hollywood Racism

First things first. Art Linkletter is alive. I'm glad he's alive, and I'm sorry I said he wasn't. If you had an appointment with him, you should keep it, because he's not dead.

*

Second things second. If, like me, you're a fan of the great old songs in the Porter/Gershwin/Rodgers/Kern/Mercer tradition, then what could be more wonderful than having the best music critic in America put together the "Great American Songbook," an annotated list of the fifty greatest songs from the greatest era of popular music, along with a cd you can buy with a classic performance of the song.

Terry Teachout, the music critic of Commentary magazine, is in the midst of doing it right now.

I've already touted the magazine here, but if you don't already have a subscription, go online and check out Teachout's "Great American Songbook" at http://www.commentarymagazine.com.

Be warned, though. If you just type "commentary.com" -- without the "magazine" -- some saboteur has hijacked the name and it leads you to a socialist website.

No kidding, there really are socialists left in the world, and apparently they're as sneaky as ever.

(That was a joke, folks, so no letters from socialists or humorless people who think my comment will create a "chilling effect" on "diversity.")

*

Kristine and I saw "We Were Soldiers" last night. It was as real and emotionally disturbing as the opening of "Saving Private Ryan," but ... hard as this is to believe, it's a better movie.

The movie is set in Vietnam, at the point where helicopter "cavalry" was first being introduced into combat. Based on the book "We Were Soldiers Once, and Young," the two authors of the book are also characters in the film. General Hal Moore, then a lieutenant colonel, is played by Mel Gibson; Joe Gallaway, then a war correspondent, is played by Barry Pepper.

This movie shows you the confusion and terror, the sense of wrenching loss and imminent destruction ... but it also does something much harder for a film to do: It gives you clarity. You actually understand what's going on.

And the movie doesn't take sides. It shows you men being noble and brave when they were noble and brave -- on both sides. And it shows you men being dumb or simply unlucky and dying for it.

You see planes come in and drop napalm at a time when nothing else could have saved our soldiers from being overrun. And just when you're thinking, well, maybe napalm is one of the ugly necessities of war, they show a couple of planes drop bombs on the wrong target, and American soldiers dying the terrible death intended for the North Vietnamese troops.

And yet they still have to call in more napalm; it's that or die.

Remarkably, despite the fact that this movie is already full of characters we care about, the battle is interrupted to show us what is happening back home in North Carolina, where the officers' wives are struggling to deal with the near-instantaneous death notices.

I have seen movies that deal with the family's grief, and movies that deal with the harsh reality of battle, but frankly, I've never seen a movie even try to do both jobs well. "We Were Soldiers" tries and succeeds.

This movie was written and directed by Randall Wallace. He also wrote "Braveheart" and "The Man in the Iron Mask" and "Pearl Harbor." But he didn't direct them. This is his first film as a director.

I think it's safe to say that nothing happened on this film unless Mel Gibson wanted it to happen. That's where the power was.

If Gibson had wanted to mess with it, he could have. You know, the way Whitney Houston wrecked "The Preacher's Wife" because she couldn't stand to let anybody else have a wonderful moment on screen -- she (or "her people") even had a solo taken away from a little kid so that nobody else got the spotlight.

And even though Bruce Willis did not wreck "Hart's War," you can count on it that in the original script, his character did not come back at the end to trump the sacrifices of other characters. That bit was added so that the biggest star would have the biggest part.

Gibson doesn't seem to do that, or if he does, he does it in a way that doesn't damage the rest of the film. Other people get moments to shine, long stretches when Gibson isn't on the screen.

And Gibson has the courage to show religious faith without making fun of it, to show heroism without diminishing the pain. These elements would not have been in the script of a movie starring Mel Gibson if he didn't want them there.

To be fair, Gibson is probably also responsible for the anachronistic absurdities that ruined "The Patriot" for me (plus I resented having the career of Francis Marion hijacked). But his heart was in the right place.

Compare Gibson with, for instance, Spielberg. When Spielberg did "Private Ryan," he had his twenty-minute battle scene (not as clear and no more real than "We Were Soldiers") and his tears of grief. But being Spielberg, he just couldn't keep the hokey fakery out of it. I cried in his movie, but at the end, when I thought about it, I felt like a sucker.

Gibson doesn't do that. He's not afraid to let the chips fall where they may in a movie over which he has the ultimate power (which is pretty much any movie he does these days).

I've seen some film critics say that "We Were Soldiers" is good -- but not as good as "Platoon" or "Apocalypse Now."

I have to disagree. I think "Platoon" and "Apocalypse Now" were both deeply deformed, "Platoon" by Oliver Stone's completely wacked-out but politically correct vision of reality, "Apocalypse Now" by Coppola's arch literariness.

Neither film can remotely claim to tell "the truth" about Vietnam.

"We Were Soldiers" can make that claim, as much as any film can ever be said to tell the truth.

*

When you hear people complain that Hollywood is racist, you may think it's just political correctness or "the same old whine."

In fact, I've heard white people complain because there are too many black faces on screen. Of course, these are usually people from the West, where there aren't many black people around, period. So any black face looks noticeable and strange to them.

My answer to my western friends who say such things is, "I live in North Carolina, where we actually have black people, and from what I see, black people are way underrepresented." It usually shuts them right up.

But when you hear about how the best roles just don't go to black actors, I can tell you, it's true, and it's not an accident.

I've been in the meetings. Here's the conversation. "I think Andre Braugher would be perfect for this part. I think he's the best actor around in this age group, and this part would show off his best stuff."

"No, no, out of the question."

"Why?"

And here's what it comes down to: Hollywood believes -- and I've heard this even from blacks in the industry, working as executives and agents -- that white audiences won't go to movies starring blacks.

And when you say, "Will Smith," what's the answer?

"Oh, he's fine, as long as he has a white co-star to carry him."

Danny Glover is given no credit for Lethal Weapon. Samuel Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes, even Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman -- "everybody" says you can't build a movie on them.

I think they're not just wrong, they're obviously wrong. Every one of them has starred in hits. But when they do, the credit for its success seems to flow to someone else.

I'm not making this up, folks. I've been in the meetings.

It's not a conspiracy. It's just that the people who run the movie biz are terrified of failure, and because "everybody" says that black stars can't open a movie, nobody dares to put these actors in films that might put some real money at risk.

And let's not even get started on what black actresses have to go through to get a part.


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