Saturday, August 02, 2014

'The Harlem Hellfighters' - Max Brooks' New Graphic Novel Honors the All-Black 369th Infantry Regiment; Heroes of WWI

It's hardly surprising that the progeny of immense creative talents like writer/director Mel Brooks and Academy and Tony Award-winning actress Anne Bancroft would have a talented child - and writer Max Brooks has certainly proven himself to be that and much more.

Earlier today I listened to a fascinating interview with Brooks on Radiotimes on WHYY; first broadcast back in April of this year. While he's known for his four successful zombie books including 'World War Z', host Marty Moss-Coane was interviewing him about his recent graphic novel, 'The Harlem Hellfighters'.

It's based on the infamous 369th Infantry Regiment, a unit comprised entirely of African-Americans and Afro-Puerto Ricans from New York City that fought with distinction first in World War I, and later in World War II.

Inspired by a favorite college history teacher, Brooks spent years trying to pitch Hollywood film studios and producers the story about the heroic battlefield feats of The Harlem Hellfighters and the deep-seated prejudice they faced from the hierarchy of US Army and politicians who saw their costly victories against the Germans and celebrity in France as a serious threat to Jim Crow.

But no one wanted to touch the project. Determined to tell the story the right way, Brooks partnered with talented African-American illustrator Caanan White who did the pencils/illustration for successful science-fiction comics such as 'Ptolis' for Marvel and 'Uber' for Avatar. Together they created a vivid example of historical fiction (some of the characters are fictional amalgams) that drew rave reviews and brought the larger than life true story to a generation of readers not very familiar with the history of WWI.

With August marking the 100th anniversary of the start of 'The War to End All Wars', the media landscape will soon be dotted with a range of programming, documentaries and specials that re-examine the causes, events and impact of WWI; and Hollywood is taking notice as well.  

With the release of Brooks' and White's graphic novel to excellent reviews, and a recent slate of highly successful films focusing on the real and fictional struggles of African-American protagonists, ('The Help', '42', 'The Butler', '12 Years a Slave') in March, Sony purchased the film rights to the graphic novel before it was even published.

Brooks revealed in the interview that actor Will Smith expressed interest in starring in the film and as we all know, he's brought home some serious bacon for Sony. Since 1992, he's made over a billion and half dollars for Sony, $1,587,280,979 to be exact. His total lifetime gross for all his films is over $2.7 billion.

My point there is not to wave Will Smith's flag, he certainly doesn't need me or anyone else to do that. (I would sneak in that 'After Earth' may have gotten disastrous critical reviews for it's Scientology-laced plot, poor on-screen chemistry between him and his son and lukewarm direction from M. Knight Shyamalan, but it still made over $60 million).

My point is that attaching Will Smith to the project means 'The Harlem Hellfighters' will get the budget, marketing and distribution this true story of American heroes deserves. Smith will also attract other A-List talent to what should be regarded as one of the most important war films in recent memory.

If Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan' brought together an all-star cast for a fictional story of WWII, the incredible true story of the Harlem Hellfighters deserves no less a talented a cast (or director); one worthy of the sacrifices made and bravery shown by those men on and off the battlefield.

I for one look forward to the premiere. In the meantime I ordered a copy of Brooks' and White's graphic novel for myself from Amazon; and I'll be checking the mailbox.

No comments: