The PBS documentary "For Love of Liberty" has a great and vital American story to tell. I just wish it had told it more effectively in TV terms.
It needed to be less like a classroom presentation, and more like the all-engaging, sweeping historical saga that it has the makings to be. But even with its flaws, the film still offers a revealing look at the potential of Black History Month programming and the role that mainstream TV plays in shared memory and a group's sense of identity. And that's an important discussion to have.
The four-hour production that airs Monday and Tuesday nights on MPT chronicles the history of African-American soldiers, sailors and Marines on the nation's battlefields, starting with Crispus Attucks on March 5, 1770 - the first casualty of the American Revolution. From the Boston Massacre to the battle for Iraq, "For Love of Liberty" has a remarkable narrative to ride.
It is remarkable because of the contradiction at the heart of this American experience: Blacks have defended this nation with great heroism and sacrifice even as the nation exploited their patriotism and denied them the most fundamental rights.
The theme of the film is carefully thought out and clearly sounded in the very first words that appear on the screen. They were written by Spanish-American War historian Edward A. Johnson: "Let it be said that the Negro soldier did his duty under the flag, whether the flag protected him or not."
But the problems with the production also appear right at the start. The first voice viewers hear is that of Colin Powell, retired general and former secretary of state. What Powell has to say is compelling, authoritative and perfectly underscores the film's message. He delivers what in the newspaper business would be described as the "money quote."
The staging and presentation, however, could hardly be worse. Viewers see Powell facing the camera talking to the audience as if he were a lecturer addressing a classroom full of students.
"Hello, I'm Colin Powell, and I was an American soldier for 35 years," he says. "I was a black American soldier, and I followed in a long tradition of black men and women who have served this nation since long before the Revolutionary War."
It's didactic, pedantic and wordy. A much more effective staging would have opened with a cold cut to a tight shot of Powell sitting in an interview situation. The underline at the bottom of the screen could ID him as a retired general, if there is anyone who doesn't know he was a top military leader. There was no need to say he was a black soldier; viewers can see that for themselves.
And through judicious editing, viewers should have been given the sense that they were coming into the interview in the middle of things, just as he was saying, "For so many years, black soldiers served their nation without their nation ever serving them. They served because they believed in this nation - they believed in the promise of democracy." There would have been a real power in that.
One of the reasons the four hours feel so long is that filmmaker Frank Martin consistently tells this story in a slow, stagey, reverential and old-fashioned manner - and for better or worse, the media landscape, documentary filmmaking techniques and viewing habits of the public have changed drastically in the past decade.
Like a high school history textbook, we move from war to war chronologically, with Halle Berry appearing between wars to introduce the next chapter of the battlefield saga. The film is almost mind-numbing in its use of such repetitive devices.
But there is a larger, cultural dimension on which a production like "For Love of Liberty" also needs to be discussed, and in that respect, I celebrate the makers and funders of this film - as well as Maryland Public Television, which is the presenting station that makes the film available nationally on PBS.
Some of the history here has been told in other places, such as in segments of big-budget documentaries like "The War," by Ken Burns. It has also been dramatized in feature films like "Glory," and such HBO made-for-TV movies as " Tuskegee Airmen."
But never has this rich and long history been gathered into one historical document available to a mass audience via prime-time public television and DVD sales - and to say that it is long overdue is an understatement. And while the prime-time audience on MPT on Monday and Tuesday nights might not be a large one by Nielsen overnight standards, I guarantee that generations of American schoolchildren will see this film on DVD in their classrooms - and some will surely be inspired by it.
In that sense, it could be a landmark social document in its potential to shape both a sense of identity among African-Americans and the perception of blacks in military history by the larger society. And let's not mince words: The larger society has been minimizing, suppressing or altogether writing out the contributions that minority groups have made to American history for far too long. Films like "For Love of Liberty: The Story of America's Black Patriots" are thankfully putting an end to that.
The debate over Black History Month has also been going on for more than a decade now within the black community itself. Some analysts say having a specific month to showcase films like this only creates a TV "ghetto" for black-themed shows.
I won't argue with those critics. But I suspect that if it wasn't for Black History Month, productions like "For Love of Liberty" would have a hard time getting made or finding a national showcase.
And all of us - of all colors - would be poorer for it.