Fundamentals in Film: Black History Month

I’ve been leading the bi-weekly “Fundamentals in Film” class for the current group of teenage boys for about a year now, and my focus has been to feature movies with strong, positive male role models demonstrating character, honor, courage and grace under fire (physical, mental, spiritual fire) and especially an ability to put others ahead of themselves. Many of the movies we’ve watched also opened a door for our group to discuss the larger social and historical context of the events depicted in the movie.

The movie that probably had the most profound affect on our young men was Glory, the story of the first all-black regiment in the Civil War. The discussion following the film drew the strongest reactions and the most spontaneous questions from the guys of any that we’ve had. Some months later we watched The Tuskegee Airmen, a similar story but brought “four-score” years into the future with the first U.S. squadron of black fighter pilots. Back at the beginning of the football season we also watched the original TV-movie version of Brian’s Song (gotta love Netflix!), the Gale Sayers/Brian Piccolo story, set in the late 1960s against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement.

All three films were based on true events (with some dramatic license) and as we bumped through the century or so that the movies spanned it was useful and interesting to see what things had changed, and what things remained the same, in our society and in the lives of the men profiled. I believe this has been especially beneficial for my group of young men who have grown up with little knowledge or exposure to the events that have led up to today and helped them to get a sense that, while it seems like certain events happened a long time ago, they really represent a relatively short and intense period in history (and it isn’t over yet). While the movies have been useful in describing and discussing this time, the history of the struggle wasn’t my main reason for introducing these films into the series.

For me, the essence of these movies still comes down to bedrock issues of honor, duty, respect and being willing to do the hard thing even at great personal cost for the greater good. The lessons of being a man that can be counted on, of being a man that can be a true friend, are universal and go beyond race.

The thing I’ve stressed with our group is that fear and hate are also universal and that no matter who you are or what “group” you belong to, there are always going to be those who have a degree of power and authority over your life that are going to look down upon and even hate you because of the way you look, the way you talk, the things that you believe or, especially for these young men, their age. Lynching and flogging may not be part of their lives but they are still going to be judged and dismissed because of what they appear to be. Their challenge, like those faced by the men in these movies, will still be to live their lives with courage and integrity and not give in to (and live down to) the lower expectations that others might have of them.

If they can do that I am confident that they will have little trouble in extending the consideration to others they meet, even if they appear to be different from them.

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