Auditions

Art Teachers Needed

Corrections or additions?

This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the November 22, 2000

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

At the Movies: Carl Brashear

Early in the film "Men of Honor," a young

Carl Brashear waits with his dad alongside a bus that is going to

take Carl to the U.S. Navy recruitment center. It is 1948, and they

are waiting for the white recruits to enter the bus first, so that

when they are done, Carl can safely find a seat in the back.

"Men of Honor" could have been a pretty good movie. It was

originally intended as the "based on real life" story of one

man’s triumph over racism and personal tragedy to realize his dream

of becoming the first African-American master diver in the history

of the U.S. Navy. But for some reason 20th Century Fox decided that

wasn’t good enough. What it became instead is an over-long,

melodramatic

mish-mash, mixed with revisionist feel-good cardboard characters.

Worst of all, "Men of Honor" is guilty of racial

insensitivities

of its own.

The film’s original title was "The Diver." That simple shift

in focus from the singular, "diver," to the plural, "Men

of Honor," gives as good an indication as any as to why this film

misfires.

Rather than focusing on Carl Brashear’s true story, which is filled

with more than enough drama for three movies, the film gives equal

focus to a weakly contrived story about a fictional white man named

Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro). Sunday is characterized as a hard-ball

drunk with a big blubbering racist mouth and a knack for punching

superior officers whenever the mood strikes him. I guess we’re

supposed

to admire his fighting spirit.

Initially, the film treats the superficialities of Brashear’s story

fairly accurately. We see him as the young son of a sharecropper

enlisting

in the U.S. Navy in 1948 with a passion for becoming a diver.

Unfortunately,

the Navy of 1948 was rather hostile to African-Americans, to say the

least, despite President Truman’s Executive Order banning segregation

in the military.

With a sea of frowning good ol’ boys around him, much like a

red-necked

Greek chorus, we watch Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.) bottle his

resentment

and maintain his poise as he is harassed, taunted, and systematically

denied access to his dream. At first, it seems the most Brashear can

realistically expect to achieve in the Navy is the warm-glow of

accomplishment

over a well-swabbed deck or a gleaming, spit-shined griddle.

But buoyed by his faith in the Lord, and a promise he

made to his father to never give up, Brashear pushes on to a greater

fate. We watch him as he enters diving school, stoically suffers the

snubs of his fellow white apprentice divers, takes Billy Sunday’s

racist haranguing in stride, fails his written exams but works with

a beautiful off-base tutor to up his scores, heroically pulls a fellow

diver out of a wrecked ship deep beneath the water’s surface, and,

like Jackie Robinson, eventually manages to conquer and integrate

an institution previously forbidden to him because of the color of

his skin.

Robert De Niro’s Billy Sunday character is an unwelcomed contrivance.

We have to endure watching as he goes from being a working diver,

diving instructor, and racist to a self-hating drunk at the rehab

(with a long suffering, but cute wife played by Charlize Theron) to

a reborn again naval officer in dress blues with a new-found love

for all humanity.

Although Gooding gives a sound, nuanced, and likable performance as

Carl Brashear, De Niro’s character steals the show. (All that stoicism

on Brashear’s part, as written, doesn’t make for a very juicy

character.)

We are treated to a good dose of De Niro’s thespian tricks, from his

bulging vein-streaked eyeballs to his habit of looking away just

before

he socks someone in the mouth. De Niro, as always, is De Niro. Which

to say he isn’t Brando. But ultimately that’s okay, because at least

he isn’t Richard Gere.

One wonders why 20th Century Fox felt the need to invent the Billy

Sunday character at all. Was it because they thought they needed a

big-name star to sell the picture? Was it because they were afraid

that mainstream white America wouldn’t come out to their local

cineplex

in droves to see a film whose main character is African-American?

Scott Marshall Smith, who is credited as scriptwriter defends the

choice, saying "This isn’t a connect-the-dots biography. I follow

Carl’s life and career, but my goal is to be true to his spirit, not

his shirt size."

But this spirit is where "Men of Honor" makes its most serious

blunder. According to this movie, nearly every advancement Brashear

made in his naval career was due to one grinning teary-eyed white

man or another, happily pulling strings, like benevolent pixies in

an enchanted forest. They do this because, as the movie repeatedly

tells us, they "like his grit." The implication being that

without the white man giving permission, Brashear never would have

made it. I think this is dead wrong, and I think that the movie gives

these people way too much credit.

But even worse than that, according to this film, Brashear never

thought

up an original idea on his own because nearly every action Brashear

takes is first given to him as a suggestion by one of his white

counterparts.

This happens time and time again, in both trivial and monumental

instances,

and gets to be more than a little annoying.

For example, early in the film, after Brashear fails a written

examination

that he’ll eventually need to pass in order to make it through diving

school, it is his white teacher who makes the suggestion that he go

off-base to find a tutor to help him improve his scores, as if he

couldn’t think of that himself. Late in the film, after Carl’s leg

is severely injured and it appears that his career as a diver is over,

it is the fictional Billy Sunday who suggests that Brashear have his

leg amputated, as some fighter pilots had done, and replace it with

a weight-bearing prosthesis. I can’t help but believe that a man with

Brashear’s raw courage and relentless heart would be certainly smart

enough to figure this out on his own. It is insulting to think

otherwise.

This is not meant to suggest that 20th Century Fox was being in any

way intentionally racist when they released this movie. But I believe

in trying to create a saleable movie that would appeal to a mass

audience

that made decisions that were racially insensitive.

Carl Brashear is now nearly 70 years old. He remains an American hero,

and nothing that this film does can diminish that. But damn it, he

deserves a lot better. He deserves to ride in the front seat of his

own life story.

— Jack Florek

Top Of Page
Auditions

Mercer County School of Performing Arts will hold

auditions

for September, 2001, admission on Saturday, December 9, at 8:30 a.m.,

on the West Windsor campus of Mercer County Community College. High

school students who are in grades 10 or 11 this year may apply. The

school is open to all public and private school students in Mercer

County; tuition and transportation are free. Students follow a

shared-time

schedule, spending one half of the school day attending their regular

classes in their high school and half the day at the School of

Performing

Arts studying drama, dance, and voice. For information and audition

application call director Jeanette Purdy, at 609-586-3550.

Volunteer Call

The Arts Council of Princeton seeks performers,

volunteers,

and sites to serve as venues for "Curtain Calls 2000," the

annual New Year’s Eve festivities in Princeton that focus on a

non-alcoholic

evening of fun for families and friends. Volunteers are needed to

assist in various time slots from 5 p.m and 12:30 a.m. Call Karin

at 609-924-8777.

Habitat for Humanity, Trenton Area, 601 North Clinton

Avenue, a non-profit ecumenical housing ministry for poor people that

completed seven houses for poor families in 2000, seeks volunteers

to serve as support partners for Habitat families, construction team

leaders, public relations developers, and technical support for the

computer system. Cash donations are also welcomed. 609-393-8009.

Top Of Page
Art Teachers Needed

The Arts Council of Princeton is expanding its teaching

staff and has part-time positions available for teachers of drawing,

painting, clay and ceramics for children, teen, and adults. Positions

also available for weekly spring and summer camps, and spring 2001

semester. Send resume to Kathleen Preziosi, Arts Council, 102

Witherspoon

Street, Princeton 08542. No phone calls.

Donations Wanted

The League of Women’s Voters has begun its annual drive

for donations to Womanspace Inc, a nonprofit agency providing services

to women in crisis in Mercer County. Its wish list includes children’s

clothing, diapers, sneakers, books, and toys; women’s sweat suits,

lotion, and journal books; and food store gift certificates. Bring

new, unwrapped gifts to Peggy Killmer, Weichert Realtors, 350 Nassau

Street, by Thursday, December 14; or call 609-921-1900.

Wild Oats Community Market, a natural foods grocery store

at 255 Nassau Street, Princeton, is hosting a Coat Drive, seeking

new or "gently used" garments, through Saturday, November

25, when they will be presented to HomeFront, the group assisting

homeless families in Mercer County. The store also has Food for All

campaign in which customers can donate at the registers with the swipe

of a coupon. These cash donations will be split between the Trenton

Area Soup Kitchen (T.A.S.K.) and the Wild Oats National Giving

Program.

There is also a canned and dry goods collection at the front of the

store for delivery to T.A.S.K.


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