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,
mish-mash, mixed with revisionist feel-good cardboard characters.
Worst of all, "Men of Honor" is guilty of racial
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
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
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
in the U.S. Navy in 1948 with a passion for becoming a diver.
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
Greek chorus, we watch Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.) bottle his
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
This happens time and time again, in both trivial and monumental
and gets to be more than a little annoying.
For example, early in the film, after Brashear fails a written
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
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
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
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
schedule, spending one half of the school day attending their regular
classes in their high school and half the day at the School of
Arts studying drama, dance, and voice. For information and audition
application call director Jeanette Purdy, at 609-586-3550.
and sites to serve as venues for "Curtain Calls 2000," the
annual New Year’s Eve festivities in Princeton that focus on a
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
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.
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
Street, Princeton 08542. No phone calls.
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.
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
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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