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This 1944 documentary directed by Stuart Heisler and produced by Frank Capra as part of the United States Army’s First Motion Picture Unit for The Department of War uses techniques of Hollywood filmmaking and propaganda to stir enthusiasm for the World War II Allied effort, making a case for African Americans enlistment at a time when the armed forces were still officially segregated.
Opening titles. “The War Department Presents, The Negro Soldier, with the cooperatioon of the Signal Corps” (0:08). Montage: Cathedrals, churches. Inside, a black choir sings, led by a man in a Sergeant’s uniform (0:58). A preacher played by the film’s writer, Carlton Moss, recognizes enlisted men, women in the congregation. A sermon on African American achievements. Boxer Joe Louis knocks out Max Schmeling (2:05). Schmeling training as a Nazi paratrooper. Louis in uniform, training in a U.S. obstacle course (3:45). A U.S. flag, the Declaration of Independence. A Nazi flag with a swastika. The preacher reads a racist passage from Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” (4:27). Closeups (5:55). A plaque from Granary Burial Ground, commemorating victims of the Boston Massacre. An illustration: Crispus Attucks (6:40). Battle reenactments. Freedman turned soldier Peter Salem, hero of Bunker Hill. Prince Whipple crossing the Delaware (7:15). A bell rings. An early U.S. flag. An axe. Black hands lay bricks. Naval combat. A black soldier. Shipbuilding. The Lincoln Monument (8:18). A wagon train. A black couple drives a conestoga. Black railroad workers over rear projection. Oil mines (9:33). A worker tells friends about enlistment. A veteren speaks of the Panama Canal. Passing ships, cheering crowds (9:55). Black soldiers in France during WWI (11:09). The 369th regiment receives the Croix de Guerre. A victory parade. Henry Johnson, decorated. A montage of graves, bronze statues (12:01). A monument to the 371st Infantry in France. An explosion represents Germany’s 1941 invasion (13:22). A monument to Booker T. Washington. George Washington Carver. Montage of pioneering people of color in various roles: Judge, explorer, doctor, blues pianist (W.C. Handy), publisher, educator, sculptor, symphony conductor (13:57). Montage of historically black colleges and universities: Howard, Hampton, Tuskegee, Prairie View, Fisk (15:24). The 1936 Berlin Olympics. Runners Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. High jumper Cornelius Johnson (15:50). Nazis, Italian fascists, Japanese militarists (17:31). Newsreel headline: “Thirteen Countries Conquered.” Gallows, bombings, mass death (18:20). Pearl Harbor reenacted (19:10). Scenes of destruction. A churchgoer tells of her son, a recently promoted infantry officer (19:53). His story, dramatized: A train depot. Icy barracks, an interview (21:14). Training with drill sergeants, advice from a chaplain, how to salute (22:35). Fitting a uniform (24:15). Trains arrive at a base. Making beds. Marching drills, hiking, (25:26). Doctors, nurses, dentists. Target practice. Football, baseball, boxing, table tennis. Reading the Modern Library “Anthology of American Negro Literature” (27:12). Women soldiers march drills, drive jeep trucks (28:04). Couples dancing. Exercise yards, calisthenics (28:55). A sunday service with a War Dept. statement. Colored officers in montage (29:51). Tuskegee airmen. Pilots at attention and in the air (31:31). Trucks, canons in snow. Tanks (32:16). Engineers build a bridge, wire electrical poles. Cavalrymen. Tank destroyers. Anti-aircraft artillery, infantrymen (33:20). Maps of the warfront. Supply lines, construction in Europe under fire (35:01). A gunner downs an enemy plane (36:50). A prayer for fallen soldiers. The congregation sings (37:28). Marching people of color (39:12). “V” for victory (40:20).
Following Capra’s successful “Why We Fight” series, this film was originally conceived as a narrative piece of fiction, with a script by Marc Connelly, Ben Hect, and Joe Swerling. The project evolved into a documentary written by Carlton Moss, an actor from the group “Toward a Black Theater” turned director for the Negro Theatre Unit of the Federal Theatre Project. Shooting commenced in 1943. The result was intended for African American troops, but an enthusiastic response encouraged officials to have it screened for white troops and civilians as well. However, due to a lawsuit by a competing filmmaker, the film never received a theatrical release.