Looking Back Fondly on Glory: 20 Years Later

By Jay Wertz
3/26/2009 • African Americans In The Civil War, Black History, Civil War Swords, Civil War Times, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Outlaws, Tuskegee Airmen

how do we best preserve our own union. The friendship necessarily has to fall by the wayside because the commander and soldier have different priorities, and that friendship really can’t survive the way it was before.

Did you have any memorable moments while filming the movie?
A lot of it sticks out in my mind; it’s sort of branded there because it was my first film experience. I was a young actor, 25-26 years old at the time, and you really need role models when you go on the set because it’s very easy to lose your focus. I was really quite fortunate to have both Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington there because they are the ultimate role models for conducting yourself both on-camera and off. I made it my special purpose to emulate those guys: Early to bed, early to rise, and so forth. They’re scholars; they’re very specific in what they’re doing. I listened like a hawk to everything they had to say, and they didn’t lead me astray. I think it’s because they understood how important Thomas’ role was to the film, but also because they wanted the film to be magnificent, and that shows. There aren’t a lot of actors who are that generous. Period.

I remember racing down the beach in one scene. I’d been wounded by a .58-caliber bullet in my shoulder. I’m carrying a rifle, and the special effects coordinator has all these bombs set, and there’s a truck with a camera. I remember Denzel saying, “OK, we’re gonna run together, right?” And then he says: “These things on each side are dangerous. You don’t want to trip over them and get hurt.” A lot of stunt actors were injured on this film, and I didn’t want to be blown up by the special effects coordinator like the next guy. It’s very much like the experience you have in war: You have confidence in the person right next to you, and with that kind of confidence you can do almost anything.

I also remember when we were doing the confrontation scene at the campfire; Denzel was giving me very good notes about how to act for the camera in a close-up. It’s something that I simply didn’t know—advice I’ve passed on since then. The same was true for Morgan and Jihmi Kennedy.

There were a lot of guys on that film, not all of whom are still with us, that I remember well. We shared a camaraderie that I still appreciate to this day.

How did Glory change public awareness of the role African Americans played in the Civil War?

I think it might be the first film that really talks about the participation of the African-American soldier in American history. As a kid, I learned that Crispus Attucks was the first person to die in the Revolutionary War and was considered a martyr, but I never gained a real understanding of that.

When I was a kid, the survey courses of American history were a mile wide and an inch deep. I’m well educated, but I don’t think I learned anything in-depth about the Civil War: why it was fought, how it was fought, what its points and purposes were. Broad themes were thrown up, but nothing was really taught about how the war affected its participants, how the Union was threatened with disunion, what motivated the South. I think this is true for most of the kids educated in the United States.

In retrospect, I think those broad themes were misleading. For example, the idea that it was altruistic of the North to take up arms against the South for the benefit of enslaved Africans is a red herring.
This movie was my first experience with concrete reenactments of history where I began to feel the kind of dimension to the characters that allowed me to understand the politics, economic and social issues of that time in greater detail. Since then, I’ve made it a point to participate in as many historical documentaries, films or TV movies as I can that broaden our understanding of African-American contributions to history: The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson and documentaries on the 54th and the Tuskegee Airmen, or the documentary about the 761st Tank Battalion and the Battle of the Bulge—these are all interesting to me because they give me a real clear understanding of African-American contributions to American history, which were pretty much relegated to “Lincoln freed the slaves,” “Crispus Attucks was the first African-American man killed in the Revolutionary War,” and Martin Luther King when I was a kid.

Movies that bring this kind of dimension to American viewers are important, because it’s easy to forget the sacrifices of previous generations and to rest on our laurels. We have to realize that the best way to successfully re-create our history is to understand where it came from.

How can we more personally carry forward the ideas and perceptions of history as portrayed in movies like Glory?

The story of the 54th is really quite complicated—how it was formed from men from a number of states. It wasn’t just Massachusetts, but Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and others. There were various moments in which the 54th could have chosen to take a different path, and I think that would have been very understanding. Because they were African-American soldiers fighting against the South, the South declared them outlaws, contraband. That’s a moment you realize that their lives were on the line in a different way than their white counterparts—that they were essentially going to be fighting this war, and if they were captured they were pretty much assured to be killed and not held as prisoners of war. That’s a moment in which the men in this unit could have decided to act differently.

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