For Love of Liberty: The Story of America's Black Patriots premieres on PBS stations in February in commemoration of Black History Month in the United States. The two-part, four-hour documentary is introduced by Colin Powell, hosted by Halle Berry and narrated by Avery Brooks.
The film takes audiences on a journey through the history of how African-American patriots have served the country from the revolution against the English monarchy through today's war on terror.
It's a treasure trove of little-known history with words culled from diaries and letters, speeches, newspaper and magazine articles. There are no talking heads. The words are narrated by some 50 volunteers, including Mel Gibson, John Travolta, Morgan Freeman, Susan Sarandon, Danny Glover, Kris Kristofferson and Bill Cosby.
As powerful as the words are, For Love of Liberty would be a compelling and remarkably informative documentary if it were a silent movie. The images include re-enactments of history, as well as paintings and drawings, but the most compelling visuals are the still and motion pictures dating back to the dawn of the age of photography. It's one thing to read or hear someone tell you that African-American soldiers went to battle with Teddy Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War. It is a totally different experience to see it happening with your own eyes.
The genesis of the making of the documentary dates back to 2000, when filmmaker James Crite found an intriguing book at a garage sale. The title was Black Americans in Defense of Their Country. The book was published by the Department of Defense when Colin Powell was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.
Crite instinctively felt that the book could be the foundation of an important documentary. He brought his idea to Lou Gossett Jr ., who readily agreed and suggested that Crite contact documentary filmmaker Frank Martin.
"That's how I got involved," says Martin, who is based in Los Angeles. "When I delved into the subject, I realized how relevant the topic is to all Americans, because it's an important part of our history that most of us don't know about.
"It's not a story about Black history," Martin maintains. "It's about American history. I felt it was important to find a way to tell this story from a first-person perspective, using the words of people talking about their experiences."
That was the beginning of a 10-year journey for Martin, who co-authored the script, produced and directed the film. There were no grants funding the project. It was a labor of love for Martin and the people who supported him in this ambitious endeavor.
"It wasn't like we uncovered some secret stash of letters," Martin says. "There have been many books dealing with this subject, including Grand Army of Black Men, which is about African-Americans in the Civil War. It contains many letters. We also found slave narratives on the Internet. It just took digging. A lot of people wrote to say they heard what we were doing, and enclosed letters from their fathers and grandfathers who had fought on the beach at Normandy and in battles in Korea and Vietnam."
Officials at the Pentagon and at veterans organizations provided access to their archives, which included letters, still photographs and posters. But it was no walk in the park for Martin, who travelled to 21 states and various countries in Europe. "We made this documentary the old fashioned way," Martin continues. "We begged. For instance, Air France donated air plane tickets to and from France, and Southwest Airlines gave us free tickets to travel around the country.
"Producing a documentary like this one is like being an archeologist," he points out. "You are sifting through old bins of film looking for scraps of history. We found thousands of still photographs and hundreds of hours of film in archives and in rusty cans in people's homes. The earliest film we found were the Buffalo Soldiers marching off to the Spanish-American War in 1898. John Goodman narrates a newspaper article that was published by The Washington Post while those images are on the screen: ‘If it had not been for the Negro Cavalry, Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders would have been exterminated.' We also found color film of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American pilots who flew P-51 Mustang airplanes during World War II."
For Love of Liberty: The Story of America's Black Patriots flows from era to era. Martin says one of the unifying visual principals occurred to him while he was at Arlington National Cemetery. He realized that one thing stories from different eras had in common were the tombstones of people whose letters and diaries were used. "A lot of the people whose stories are told died in combat," he explains. "We traveled all over the world filming their tombstones. It's a powerful testament to them. We asked ourselves, Why did they give their lives in defense of a nation that treated them worse than second-class citizens? The answer is that they were fighting for liberty."
Martin cites a letter written during the Civil War by an African-American, who said, "I would be willing to fight for three years for this government without one cent of the mighty dollar. Liberty is what I am struggling for." That theme was repeated in the letters and diaries of African-Americans who served their country in every war.
"People have asked me, Why would you spend 10 years making a documentary?" Martin says. "The answer is that it became an obsession, because I was telling a really important story. Some documentaries that I've made are important if you're a film buff. I worked on MGM: When the Lion Roars for two-and-a-half years, and won an Emmy. I'm proud of that film, but in the grand scheme of things, it's not that important.
"Making this documentary was a process of discovery," he continues. "How many people know that every battle [in which] people in this country fought for liberty had Black heroes? Most of us also don't know how unfairly most African-Americans soldiers were treated. Did you know there were no Medals of Honor awarded to Black soldiers during the First or Second World Wars? One Black soldier who fought in World War I had a Medal of Honor presented to him by President George H. W. Bush. President Bill Clinton presented Medals of Honor to seven Black veterans who fought in World War II. You see reflections of that in our current culture. Patton was a wonderful movie, but the only Black face was the general's orderly. That's just wrong. Patton's army was rescued by the 761st Tank Battalion; they were called the Black Panthers. They were amazingly heroic fighters, but you never hear about them. That's what kept me working on this film for 10 years."
On the brighter side, Martin points to director Ed Zwick's 1989 movie Glory, which highlights the heroism of members of a brigade of Black soldiers during the Civil War. "But that's about it in popular culture," he laments. "How many people have heard about the Harlem Hell Fighters, the Black Panthers or the Black soldiers who fought in the Revolution? The First Rhode Island Regiment did amazing things, but their members were still denied citizenship and rights that most of us take for granted. Nobody knows about any of these things, and that's the thing that surprised me the most. I was in a supermarket not too long ago. I was killing time at the magazine stand flipping through a World War II photo book. It was an inch thick, and filled with wonderful pictures, but there wasn't a single Black face, even though a million or more African-American soldiers fought in that war."
Asked what his biggest challenge was during the production of For Love of Liberty: The Story of America's Black Patriots, Martin replied without hesitation, "Picking the right material and editing it down to size."
Bob Fisher has been writing about documentary and narrative filmmaking for nearly 40 years, mainly focusing on cinematography and preservation.