Up Next

Black History

We are (always) at war

Where the melanin is in the movies with the military themes

Yes. Today is about cookouts with grilled meats prepared by uncles wearing these sandals. It’s about playing spades games that inevitably will become too heated. Hopefully no one will ask Who Made The Potatoe Salad as we celebrate the official start of summer. And all of this is perfectly fine. It’s why you’ve been working out all winter—to eat well and stunt for the ‘Gram.

But it’s called Memorial Day for a reason. Countless men and women have dedicated their lives to the protection of this country. Many of whom sacrificed those lives. The Undefeated honors all men and women in uniform, past and present. We also highlight a black (and, sadly, almost completely male) cinematic military history that is as rich as it is complex and traumatic — from James Edwards in 1949’s Home of the Brave to Laurence Fishburne’s role (at 14) in Apocalypse Now to Anthony Mackie in 2009’s acclaimed The Hurt Locker, and more. And, yes, Denzel Washington deserved and received his own damn section.

For the Denzealots

A Soldier’s Story (1984)

Feel free to debate when Denzel Washington became … Denzel (Armond White calls his a “particularly weighted stardom). But if Washington is Michael Jordan (or Jordan is Washington), perhaps this film is the early UNC era. With an all-star cast that “reveals the virulence of racism,” Washington, as Pfc. Melvin Peterson, was praised for his compelling showcase of black rage — and he stole the movie from Howard E. Rollins Jr.

Glory (1989)

As mentioned: Washington is one of the greatest artists who has ever lived on any field of anything. Just watch the pre-battle speech in this movie about (but not told from the viewpoint of) the black 54th Regiment of Massachusetts’ Volunteer Infantry. Matthew Broderick has awkward “top billing” here — watching Washington’s Pvt. Trip is like watching Jordan jump from the free throw line. He won his first Oscar for this Civil War role. Trigger warning: Washington is whipped in this film and it’s beyond horrifying.

Crimson Tide (1995)

There’s nothing like a dope power struggle in a movie. And the one between Gene Hackman and a “respectful though defiant” Washington in this underwater, Cold War classic is beyond intense. Roger Ebert praised the film as one that “not only thrills people while they’re watching it, but invites them to leave the theater actually discussing issues.”

Courage Under Fire (1996)

So there is no real doubt about Washington in a military role, right? Washington, this time alongside Meg Ryan and Matt Damon, again glows brightly. All about the Gulf War and the unreliability of eyewitnesses the film also “manages warmth, intelligence and a healthy share of surprises.” Also, and that not it matters, but between the years 1992-1996, check Denzel’s stats: Malcolm X, The Pelican Brief, the above-mentioned Crimson Tide, Devil in a Blue Dress, and The Preacher’s Wife. He was pretty much the Dallas Cowboys of Hollywood at that point (who won three Super Bowls in four years). Or maybe it’s the other way around.

Antwone Fisher (2002)

Fun fact: This film is Washington’s directorial debut and based on Finding Fish: A Memoir. The movie’s finest quality (aside from Washington’s role as Navy psychiatrist Dr. Jerome Davenport) is that it addressed mental illness and depression in a very powerful and eloquent fashion. Derek Luke is also great as a sailor in the title role.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

“Impressively accomplished and highly entertaining, with sufficiently smart new twists to keep you all the way to the nerve-wracking climax,” said Empire. Very rarely do remakes live up to the (1962) original. Consider this an exception to the rule.

Post-Lincoln

Buffalo Soldiers (1997)

Buffalo soldiers, much like Tuskegee Airmen, deserve to have their story told and it finally happened with Danny Glover starring as Sgt. Washington Wyatt. The movie is based on the all-black U.S. Cavalry Troop H, responsible for protecting Western territories in the post-Civil War years. A “sharp account that spares no one’s bad actions,” it’s a standout performance from Glover.

Fighting For Laughs

Good Morning, Vietnam (1988)

The film that made Robin Williams a bona fide star also gave a young Forest Whitaker — riding shotgun in the film as Pfc. Edward Garlick — an early career standout before becoming a Hollywood leading man himself. They worked many times together over the years.

Renaissance Man (1994)

The film failed to recoup on its budget (plot was the predictable thing where the main character, this time Danny DeVito, is tasked with teaching “underachieving misfits” who are in danger of flunking out of basic training. Not a bad cast of characters, though, with a pre-Fox News (and pre-Clueless) Stacey Dash, Gregory Hines, Kadeem Hardison (Dwayne Wayne!), Richard T. Jones, Khalil Khan and more.

Major Payne (1995)

This Damon Wayans-led comedy may only have 33 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. But how many of those reviewers have ever been name-dropped in a Biggie Smalls classic? And never forget this hilarious example of grade A mentoring. The wins outweigh the losses, if we’re being honest.

The Lost War

Apocalypse Now (1979)

The Vietnam War film has Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, young Fishburne, Albert Hall, Harrison Ford and Dennis Hopper. Hard to go wrong. “Certainly, no movie in history has ever presented stronger proof that war is living hell,said Kathleen Carroll of the New York Daily News. Francis Ford Coppola directed the film, fresh off The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), and there’s an intense documentary.

Platoon (1986)

This Oliver Stone classic helped Charlie Sheen become a star. And, um, there’s Whitaker again — aka Big Harold.

Hamburger Hill (1987)

Though the film had its pitfalls (interchangeable characters), the The New York Times called Courtney B. Vance “particularly fine” in his role. But how cool is this movie? It was made with full blessings from the defense departments of America and the Philippines. Hard enough for any film, but especially one with anti-war overtones.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Only semi-related: The opening scene is absolutely nuts. Dorian Harewood stars as Eightball in this graphic Vietnam flick. The guy may have been a Stanley Kubrick fan, but one IMDb reviewer simply said, “Full Metal Jacket seems like an uncompleted film, but to me that’s poetic justice to one of America’s uncompleted wars.”

Forrest Gump (1994)

Make no mistake about it, Forrest Gump is a first-ballot Best Friend Hall of Famer. Look no further than the dynamic of one of the greatest of all time movie friendships between him and Benjamin Buford “Bubba” Blue, who died in his arms in Vietnam. Gump turned Bubba’s shrimping venture into a booming business and broke his boy’s family off real proper once he came across some money. Forrest Gump is, was and always will be a real one.

Dead Presidents (1995)

Larenz Tate has to be one of the more underrated actors. Ever. In the ’90s, Tate couldn’t miss. In between classic performances in Menace II Society (1993) and Love Jones (1997), Tate gave arguably his finest performance as a Vietnam vet forced to make money the ski-mask way. That’s also a “ ’hood Triple Crown,” for those keeping score at home.

For The ‘We’re 2-0 In World Wars’ Crowd

Home of the Brave (1949)

This 1949 film addresses racial tensions in the military. Told in flashback, white soldiers have beef with the only black member of the squad, Pvt. Peter Moss, played by James Edwards.

The Hill (1965)

This June 1965 film, headlined by Sean Connery, has been receiving rave reviews for the better part of a half-century. It’s Ossie Davis, however, who “has the best scene and plays it superbly.”

Carter’s Army (1970)

Look, how much convincing does one person need? It’s Richard Pryor, Billy Dee Williams and a nearly all-black cast whose commanding officer is, well, kinda racist. You’re welcome.

Tuskegee Airmen (1995)

The Tuskegee Airmen story is one of those great American ones— it always deserves to be told (sans Red Tails). Thankfully, Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Jr., Malcolm Jamal Warner, Andre Braugher, Courtney B. Vance and more did the story justice.

Men of Honor (2000)

Years before starring as O.J. Simpson in the TV series The People v. O.J. Simpson, Cuba Gooding Jr. delivered one of the finest roles of his career alongside Robert De Niro. The film tackled issues of masculinity and racial reconciliation in the Navy shortly after World War II.

Hart’s War (2002)

Terrence Howard (Lt. Lincoln A. Scott) is falsely accused of murder by fellow World War II soldiers and Colin Farrell (Lt. Thomas W. Hart) is tasked with defending him. Sure, the movie flopped (and, sure, A Time To Kill had a similar storyline with a better result). But if Howard has shown anything in his career, it’s that he’s got at least four questionable quotes somewhere in here.

Miracle at St. Anna (2008)

The Spike Lee-directed film wasn’t perfect, but the story of four black soldiers trapped behind enemy lines during World War II “should be seen no matter its imperfections,” according to Ebert.

Red Tails (2012)

Let’s just say if you’re going to see a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, it’s probably best to start with the Fishburne version.

Bombs Over Baghdad

Home of the Brave (2006)

Starring Samuel L. Jackson and 50 Cent, this film didn’t get nearly the acclaim as 50 Cent’s beef with Ja Rule did.

The Hurt Locker (2009)

Anthony Mackie will always be Clarence whose parents have a real good marriage. But he’s also Sgt. JT Sanborn, a lead in what some say was the most exciting film of 2009.

Flying Abroad

The Crying Game (1992)

Four years after Good Morning, Vietnam, Whitaker was back in the service. This time as a kidnapped British soldier. As for how stellar the movie was? Look no further than Ebert, “Some movies keep you guessing. Some movies make you care. Once in a long while a movie comes along that does both things at the same time. It’s not easy.”

Drunk In Love

An Officer & A Gentleman (1982)

Not only is Louis Gossett Jr. one of the great names in Hollywood history (you have to say the whole thing like “A Tribe Called Quest”). Not only did ol’ Lou play “Fiddler” in the groundbreaking mini-series Roots. But his role as Navy Sgt. Emil Foley, one that The New York Times dubbed a “key performance,”calling him “a star,” earned Gossett an Oscar in 1983 for best actor in a supporting role.

Desert Storm and Beyond

Three Kings (1999)

Unless you needed more proof that Ice Cube is a living legend, ponder this. In 1989, Ice Cube and NWA stood eye-to-eye with the FBI over content on the landmark album Straight Outta Compton. A decade later, Cube was a full-fledged movie star who, per The Guardian, was “really quite impressive in this role, and … has graduated convincingly to the screen from the world of music.”

The Sci-Fi Game

Independence Day (1996)

So let’s get this straight. Will Smith not only helped create “Summertime, one of the most timeless records of the past quarter-century. He not only starred in an iconic ’90s sitcom that’s still relevant today. But Smith also helped save the world from total destruction in the summer of 1996? And he did it not even three months after The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air went off the air? Applaud Capt. Steven Hiller.

Serenity (2005)

#BlackGirlMagic is such an incredible hashtag. But I never knew it was to be taken literally. Today might not be the day to address why black women are rarely represented in military movies. But soon we’ll have time. Go enjoy your burger and have an extra sip of whiskey and ponder why. Or go watch Gina Torres’ character as Zoe in this sci-fi flick. It was dubbed, you know, the “most fun sci-fi of the year.”

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

If navigating stealth bombers or submarines are tough, imagine what it’s like trying to drive the universe’s most famous spaceship, the Starship Enterprise. Aisha Hinds stars as Navigation Officer Darwin and Zoe Saldana as Uhura in the film, which grossed nearly $230 million.

Warcraft (2016)

This doesn’t hit theaters until next month, but it’s Paula Patton getting her heroine on as Garona, half-orc warrior woman whom USA Today says could be the “scrappiest” character in the film.

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.