A noble, lavishly-produced Civil War epic that brings both the spectacle and the intimacy of a warfront, this Oscar-baity flick centers on the first African-American army regiment commissioned to fight for the North. The first part of the film follows the leader of the regiment, the young Robert Gould Shaw, as he experiences a rift with his upstanding family when he returns from near-death experience on a battlefield to his contented, protected family and friends. Ironically, it is his connections and privilege that lead him to meet Frederick Douglass, who joins in assigning Shaw with heading up the first all-negro regiment, the 54th. Shaw, alongside two of his friends from home, heads out to train the hodgepodge of African-Americans that gleefully sign to fight for the freedom of every black American. There, they all deal with the racism and ignorance of an army that is used to dealing with black folk like cattle, denying them supplies like shoes and proper uniforms while they fight as hard as anyone to grow battle-savvy enough for a real offensive. When their day finally comes, and they set out into the battlefront, they must step up and put aside their squabbles with the union, with the army, and with each other to make the first major claim for free African-Americans in the post-Emancipation Proclamation era.
This is a handsome film, with top-notch production values across the board, from the costumes to the massive cast all the way down to the elaborate battle scenes. But thankfully, there is more to mention here that you can’t necessarily get from a local Civil War reenactment, and that is a depiction of the emotional journey of a black member of the 54th. We see a wide range of freed black men, from escaped slaves, ditch-diggers and such, and even educated northerners, all of whom are being spit on by an army that still thinks of them as sub-human. Early on, there is a notice from the Confederacy that any African-American soldiers, along with their white commanding officers, will be shot on sight if captured; the 54th’s reaction to that is a great display of the kind of emotion this film can conjure up at its high points. Aside from their enemies, the men are also forced to compensate for the lack of slack given to them by their higher ups, and their naturally resentful spirit is exemplified by Denzel Washington’s former slave, Trip. He knows that the 54th will struggle all the way to the front, if they are ever even given the opportunity for a serious offensive, and has a thick skin from years of home-fried Southern racism. However, training for the war alongside his compatriots strengthens him up, and by the end, he is a devout, proud soldier; it is his journey, along with those of the men he affects in his platoon, that provides the beating heart of the film. Unfortunately, nearly as much screentime is given to Matthew Broderick’s Colonel Shaw, and his story is remarkably less interesting or relevant than that of his black soldiers. While it is interesting to see the young, impressionable soldier turn into a steadfast, demanding leader when given responsibility over the 54th, by the time we’re at the halfway point, we kind of already get that he’s really super proud of his soldiers, and doing things like confront racist quartermasters on their behalf is the most emotional material he’s directly responsible for. His relationship with his sidekick, Cabot, while interesting, has nowhere to go once the men are actually on the front, and by the end, with Shaw proudly looking at the ocean reflecting upon his accomplishments and those of his men, it is obvious that this is yet another movie about minority triumph that’s kinda scared of alienating white people (see Red Tails for an example of a movie that refutes such a racist stance).
Which is a shame, because the brunt of the finest acting lies in the African-American camp. While Broderick and Cary Elwes, as Cabot, are surprisingly dignified and, in Broderick’s case, undistracting (this is Ferris Bueller we’re talking about, after all), their characters are not given nearly as meaty material as the strong black dudes that are willing to die for the country that brought their ancestors over in chains. Morgan Freeman plays the Morgan Freeman role (to be fair, before the Morgan Freeman role was really a thing, and was still the Sidney Poitier role), and he’s awesome, especially when laying the Freeman wisdom down on fools as he so likes to do. Andre Braugher, in an early role as Shaw’s educated childhood friend, is wonderful from his first moments to his last, and has a wonderful arc due to Shaw’s swift 180 in his attitude towards him once he is his C.O. Denzel Washington is the one that won an Oscar for this thing, and his win is entirely deserved, especially considering he was a relative unknown at the time and no one saw him coming. His character goes from feeling like a nobody with his back against the wall, to being a noble, proud soldier, and nearly every emotional peak of the film is due to his masterful, lively performance. There is one moment in particular, where he silently realizes he is being saluted by Frederick Douglass, that he nails so well that is completely overshadows the spectacle of the massive crowd scene that surrounds it. Other white folk that show up are Cliff DeYoung, Richard Riehle, Jay O. Sanders, and Bob Gunton, but they are broadly portrayed as racist doubters, and are completely overshadowed by the 54th, especially Denzel.
Recommended to fans of grand-scale, rabble-rousing war films with a progressive message, like Red Tails. This has greater flaws than the other Edward Zwick film I’ve seen, The Siege, but they are both strong, captivating, well-produced films that, unfortunately, portray subtly racist perspectives on racially specific situations.