Beliefnet
In movie theaters since Independence Day, Mel Gibson's "The Patriot" is a smash hit. This weekend, Gibson was tomahawking Redcoats, splashing blue blood across 2,751 movie screens nationwide and grossing $6.2 million. Premiere week, I was one of the faithful, munching popcorn and getting misty-eyed at the sight of a teenaged colonist painstakingly hand-stitching an American flag to carry into battle. I grew a little concerned when all of Mel's field hands turned out to be happy free blacks, but managed to hold my peace. After all, some existed in South Carolina then.

Then the filmmakers went too far. A slave, who had been forced to fight in his master's place, learned of a proclamation that promised slaves freedom if they fought against the British for a year. That never happened! In fact, it was the British who cannily offered the slaves freedom for fighting against the rebels. Then the slave stays on in the Continental army voluntarily after his year is up to fight for his captors' freedom!

How dare they whitewash American history? Every time the white majority erases its crimes in this manner (and on such a major point), it sets race relations back and increases minorities' legitimate resentments. Given that many Americans learn what blessed little they know about history from TV and movies, it's especially pernicious to deliberately distort a truth so central to the American story. The filmmakers responsible for "The Patriot" worked closely with the Smithsonian to ensure historical accuracy, copying in scrupulous detail period clothing, furnishings, even the proper way to dry furs--but they rewrite the brutal history of slavery?

Of course, this kind of racial re-casting isn't restricted to whites. African-American director John Singleton's remake of "Shaft," the 1970s blaxploitation classic, was striking for the large numbers of Hispanics portrayed, not just as criminals, but inept ones. Worse, two non-Hispanic blacks (Vanessa Williams and Jeffrey Wright) played the only Hispanics in leading roles, the latter as a heavily ethnicized psycopathic, albeit comic, villain.

Latino culture critics have expressed their dismay about "Shaft." El Diario film critic Juan Moreno told the New York Post, "Latinos are used to being typecast, but I haven't seen something happen like this since the '60s." Given that Hispanics are largely absent from mainstream moviemaking, laments Sylvia Martinez of Latina magazine, "a black playing a Latino is adding insult to injury."

If Hollywood commonly changes the facts about race to improve its storyline or box-office appeal, we can hardly complain. But what then, do we make of it when directors insist on historical accuracy? When "Saving Private Ryan" premiered, I made a beeline to my local theater. Though I was a child in the 1960s, those tumultuous times made little impression on me, even though, in many ways, they were about me, a poor black ghetto kid. But, for us Dickersons, the 1960s were really the 1940s, because my father was one of the first black United States Marines.

He island-hopped during the brutal Pacific phase of World War II, an experience our entire family relived with him continuously until his death in 1977. I knew nothing about the Tet Offensive but everything about the Battle of Okinawa. His Marine service was the formative experience of Eddie Mack Dickerson's life; because of it, he imbued his six children with a patriotism that made us the designated student speaker at every Benton Elementary Flag Day, a love of order that made us every teacher's pet, and a pride that made us insufferable on the playground. So deeply was I affected by the impact of my father's service, I eventually enlisted and spent 12 years on active duty in the United States Air Force.

Even though my father was on the other side of the planet on D-Day, I eagerly anticipated the premiere because I knew that Spielberg intended his movie as an homage to all the Americans who selflessly offered up his or her life for their country. In my father's case, that was a country which treated German POWs better than it did him, a black Tennessee sharecropper weaned on the Depression. A country that taxed him but would kill him if he tried to vote. Complicated as our history was, my father didn't hesitate to defend his homeland, and I didn't hesitate to bore everyone around me in the theater with tales of his exploits, shushing be damned. Then, the movie began. All around me, people wept as, one by one, the brave squad sent to rescue Private Ryan were slain. I wept because there wasn't one black or brown face in the entire movie. I simply couldn't believe it. Once again, blacks were being told that we cannot be considered fully American. We were being told, yet again, that black Americans have no place in the American psyche except as athletes, musicians, comedians, prostitutes, or criminals. Minorities fought desperately for the right to defend a country that cruelly misused and exploited them, yet were again segregated from anything pure and transcendent about being American. Yes, Steven Spielberg made "The Color Purple" and "Amistad." Yes, he's adopted black children. Yes, because of segregation, there were virtually no minorities at D-Day. But then neither was Tom Hanks. It was entertainment, like "The Patriot" and "Shaft," not an encyclopedia entry: Why couldn't we be included?

"Saving Private Ryan" was intended to honor America's heroes, and my father was one of those heroes. Given the liberal license Hollywood takes with the historical record, couldn't Spielberg have at least shown black soldiers passing through? Couldn't he have cut to a different theater of operations (say, Okinawa, where my father was) where blacks were involved? It felt willful to me, another opportunity for whites to keep a straight face while denying minorities full citizenship, full access to the American ideals of selflessness, patriotism, and glory that we embody but are never thought to typify. Mr. Schindler was somewhat rehabilitated in Spielberg's homage. Why not Eddie Mack Dickerson?

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