Soldiering for rights

review by Shakti Jaising

Elizabeth Reich, Militant Visions: Black Soldiers, Internationalism, and the Transformation of American Cinema (Rutgers University Press, 2016)

Elizabeth Reich’s Militant Visions: Black Soldiers, Internationalism, and the Transformation of American Cinema offers a thought-provoking analysis of representations of black soldiers in America cinema from the 1940s through the 1970s. The book begins in the World War II period, when collaboration between government, Hollywood, and black media makers produced the image of a patriotic black soldier, in order to prompt African Americans to join the military. Although designed to serve the interests of an imperialist state, in effect these images of proud black soldiers— some of the first dignified representations of African Americans in Hollywood—reflected the imperatives of the civil rights struggle as well. In the post-World War II period, and especially with the rise of the Blaxploitation films of the early 1970s, independent black filmmakers markedly transformed this figure, deploying it towards articulations of an anti-state critique. On the whole, Reich shows, the cinematic black soldier was throughout the “long civil rights movement” [1][open endnotes in new window] a complex, transnational figure, charged with the potential to galvanize both conservative and radical agendas and to expose the links between domestic racism and international violence.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should state at the outset that I am a friend of the author. What follows, therefore, is not a traditional review of Military Visions. Rather, while I begin with a brief description of the book and its contributions to U.S. film history, the second half of this essay uses the book as a point of departure to reflect on the contemporary cinematic figure of the transgender soldier during a time of perpetual war, deepening domestic inequality and further entrenchment of racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and transphobia.

On July 26, 2017, President Trump announced on Twitter that transgender people would be banned from the military and support for gender reassignment surgery for existing service members would be discontinued. This announcement came a year after the Obama administration ended the ban on transgender persons serving openly in the military— and exactly 69 years after President Truman’s executive order calling for the elimination of racial discrimination in military and federal employment.[2] Trump’s announcement generated much unease within the transgender community and brought to the fore patriotic depictions of transgender soldiers that recalled similar mobilizations of black soldiers in the mid-twentieth century—raising anew debates about whether minority inclusion in our imperialist military is the best route to gaining basic human rights in the United States[3].

As the U.S. government’s War on Terror continues to devastate much of the Middle East and South Asia,[4] and as our media turns a blind eye to this devastation while uncritically celebrating the military as a key force for social change, Military Visions’ history of the cinematic black soldier offers timely commentary on the possibilities and limits of minority integration through the U.S. military-industrial-media-complex.[5]

The cinematic black soldier in the long civil rights era

Militant Visions begins with Reich’s analysis of propagandistic World War II cinema produced by collaboration between Roosevelt’s Office of War Information, Hollywood, and the NAACP. The films that emerged out of this collaboration—for instance, Bataan, Sahara, and Stormy Weather, all released in 1943— deployed the unprecedented figure of a dignified black soldier to elicit the participation of African Americans in the war. Reich points out that an overwhelming number of these black soldier films were set outside the United States. Bataan, for instance, was set in the Philippines and the construction of the black soldier as a strong, masculine figure and patriot required that he be carefully differentiated “from the ‘savage’—who shows up … as the Filipino figure of colonial backwardness” (43). This presentation, she observes, obscured not just “America’s colonial and imperial presence in the Philippines since the mid-nineteenth-century Spanish-American War” but also kept “outside the frame the material exclusions suffered by black Americans and, in particular, black soldiers” (36) in a military that was yet to be integrated. On the whole, these films’ black soldiers were “unprecedentedly powerful renderings of black men,” Reich argues, but also reflections of “the government’s carefully orchestrated cultural campaigns to redirect black anger from the nation toward global enemies” (3). These early films showed how the cinematic black soldier could be deployed to distract from both domestic racism and U.S. imperialism.

Beyond these mass-marketed films, the government- and independently produced films, We’ve Come a Long, Long Way (1943), Marching On! (1943), and The Negro Soldier (1944), were made with black audiences in mind, and were “direct exhortations to black Americans to participate in the war effort” (94) at a time when some black communities were “organizing against the war” (84). Interestingly, however, these were often internally contradictory texts that possessed the potential to also elicit against-the-grain readings from black audiences. Indeed, as Reich puts it, “part of the effectiveness of the black soldier was his polysemicity—that he could signify one set of meanings and goals for one constituent while also demonstrating a seemingly mutually exclusive set of affiliations and arguments to others” (15). The black soldier could invite participation in a racist and imperialist military, but this figure could also enable mobilizations against its racist and imperialist agendas.

Following World War II, as African American soldiers returned to a still segregated military in Jim Crow America, images of “African American patriots gave way to ambivalent and injured invalids who altered into angry and rebellious nationalists” (14). In her powerful analysis of the 1949 film Home of the Brave, Reich reads “the psychosomatically paralyzed black soldier’s illness and his stubborn refusals to submit to his treatment” as “a cinematic echo of Fanon’s insistence that only by rejecting the terms of engagement—refusing the amputation of black sociopolitical life—can he escape his own paralysis” (125). By thus re-interpreting the significance of Home of the Brave’s resistant black soldier, Reich also offers an insightful critique of psychoanalysis’s history of engagement with race.

Turning next to film production during the 1950s and 1960s civil rights struggle Reich notes that Hollywood filmmaking reflected little of this struggle or of the material realities of racial discrimination. Films about domestic racial tension were deemed too risky for Hollywood during the early Cold War period, so it was only with the waning of the civil rights and Black Power movements that cinematic renderings of the period’s conflicts were produced. When describing 1970s Blaxploitation films such as Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song (1971) Reich argues that these independently produced re-significations of the black soldier “only appeared, and seemingly only could appear, after the leaders and energy of the resistance movements had passed” (158). Directors like Van Peebles had to rely on international rather than domestic circuits in order to make and also distribute films that effectively overturned Hollywood conventions of racial representation. In his first feature, Story of a Three-Day Pass, released in France in 1967 as La Permission, Van Peebles

“refuses the earlier, assimilationist representations of the black soldier that filled World War II-era and postwar cinema. Instead, he imagines this filmic figure—and the men it purports to represent—as damaged by life in America, fractured by institutionalized racism in the military, and, at the same time, liberated by his requisite ability to put on and take off a multiplicity of identities” (161).

Independently produced films by black artists re-signified the cinematic black soldier during the late 1960s and 1970s. In Melvin Van Peebles’ Story of a Three-Day Pass (1967), the black soldier, stationed in Europe, is no longer an assimilationist, patriotic figure but rather one who is split geographically and psychically by the experience of U.S. racism.

In Ivan Dixon’s 1973 film, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, the black soldier no longer works towards integration and assimilation of African Americans within the US body politic; instead he appears as a militant whose “aim is to deliver black Americans into freedom as a new people while forcing the United States to stop the war in Vietnam” (185). Reich reads this film as having “much in common with the anticolonial and revolutionary films of the Third Cinema, many of which were contemporaries of Spook” (187). It is not surprising, then, as Reich points out, that this film had very limited release in the United States until 2004, when the DVD was released for home distribution. Across this 1970s independent cinema, the black soldier appears no longer as representative of a racially integrated military –whose performance of inclusion domestically acts as cover for its violence abroad— but rather as critic of the logic of assimilation within a racist and imperialist state.

The transgender soldier and minority integration
in contemporary film 

Reich’s tracking of the various incarnations of the cinematic black soldier allows us to understand this figure as a transnational one—part of not just civil rights struggles within the United States but also government efforts at constructing an imperialist identity abroad. Or, to put it slightly differently, the book offers insight into how domestic racism and racialized modes of seeing –that are deployed first to deny full citizenship rights to minority groups and then to make inclusion contingent on their performance of patriotism— play a crucial role in enabling the project of expanding U.S. interests abroad. Military Visions’ history of the cinematic black soldier allows readers to view the military from a critical distance, for being a powerful institution within the United States and also one whose policies, both of discrimination and minority inclusion, have enormous implications abroad, especially for those who are the targets of U.S. imperialist wars.

This attentiveness to the interconnectedness between the U.S. military’s domestic and international roles is invaluable today in the context of the ongoing War on Terror, and in light of the fact that the dominant tendency within even discussions on the Left is to ignore the military’s international violence and focus singularly on its potential to spearhead domestic social change through its admission of discriminated groups. Indeed, in recent public discussion about the inclusion of minority service members, the impact of the U.S. military’s actions abroad is rarely brought into view, nor are the intrinsic links between domestic exclusion and U.S. imperialism acknowledged.[6] Reich’s analysis of the cinematic black soldier sensitizes us to these links between the military’s domestic and international violence, thereby opening up a new way of analyzing the present.

Specifically, Military Visions offers a valuable lens through which to view liberal responses to the government’s ban on transgender military service, where the promise of inclusion can occlude consideration of the military’s domestic context as well as its international implications. Consider, for instance, a short documentary from 2015, Transgender, at War and in Love that was developed into a feature-length film, Transmilitary, released in 2018. The short film, commissioned as an Op-Doc by the New York Times, explored “the challenges of a transgender military couple, who are banned from serving openly.”[7] One of the Times’ most viewed Op-Docs, it was nominated for an Emmy, leading director, Fiona Dawson[8] to co-direct the feature-length version.

Transmilitary, which includes within it material from the original Op-Doc, played in film festivals and also on Logo TV. Interestingly, the feature-length film’s promotional webpage [9] features prominently the image of a saluting African American transgender soldier (El Cook, one of the film’s protagonists) alongside a caption that reads, “Over 15,000 U.S. transgender troops defend our freedom while fighting for their own.” In other words, the film’s publicity explicitly invokes the cinematic black soldier that Reich’s book historicizes, prompting the viewer to see the current struggle for transgender rights as the latest chapter in a much longer struggle for minority inclusion in the U.S. military[10].

Transgender, at War and in Love was re-made as a feature-length documentary, Transmilitary (2018). The black transgender soldier on the film’s promotional webpage is a visual echo of the cinematic black soldier and a cue to the viewer to think about the struggle for transgender inclusion as the latest iteration of the civil rights struggle.