Glory, Film Review by Alex Langer

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The film Glory covers the creation and actions of the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army, the first regiment of black soldiers in the American military, during the Civil War. The film is an accessible look at the history of the regiment, and is effective in its portrayal of the horrors of the Civil War. However, it is not historically accurate and engages uncritically with its source material. By looking at the work through the lens of race, the film falls victim to pre-existing and harmful racialized narratives of the relationship between black and white individuals and cultures.

Glory is an excellent portrayal of the Civil War itself, with some reviewers claiming that it is one of the most honest depictions of the gruesome nature of the conflict.[1] A particularly powerful scene occurs at the beginning of the film, where Robert G. Shaw, later the founding colonel of the Massachusetts 54th, witnesses a man undergoing amputation without anesthetic. This happens after the bloody battle of Antietam, from which little is accomplished. In this respect, the film is historically accurate. Yet, Glory suffers from a lack of historical accuracy in other key aspects. For example, the film depicts the regiment as being comprised primarily of escaped slaves, who join the war to free their brethren after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Historically though, the regiment’s soldiers were mostly free black men from Massachusetts who sought to prove their worth as citizens of the Union. In the film, the character of Thomas, an educated black man who works for Fredrick Douglass before joining the regiment, represents these men. However, there are no other explicitly free men, while there are three major ex-slave characters. This inaccuracy, which erases the role of free blacks in the north and the struggles they faced, is only the most egregious example in the film, which is dotted with other minor errors. These basic factual errors make the film much less effective as a tool of historical learning.[2]

While the film’s errors of fact are problematic, more so is its engagement with sources. The film relies primarily on the letters of Colonel Robert G. Shaw, with letter-writing acting as a plot device. The film’s story is thus told through the perspective of an upper-class white man. While there is nothing inherently wrong with using these letters as a source, the fact that the narrative relies on them as the sole personalizing source is a problem.  The film should have, if possible, integrated some primary-source material from an enlisted (black) man’s perspective. Even if this wasn’t possible, a more critical depiction of Shaw’s narrative should be forthcoming. As the film is already a piece of historical fiction, perhaps a black narrator and protagonist could have been used to provide a more honest historical narrative, if one less directly grounded in primary sources. As well, the film paints race relations in the North as fairly rosy, with substantial prejudice but without virulent hatred. While a few white characters, such as the quartermaster who refuses to grant the regiment boots, speak rudely about black people, it is not particularly intense. This ignores a history of profound racism in the free state, with many black soldiers fighting in the war to prove their worth to society. The casual use of racial epithets by white characters when discussing the regiment, for example, would have made the film far more realistic and engaged more directly with the North’s racist past, as opposed to restricting the portrayal of racism to the South or individuals from border states like Missouri and Kentucky, such as the commander of a separate regiment of freed slaves.[3]

Related to the question of perspective is the most important flaw in the film: its use of racial stereotypes and a racialized narrative of white cultural supremacy in its portrayal of its characters. First, the film’s protagonist, Colonel Shaw, is portrayed as a father figure who enacts fierce discipline to make his soldiers “behave.” This is feted in the film, so long as Shaw also appears sympathetic to his soldiers, such as when, after being forced to flog a heavily scarred ex-slave for absconding to find shoes, Shaw angrily demands that his regiment be supplied with army-issue boots. Rather than question what appears to be gross negligence on Shaw’s part in not knowing that his regiment was suffering heavily from a lack of proper footwear, he is celebrated. This eliminates the exercise of agency by black characters, showing that change is only possible if and when enacted by a white savior.

Shaw’s portrayal as a beneficent and caring authority figure is problematic, although explained by his role as the regiment’s commanding officer; more troubling the depiction of the film’s black characters. The broader narrative reinforced by the interactions and portrayal of these characters is that the “whiter” the character is, the better.  The four central black characters are Tripp, Rawlins, Jupiter and Thomas; the first three characters are all ex-slaves.  Thomas, an educated free man with “white” mannerisms and culture, is portrayed positively, while Tripp, who is cynical about the Union’s promises and is hostile to white people and white society, acts in some ways as the film’s direct antagonist. Tripp is portrayed especially negatively when his cynicism affects others, such as when he attempts to interfere with Thomas’ efforts to teach Jupiter –a highly sympathetic, illiterate former slave with a speech impediment- how to read, or mocks white Union soldiers retreating from battle.

This is narrative is harmful in two ways. First, Tripp’s cynicism is in many ways justified. The North was no paradise for free blacks, with racism rampant. For example, the issue of unequal pay for black soldiers was not resolved until July 1864, nearly causing munity in the 54th Massachusetts that February.[4] The other harm is that through these portrayals, the audience is told that the more a character embraces the trappings of white culture and becomes, in the words of Tripp, a “house Negro,” the “better” they are. Thus, the men of the regiment are not fighting merely to liberate themselves or their families; they are fighting for their personhood. By the movie’s standards though, this must be white personhood, even if contained within a racialized body. This again punishes black characters for exercising agency on their own terms, thus reinforcing white supremacy. This is especially harmful in a film meant to demonstrate the evils of the white supremacist Confederacy and the bravery of black men fighting for freedom.

Together, these flaws make Glory detract from education about the historical moment that the film is based on. The induction of black troops into the Union army was a major step forward for the rights and public image of black people in the United States. The film effectively “whitewashes” this piece of history. Rather than allow black soldiers and their struggles against both the monstrosity of slavery and racism on their own side to come to the forefront, the narrative is instead centered on a white man’s story. Rather than celebrate or allow black reclamation of personhood through their own means, the film punishes through negative portrayals characters that are cynical or act too “black,” instead favouring those characters that embrace “white” values and mannerisms.

The film also detracts from a broader history of race in the United States. By making the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts into escaped slaves and by engaging uncritically with the source material of Shaw’s letters, the film whitewashes race relations in the North. At the same time, the film also encourages a narrative of black helplessness, with salvation and personhood only coming through willing participation in white society and white-dominated institutions such as the military. This depiction of racial history, despite attempting to celebrate the liberation of black people, inadvertently reinforces and perpetuates a system under which they are denied agency.


[1] James Berardinelli. “Glory.” Reelviews Movie Reviews. January 21 2014. Web.

[2] Alexander Bielakowski, ed. Ethnic and Racial Minorities in the U.S. Military: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013. s.v. “54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.”, 202-3; Kevin Levin. Civil War Memory, “The 54th Massachusetts Regiment in Myth, Memory, and History.” Last modified October 23, 2009. Accessed March 8, 2014.

[3] Luis Emilio, History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865, (Boston: The Boston Book Company, 1894), 8-9.

[4] Levin, October 23, 2009

 

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