Spielberg film focuses on humanity not on race

August 15, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

I suppose it was inevitable. Sooner or later someone would start kvetching about Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." I figured someone would complain the film was either too white or too male. I figured right.

"Where were the blacks who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day?" folks have asked. In fact, the all-black 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion did storm the beach June 6, 1944, and suffer heavy casualties like Spielberg depicted with terrifying effectiveness in his film.

But the U.S. Army -- and all the country's military, for that matter -- was segregated at the time. Black and white units trained and often fought separately. It wasn't until the latter stages of the war -- after the Germans launched a counteroffensive known as "the Battle of the Bulge" -- that American generals desperately asked for black volunteers to replace white soldiers in white units. It was Adolf Hitler who forced America's first experience with integrated combat units. That should be to our everlasting shame.

Spielberg's tale is about Tom Hanks playing a white officer leading a squad to find a Private Ryan. What logical reason would he have to show the one black unit that landed on Omaha Beach? You could answer "to appease America's growing white male-bashing lobby," and you'd be right. But that's not a logical reason.

But let's dispense with logic. There's no place for it in today's racial and political climate. Instead of sitting down and viewing "Saving Private Ryan" as the sad tale of how grisly war truly is, you have some African-Americans whining "Where are the blacks?" As if a story of eight white guys discovering how war vTC changed them -- sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse -- isn't a story with universal appeal about the human condition.

There are some films with all-black casts with such appeal. The Jamaican film "The Harder They Come" features reggae star Jimmy Cliff as a singer trying to escape the poverty of Kingston's shantytowns. The film was a cult classic when it played in theaters during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Blacks disturbed by the paucity of African-Americans portrayed in "Private Ryan" should know that "The Harder They Come" consistently played to predominantly white audiences. When I saw it, I didn't hear one white patron complain about the lack of white people in the cast.

Frankly, that embarrasses me. It also embarrasses me to say that some black people complain too damn much. They live to whine and not to do. When the Orpheum Theater in Fells Point held an African film festival earlier this year, the African-Americans in the audience were few and far between in the shows I attended. It seems African-Americans didn't have much interest in an African film festival. How many of those blacks criticizing the racial imbalance of "Private Ryan" bothered to go to the Orpheum to see Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene's superb "Guelwaar"?

Probably none. They were probably somewhere sulking, soothing their hurt feelings and complaining about something. Perhaps they were still licking their wounds from that perceived horrible affront from 18 months ago, when NBC, with shocking "insensitivity," aired Spielberg's "Schindler's List." Not only did network executives air the film during Black History Month, but they had the nerve to air it with no commercial interruptions.

Yessiree, racial slights abound for these hypersensitive black folks. The insults are everywhere. Spielberg showed no blacks in "Private Ryan." NBC aired "Schindler's List" during Black History Month. But if the complainers are looking for racial slights, they have no further to look than within the race, not without. Did black folks support "Love Jones" in the numbers we should have? The film was well-acted, directed and written, with black folks aplenty. It was a love story with Larenz Tate playing a writer and Nia Long playing a photographer. No gang-bangers, no violence, no stereotypes -- and very few black folks in the audience watching it.

"Give us films with more positive black images," we complain. "Love Jones" was one of those films. We virtually ignored it. "Eve's Bayou" was another. That one didn't do well at the box office either. But "Set It Off" -- which had plenty of sex and violence -- did.

Afro-America's kvetchers railing against "Private Ryan" for having blacks should consider this: Would we have gone to see this Spielberg film if it were about that 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion?

Pub Date: 8/15/98

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