Sunday, August 9, 2009

Glory (1989)

Watched Glory tonight; hadn't seen it in ages. Mrs. Sgt. T. had never seen it, which is why we put it in the Netflix queue; eight years in Boston, passing the Shaw memorial on the corner of Boston Common any number of times, seeing his name on the wall in Memorial Hall at Harvard any number of times, I figured we ought to take a look at the film (again/finally).

While it was climbing to the top of our queue (mostly filled with Star Trek, The Wire, Sopranos, and Firefly discs right now), as it happens I've gotten hooked on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog, and he's been on a Civil War kick, writing a lot especially about the colored regiments in the Union army. (Here's a sample of what he writes. He's always thought-provoking.)

So this means I was a little better equipped this time around to see the flaws in this movie's approach. I mean, Shaw's story is inspiring, but it's also clearly being used as a flag around which white audiences can rally - we see him from the inside, so to speak, seeing his family and prior war experiences, while we only see any of the black soldiers from the outside, knowing them only by how they behave in the regiment, or what they tell us about their background. (Shaw's childhood friend Thomas is almost an exception.) Which isn't much. Why couldn't we have a movie about colored regiments that tells it from their point of view?

On the other hand, I don't think this failing makes it a worthless movie. I don't like faulting works of art for not being different works of art: Glory does some things, doesn't do other things, and what it does, it does pretty well. Chokes me up, maybe even in spite of myself.

And, importantly, I think it's aware of the shortcomings of its approach: there's that wonderful scene between Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick, where Denzel's character points out how his people aren't really going to win the war. Shaw's written as aware enough to realize he's right, and says:

"It stinks, I suppose."

Denzel: "Stinks bad. And we all covered up in it too. I mean, ain't nobody clean, sir. Be nice to get clean, though."

Doesn't that about sum it up?

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