So here you are, a black sailor surrounded by white seamen ready to beat you down simply because you are black. And to sweeten the pot, one of your commanding officers, also white, walks by the fray and calls you the N-word -- then keeps stepping. Who's going to blame you if you kick some butt, then chuck your uniform into the Atlantic?
None of the black sailors in the film "Proud" chucks his uniform, though one of the characters does seem to contemplate desertion when the ship is docked in Northern Ireland. The movie is billed as the true World War II story of the crew of the USS Mason, the only black sailors allowed into combat in the nation's then-segregated military. As the film's narrator, Ossie Davis, who also stars as the level-headed sailor Lorenzo DuFau, notes, "We had to come all that way to be treated like Americans."
Legalized segregation, economic oppression and murderous violence made it hard for many blacks to feel American, but feel it they did, even if it meant having to do it with their backs against the wall. The story of the Mason is the story of that African American calculus.
The Mason, known derisively then as the Navy's "experiment" (inspired by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt), gave black sailors a chance to prove their mettle against those who said they were incapable of handling a warship. But they proved them wrong over and over, in battles with German subs and their crowning act of defying a horrific storm that ripped open their destroyer escort. The crew repaired the tear in the hull in two hours and was right back running missions.
All of this is what DuFau shares one night with his grandson Larry and a couple of Larry's friends, who rouse him from his sleep with their loud music. Davis, who died in February, was a WWII veteran. As DuFau he captures the imagination of these young men -- who in the film's flashbacks assume the characters of a young DuFau (Albert Jones) and his shipmates James W. Graham (Erik LaRay Harvey) and Gordon Buchanan (Jeffrey J. Nash). The film also features Stephen Rea, Denise Nicholas and Darnell Williams, who plays the black journalist aboard the ship who interviews the crew about their hopes and dreams.
The story of the Mason was all but forgotten until fairly recently when writer Mary Pat Kelly published a book, "Proudly We Served," on which the film is based. (Kelly is the writer-director on this independent film, which, interestingly, lists fashionista Tommy Hilfiger as executive producer and his 20-year-old daughter, Ally Hilfiger, as producer.) In 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded the crew a commendation -- 50 years after it was first recommended. Now their story takes its place alongside the legends of the Tuskegee Airmen, the black regiments of the Civil War and other black soldiers.
The high purpose of "Proud" is not matched by the film's execution, however. It's worth seeing, but don't go expecting a traditional Hollywood feature film. It is rather oddly executed and uneven, unlike the well-known and controversial "Glory," which won Denzel Washington his first Oscar, or the brilliant "A Soldier's Story," adapted from Charles Fuller's "A Soldier's Play."
"Proud" is something of a hybrid, part documentary -- with actual footage from the Mason -- and part dramatization. It is at times deeply poignant when it talks about the longing of black men to be treated as men and what they went through to prove their worthiness. It can also be a bit of an unrestrained flag-waver on black American patriotism.
"Proud" does benefit from the wonderful presence of Davis, but even his formidable acting magic can only levitate the film so much. The history of the Mason is the real star of "Proud." If you go expecting only that, then you won't be disappointed. And at times you may find yourself moved.
Proud (88 minutes, area theaters) is rated PG for fight violence, profanity and racial slurs.