Movie Review: “Courage Under Fire” a Much Brighter Light than “The Nutty Professor” – July 1996

A New Visions Commentary published July 1996 by The National Center for Public Policy Research, 20 F Street NW, Suite 700 , Washington, D.C. 20001, (202) 507-6398, Fax (301) 498-1301, E-Mail [email protected]

Oprah Winfrey rained heavy accolades on Eddie Murphy’s new movie “Nutty Professor” during her July 1 show. Given the adverse stereotypical images of African-Americans in “The Nutty Professor,” Oprah would have done African-Americans a much greater service by paying that kind of obeisance to Denzel Washington’s new movie, “Courage Under Fire.” In my estimation, “The Nutty Professor” cannot hold a candle to “Courage Under Fire.”

The billing for “Courage Under Fire” is correct. Denzel Washington gives an Academy Award caliber performance in the movie. The subject matter is deep, the script is superb, and it is an exquisitely “clean” performance. There are no frills. However, when the movie is finished, you are enchanted by what you have seen and heard.

The movie is about Lt. Col. Nat Serling (Denzel Washington) who is detailed from the Pentagon to determine, through an investigation, whether helicopter pilot Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) is deserving of the Medal of Honor. The medal is to be given posthumously for Walden’s valiant effort during the Persian Gulf War. Seems simple enough. But stir into this mix the fact that Serling, formerly himself a tank commander in the Persian Gulf, is being investigated by The Washington Post for his involvement in a “friendly fire” incident. Also stir in the fact that Walden is the first American woman to be recommended for the Medal of Honor as a result of combat service.

But there are two quandaries for Serling. First, he has assumed a heavy drinking habit because he cannot forgive himself for killing his best friend during the friendly fire incident, and lying to his friend’s parents about the death. Second, there are some discrepancies in the reports surrounding the events leading to Walden’s death. Serling wants to thoroughly investigate these events, but is pressured by his commanding officer to rubber-stamp the initial reports. His commanding officer, in turn, is being pressured by the White House and the Congress to approve Walden’s Medal of Honor posthaste. The political reality is that Walden’s Medal of Honor can be used to create a surge of patriotism in the country, and make the American people feel proud about what happened in the Persian Gulf.

Being the soldier and holder of moral values that he is, Serling defies his commanding officer and moves ahead with the investigation. He puts himself at risk to the point of being officially kicked off the investigation. But he continues the investigation on his own terms, and comes, with the viewer, to several realizations.

First, you realize that the army operates in a different world; it has its own rules for living and surviving. Second, you realize that the army often bends over backwards to satisfy the whims of the politicians in Washington. Third, you realize that the politicians are not beyond manipulating events to control the psyche of the American people. Finally, you realize that you become expendable when you get in the way of those politicians’ plans and the army’s attempts to execute those plans.

Serling understands all of this, yet he is willing to put everything on the line to “get this one right.” He is willing to sacrifice all, even his family, to make real his life-long dream of being a good soldier who operates on high moral principles. He does not fail! Serling finds the truth; not only about Walden, but about himself. It is these truths that make him whole again.

“Courage Under Fire” is a much greater movie than “The Nutty Professor” because of the absence of adverse stereotypical images of African-Americans. In fact, the movie depicts African-Americans as full-bodied human beings with great character. The movie is also special because it focuses on a woman in a non-traditional role, something beyond even most contemporary movies. To put it succinctly, if one is searching for a prototype or formula for how non-dominant groups should be depicted in movies, the search is over.

by B.B. Robinson, a member of the national Advisory Council of the African-American leadership group Project 21, President of Eye on the Media, Inc. (McLean, VA).


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