My father served in the Air Force in the 1950s, and was the lone black man in his unit. His not-so-close-knit group did almost everything together -- trained, ran, ate -- until nightfall, when my father would go off to sleep in his own special barracks.
The memory of that occurrence, and others like it, is the type of thing that helps form many African-Americans' perception of what goes on in the armed forces -- constant racist remarks, separate and unequal facilities, being looked down upon by white superiors, being sent disproportionately to the frontlines and returning to a half-hearted pat on the back and a fake thank you.
But if such things actually have happened to blacks throughout the history of war, you'd have to find it out from your relatives at the next family reunion. Because The Walking Dead won't fill you in on a thing.
It was supposed to. In fact, that's what was promoted as separating it from all the other films that have come out about the Vietnam War. Radio and TV spots were quick to state that the movie was a history lesson about what happened in Southeast Asia as seen from the eyes of black soldiers. One of the movie's stars, Eddie Griffin, was even quoted as saying the film is an example of how America sent blacks to the frontline in war and then told them to get on the back of the bus again when they got home. And if these are the messages meant to be conveyed in The Walking Dead, then it fails miserably in its delivery.
Instead of a unique look at a turning point in American history, what one gets is a fairly non-inspiring tale of profanity and slapstick comedy. The film is set in 1972 Vietnam, where a final mission is left for Sergeant Barkley (Joe Morton) and his fellow officers: their chopper will land, wait for backup and evacuate all remaining survivors from a Viet Cong P.O.W. camp.
Not surprisingly, the landing is met by a withering enemy attack and the chopper is immediately burned to a crisp, leaving only five Marines, four of them black, in the jungle. They then realize that they were nothing but decoys, set out to draw fire while the real mission was carried out elsewhere.
So now they're faced with a dangerous new task: to survive. As they struggle, the soldiers tell each other their personal tales of how and why they are where they are. And although each actor does his job convincingly enough, the introductions become predictable. ("So how did you end up this place?")
Barkley was an ordained minister who found his wife in flagrante delicto, shot her and her lover, was acquitted thanks to domestic cheating laws and joined the corps rather than face his faithful followers. Private Joe Brooks (Vonte Sweet) is a naive youngster with an infectious smile who joined the Marines in a desperate attempt to keep his upward-bound girlfriend from leaving him to marry the heir to a hardware store business. Private Hoover Branche (Griffin) -- the funniest and most foul-mouthed of the lot -- ended up in Vietnam when he lost his meat-packing job for stealing a small package of hamburger to give to a significant other. And Corporal Pippens (Roger Floyd) -- the only white -- is a small-time gangster who inadvertently ran into a Marine recruiting office in Chicago while fleeing a botched robbery attempt.
That Pippens' story isn't dramatically different from that of most of his fellow soldiers points out The Walking Dead's problem. Only Private Cole Evans (Allen Payne), a well-spoken black mechanic who had the beginnings of a typical nuclear family well on its way to peace and harmony when a white Los Angeles Realtor lost her patience and fake smile and told him that they didn't sell to his kind in the suburbs, has a race-related reason for being where he is. Determined not to have his family live in the rat- and roach-infested neighborhoods where he was raised, Evans joined the Marines so his wife and young daughter could stay on the military base.
The Walking Dead is screenwriter Preston A. Whitmore II's directorial debut. It shows. There isn't much left to the imagination here, and the battle scenes are predictable reminders of earlier films. Between flashbacks to tell each soldier's story comes the usual display of sneaking through the jungle, finding and sampling marijuana, petty arguments, sex talk and guerrilla warfare.
Whitmore tries to point out that in the overall scheme of things, black soldiers were nothing but pawns sent into a no-win situation overseas because discrimination at home forced them to join the ranks. And he sometimes scratches the surface. The highest ranking officers are white, and the helicopter pilots are white. Whitmore also helps his cause by finally having someone speak on the issue of race and the military when Barkley's friend Deuce (Kevin Jackson) tells him to make sure he doesn't turn his back on other black soldiers. And toward the end, the black-white power issue is seen head on.
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Barkley is told on the radio by an apparently apathetic white superior that the soldiers have just a few minutes to get to a landing field from their present location -- and that the area is surrounded by the enemy. A look of ultimate hopelessness and inferiority covers each soldier's face at that moment. The scene is the film's most telling, and one of the few times it can be taken seriously. And when the soldiers eventually get to the helicopter with Barkley missing, the two white pilots want to leave him in the jungle before Hoover rescues him in the nick of time.
But two identifiably racial issues in a 110-minute film does not a look at black experience make. The Walking Dead may claim to rescue an unknown part of African-American history. But instead, it looks like it's using the notion of African-American history to rescue its own feeble prospects at the box office.
The Walking Dead.
Directed by Preston A. Whitmore II. With Joe Morton, Eddie Griffin and Allen Payne.