Period films are often challenging ordeals. Many factors come into play when transferring a fact based story to the big screen, from costumes, to historical accuracy, to the ever-present “will anyone pay to watch this” dilemma. The American Civil War stands among the pivotal moments in our nation’s history, so it stands as no surprise that there have been a plethora of flicks based on that time period made over the years, from the infamous Birth of a Nation in 1915, the legendary Gone with the Wind, and 2003’s Gods and Generals. It was 1989 when a powerful gem named Glory was released into theaters, chronicling the formation of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an all black regiment mustered in 1863. Directed by Edward Zwick, the movie featured some serious star power in Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, Cary Elwes, and a host of recognizable faces. Incorporating a triumphant score by James Horner, the film succeeds in painting a multi-layered picture of the trials and hurdles that had to be overcome by black and white troops in the Union Army following the Emancipation Proclamation passed into law by President Lincoln. The film carefully creates a vivid portrait of the main characters, with the simmering tensions of the war serving as a commanding backdrop. I remember getting misty-eyed in the theaters when I saw this film as a kid, and the message that it conveys holds true today. Definitely worth a watch.
Enslaved African who, through courageous effort, became the first captain under service to the United States, distinguished politician, and entrepreneur.
In 1862, he was serving as ship’s pilot on the Confederate military transport vessel CSS Planter, when the ship’s captain and officers disembarked to spend the evening ashore. Smalls donned the captain’s uniform and a hat resembling the one that the captain wore, and with the help of various crew, managed to slip the vessel through Confederate lines and to the Union blockade. As a result, he was hailed a hero in the North, and was awarded $1500 as his share of the ship’s prize.
While serving in the US Army in 1863, the Planter came under fire in a skirmish; Captain Nickerson, in command of the vessel, was inclined to surrender the ship to the enemy. Wary of the potentially dangerous terms of surrender, Smalls instead assumed command of the ship and sailed the vessel out of harm’s way. For his action under fire, he was elevated to captain in place of Nickerson, becoming the first captain under service to the United States.
After the war, he continued to serve his country, having been elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, the South Carolina Senate, the South Carolina Militia (earning the rank of major general), and the US House of Representatives, serving multiple terms. He was also an entrepreneur of note, acquiring considerable holdings.
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Born in the Caribbean to a French plantation owner and an enslaved African woman, Boulogne was renowned for his swordsmanship and athleticism; he also gained considerable fame as a composer and violinist, often referred to as the ‘Black Mozart’ for his musical prowess. It was noted that he excelled at fencing as a youth, and was praised by his contemporaries for his skill and grace in masterfully defeating his peers. During that time, he studied under several prominent Parisian musicians, gaining notoriety for his compositions and abilities. As an aristocrat, he served in the army during the revolution, commanding a regiment of free black volunteers, and also led the ensemble of the Concert des Amateurs, in which he played violin.
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Managed to become the first black man to represent England in an international rugby match in 1906, but due to racial bias, was later withdrawn from national selection. Nicknamed “Darkie Peters”, the highly regarded athlete went on to represent his country several times between 1906 – 1908 (the South African national team refused to play against him), as well as serve out a lengthy and distinguished playing career in rugby league and union as a member of Plymouth Albion and Devon.
There’s powerful, and then there’s Bo Jonsson Grip powerful. By any means necessary, Jonsson (Grip is Swedish for griffin), a Swedish noble, managed to nab the highest titles available (including ruler of Finland), was in possession of the largest landholdings in Swedish history (even more than the royal family), and served as the right hand man of the king. He exerted tremendous control over the politics of the day, and his influence over foreign and domestic matters was unparalleled; in addition, his wealth and position allowed for crucial input regarding royal matters and matters of succession. It is even said that he got away with the murder of one of his second wife’s admirers due to his high status. Bo Jonsson…distinguished.
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Recognized as the first foreign samurai, Yasuke was an African slave that arrived in Japan in 1579 with Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano. As Valignano’s servant, he was present when Valignano visited the capital in 1581; contemporary accounts record the initial meeting with Lord Oda Nobunaga, who met the foreigner with fascination and intrigue, and was the first African that any had seen. “On the 23rd of the 2nd month [March 23, 1581], a black page (黒坊主 “kuro-bōzu”) came from the Christian countries. He looked about 26 or 27 years old; his entire body was black like that of an ox. The man was healthy and good-looking. Moreover, his strength was greater than that of 10 men.” It is said that Nobunaga had the man wipe his skin, thinking that the black may have been paint. Yasuke gained favor and entered the service of Lord Nobunaga, where he was elevated to the rank of samurai, and later fought alongside Nobunaga’s forces against the invading forces of Akechi Mitsuhide. After Nobunaga’s defeat, he was given back to the Jesuits, where he disappeared from record.
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