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The Right

Black War Cinema and the Representation Paradox

(Deme Cisse in Battlefield V)

For all of their insistence on cultural revolution, progressives are not yet ready to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”

The Problem    

Modern progressive discourse betrays an odd paradox. Academics and cultural commentators condemn Western institutions for being irredeemably racist. At the same time, they laud non-white persons for succeeding within those same institutions whose very essence allegedly offends their dignity.

If mathematics is racist, one wonders why films such as Hidden Figures, which highlight the contributions of black mathematicians working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, keep getting made. After all, according to A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction, a toolkit released by Californian teachers’ groups and promoted by the United States  Department of Education, “[s]tudents [being] required to ‘show their work’ in standardized, prescribed ways” is a mindset that “perpetuate white supremacy.” For that matter, no less than the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture has declared “emphasis on the scientific method,” a quality presumably required of all mathematicians, to be an avatar of whiteness. 

Likewise, why celebrate the biracial Meghan Markle’s marriage into the British royal family when said family sits atop a European empire that ruthlessly exploited her African ancestors? Does the generational trauma spawned by Albion’s crimes not linger on despite the glamorous wedding? Why bother auditioning minority musicians for orchestras if tonal theory, which includes concepts like pitch, rhythm, and harmony, fails to register their musical prowess? In a 2019 essay titled “It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die,” composer Nebal Maysaud writes that “people of color can never truly be pioneers of Western classical music” because “Western classical music is not about culture. It’s about whiteness. It’s a combination of European traditions which serve the specious belief that whiteness has a culture—one that is superior to all others.”

One might respond that wanting to increase ethnic diversity in majority-white institutions is different from critiquing the very premises of such institutions. Thus, there is no reason to assume that the two are connected, much less that they are being pushed for by the same people. In other words, this author comes off as trying to discredit moderate multiculturalists by lumping them in with a few fanatics, if they exist at all. But the reality is more nuanced. While a sizable portion of those who wish to diversify Western society abstains from disputing the legitimacy of its most basic suppositions, those that subscribe to the latter approach rarely repudiate the former. 

Carson Holloway writes that “to the extent that [natural rights] are understood as belonging to human beings as human beings, as resting on a human nature that is the same everywhere and not on some uniquely American culture, then in principle any human being of any background can become an American citizen.” Holloway, who was a visiting scholar at the Heritage Foundation at the time of writing, captures the official attitude of the political center-right on both sides of the Atlantic. American Republicans now hail Martin Luther King Jr. as a champion of color-blindness, and the United Kingdom’s Conservatives in 2022 fielded an unprecedented number of ethnic minority contenders for the party leadership. “I’m delighted at the diversity of the potential slate for Conservative Party leader,” said Member of Parliament Andrew Bridgen in July of last year. “It’s not the color of someone’s skin, their gender or their sexuality that matters. In the Conservative Party, it’s what’s in their head, and equally important what’s in their hearts.” It is difficult to imagine Prime Minister Rishi Sunak or South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, both of Indian descent, denouncing the societies whose toleration of difference made possible their rise to power.

Compare the prior rhetoric to that of individuals who lament Western values and practices for their “whiteness.” Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a classics professor at Princeton University, claims that because “[c]lassics and whiteness are the bones and sinew of the same body,” he would “get rid of classics altogether” by “dissolv[ing] its faculties and reassign[ing] their members to history, archaeology and language departments.” Yet, Padilla feels compelled to “work with colleagues on diversifying the profession,” which presupposes that the profession has to exist for it to be diversified. His colleagues exhibit the same fallacy. Defending Padilla’s views, the chair at Princeton’s classics department wrote that “[t]he field’s ability to incorporate members of previously excluded groups…has at different points in its history revolutionized the classics in ways that are crucial to its ongoing vitality.” Note the word “ongoing.” The aforementioned Maysaud wants classical music to “die.” But having “written in a wide variety of genres ranging between tonal, minimalist, abstract, graphic, and electronic within the realm of Western music,” Maysaud, who specializes in Arabic Maqam, declares himself “equally if not more adept at conventional Western music as well,” an accolade that would no longer make sense if Western music is to be eliminated.

Contradictions aside, it appears that one is, in fact, capable of embracing both diversity and “deconstruction.” In the words of author Ashley Reese, “I have no love for a monarchy, especially not the notoriously imperialist British one that still has too much—albeit mostly dried—blood on its hands. But I am a sucker for a damn wedding, pageantry, and live-tweeting, so there I was, low-key gushing over Prince Harry’s whispered sweet nothings, fawning over Meghan’s dramatic ass veil, and smiling at Meghan’s proud mom as she watched this ridiculousness unfold, nose ring, dreadlocks, and all.”

The Response

The progressive paradox is especially pronounced in cinematic depictions of non-white minorities. To the extent that these works emphasize their protagonists’ exploits as a means to remedy underrepresentation, they cannot escape having to address whether representation within “systems of oppression” is itself, as they say, problematic. Some films such as Edward Zwick’s 1989 picture Glory eschew the problem altogether by crafting a familiar tale of petty prejudices being overcome by their targets’ virtues. As black troops of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment threw themselves at Fort Wagner while Confederate artillery shredded their ranks, the United States Army’s former practices, including unequal pay and denial of frontline combat, were put to shame. The final scene shows the regiment’s white commanding officer, Colonel Robert Shaw, who is played by Matthew Broderick), being buried alongside his men in a crude ditch, reminding the audience that baptism through fire is the ultimate equalizer. 

The hefty moral verdict obscures a broader discussion of whether the Union was justified at all in calling on African Americans to fight, especially when there was no consensus yet that they ought to be awarded rights as citizens. Left-wing voices such as Nikole-Hannah Jones of The 1619 Project deserve an applause for shedding light on this rather uncomfortable aspect of the War to End Slavery. Ideological agendas aside, they at least display a greater command of history than the average moviegoer. 

Many abolitionists, mostly white but including a few blacks like Martin Delany, wished to send former slaves to Africa or the Caribbean. Even President Abraham Lincoln signed onto the cause. In his “First Annual Message” to Congress on December 3, 1861, President Lincoln demanded that “steps be taken for colonizing [freed slaves]…at some place or places in a climate congenial to them.” In an August, 1862 meeting in the White House, President Lincoln told black leaders that “your race suffer [sic] very greatly, many of them by living among us,” and that they should emigrate because “when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race.” In early 1863, he recruited 450 black settlers in a failed attempt to colonize Île à Vache, an island off the southern coast of Haiti. Although President Lincoln eventually suggested allowing blacks to vote in his last address before his assassination in April of 1865, potentially signaling a change of heart, as late as November, 1864 he wrote to Attorney General Edward Bates asking if he could continue to pursue resettlement despite Congress having already withdrawn the funds needed to establish new colonies.

Moreover, the Union assigned black troops to combat missions despite knowing that they would face abuses should they fall into enemy hands. Glory addresses this issue despite its tendency to treat relegating black servicemen to non-combatant roles as an insult. In one scene, Colonel Shaw reads a proclamation adopted by the Confederate Congress and signed by President Jefferson Davis on May 1, 1863, permitting black prisoners of war to be enslaved and their officers executed for inciting “servile insurrection.” Sure enough, on April 12, 1864, Confederate forces led by General Nathan Bedford Forrest massacred nearly 300 of the 567 Union defenders at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, after they had surrendered. About 200 of the victims were black. Forest was later elected “Grand Wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan. A similar crime occurred at Saltville, Virginia, in October, 1864. Confederate troops killed between 45 and 50 wounded men of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry who were abandoned by the retreating Union army. 

Historian Allen Guelzo claims that President Lincoln’s conduct was but a temporary ruse to secure the support of whites who would otherwise have opposed his war out of fear that it could result in black integration into American society. Guelzo cites the journalist Frederick Milnes Edge, who had written in 1862 that colonization “was adopted to silence the weak-nerved.” Abolitionist Frederick Douglass predicted that sending blacks to war would at least strengthen their hand in any future bargain for political rights. Regardless, Hannah-Jones and company are correct in pointing out that the United States was once a Eurocentric regime whose motivations cannot always be reconstructed into something more palatable to modern sensibilities. 

But though Hannah-Jones’ interrogation leads naturally to the conclusion that the Union was no less racist than the Confederacy, she does seem to interpret service with the former as something more than mere proof of white indifference toward black life, a theme prevalent throughout much of her writings. In an interview with PBS host Hari Sreenivasan, Hannah-Jones said that “[y]ou can look at the fact that black people have fought in every single war this country has ever fought, but we’ve also engaged in a 250-year internal war against our own country to try to force our country to also bring full democracy here and not just abroad.” Was she saying that African Americans should have fought for the not-so-Great Emancipator after all?

The Parody

Perhaps Hannah-Jones knew that black soldiers—despite their Civil War-era origins being rather dubious when scrutinized through the lenses of antiracism and equityare still integral to America’s conception of herself, that is, as a nation “with liberty and justice for all.” Past sacrifices by marginalized groups, both real and imagined, have the capacity to generate quasi-egalitarian narratives that latter day revolutionaries find convenient to appropriate. 

The phenomenon explains the existence of Battlefield V, a 2018 first-person shooter developed by the Swedish studio DICE. The game purports to take players on a “[j]ourney into the untold, unexpected stories of World War 2.” To dispel doubts as to what “untold” or “unexpected” meant, the reveal trailer featured a woman with blue face paint and a prosthetic arm clearing a house with machine gun in hand. Addressing concerns over historical accuracy, DICE general manager Oskar Gabrielson wrote that “female playable characters are here to stay” because “[o]ur commitment as a studio is to do everything we can to create games that are inclusive and diverse.” Chief creative officer Patrick Söderlund concurred: “We stand up for the cause, because I think those people who don’t understand it, well, you have two choices: either accept it or don’t buy the game.” 

The fully released game contains four campaign missions focused on the respective stories of female Norwegian resistance fighters, Senegalese colonial troops, a former criminal recruited by the British Royal Navy’s Special Boat Service, and a German tank crew. Judging from the developers’ self-professed commitments, one suspects that their choice of subject matter was aimed specifically at dismantling the conventional image of World War II established through films such as Steven Spielberg’s 1998 picture Saving Private Ryan—films that one writer referred to as “white men ‘doing the right thing.’” Of particular interest is the second mission. Set during Operation Dragoon, the 1944 Allied invasion of Southern France, the story is a bizarre imitation of Glory that unmasks the true nature of the representation paradox.

In the opening cinematic, Deme, a elderly veteran of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais (“Senegalese Skirmishers”), recalls how he was treated to a rude awakening upon his arrival in France. “We were saying: ‘We’re French, we’re French.’ But once we got to France…we found out just how French we really were.” Deme speaks as the scene transitions to his younger self encountering a column of white Frenchmen, whereupon one of the soldiers snatched away his rifle and another handed him a shovel instead. “Is this all we do?” Deme asked as he is shown digging holes one night. His friend answered that “[t]hings here are different.” Deme’s situation resembles a sequence from Glory in which Trip, who is played by Denzel Washington, tired of manual labor, announces to a group of white Union troops that “all [their] troubles will be over” if “someday they’d let the 54th get into it.” 

Yet, the comparison, which Battlefield V no doubt intends to evoke, assumes a nexus between equality and combat—one that may have been valid during the American Civil War but is largely fictitious in the present case. French colonial troops, unlike African Americans, were never denied combat as a matter of policy. 134,000 Tirailleurs Sénégalais fought in WWI, of which 30,000 died. Over 40,000 saw action during the Fall of France in 1940, and at least 15,000 (not including North Africans) were part of Free French Forces that landed in Provence in 1944 as part of Operation Dragoon. Some 40,000 tirailleurs died in the campaigns to retake North Africa, Italy, and France from Axis occupation. Their extensive deployment was due to both French desires to compensate for her smaller population compared to Germany and beliefs about blacks’ “inborn” ferocity, which allegedly made them ideal soldiers in want of white leadership. Battlefield V’s use of an American trope that treats combat as having the effect of defeating paternalistic notions falls flat.

Deme was well aware of his perceived inferiority. Therefore, when taking into account his claim to being “French,” his desire to fight could only have resulted from either his having French citizenship or his desire to acquire citizenship through his sacrifices. But neither of the two explanations, while remotely plausible in Deme’s case, would have applied to the vast majority of tirailleurs. Residents of Dakar, Gorée, Rufisque, and Saint-Louis—Senegal’s Four Communes—were granted French citizenship in 1916. They were, however, integrated into the French army proper rather than remain with tirailleur regiments, so it was unlikely that a real life Deme would have considered himself French. 

Many tirailleurs also had no reason to be as devoted as Deme, who, after surviving his first combat mission, rallied his comrades to press on the attack without support. France had employed conscription, meaning that even if some volunteered for personal reasons, many others were pressed into service. Historian Richard Fogarty wrote that “unequal power relations, limited opportunities, and often poverty created by colonial rule itself” made it “very difficult to sort out genuine volunteerism from coercion.” First-hand accounts from both World Wars reported unpleasant experiences with conscription, especially as villages often had to surrender sons and husbands. One peasant witnessed armed resistance against the French in Diembéring, Senegal. A fisherman, himself a tirailleur, saw recruits jump off their transport ship into the ocean. While more than a few tirailleurs served with distinction, and while some French officers risked death protecting tirailleurs in German captivity from being killed outright, their individual actions did not alter the fact that wartime France called upon her colonies out of expediency, and Africans saw it as such.

Colonial subjects gained citizenship under the Fourth Republic in 1946, which, despite withholding full voting rights, provided for basic civil liberties and the ability to emigrate. But insofar as tirailleurs knew they would in time be granted some form of citizenship, they could not have been fighting for the specific privileges it conferred. For one thing, most were eager to return home. Frustrated with poor living conditions, tirailleurs awaiting repatriation mutinied in Morlaix, Versailles, and Fréjus. Ironically, it was the French who wanted to keep certain black soldiers in France against their wishes for fear that their conduct would stir up unrest back home. The historian Ruth Ginio writes that French women’s requests to be reunited with African men they met in the war “were approved on the condition that the couples unite on French soil and not in the colonies. The fear of blurring colonial and racial boundaries in the colonies was too great…” Insofar as African troops were repatriated and replaced with white resistance fighters ahead of the complete liberation of France in late 1944, there was little evidence that they objected at the time, much less on the grounds that they were “French.”

Tirailleurs did push for equal pensions and improved service conditions, especially after the infamous massacre at Thiaroye by French authorities. Veterans’ groups like La Voix de Combattants et des Victimes de Guerre (“The Voice of Combatants and Victims of War”) denounced racism as violating the spirit of “true France,” prompting the colonial administration to investigate its own abuses. However, “most veterans adopted a so-called apolitical approach during the postwar years and attempted further to improve their conditions within the existent colonial framework,” writes Ginio. The relevance of such endeavors, and of citizenship as it was offered in 1946, to racial equality in France today is minuscule, considering that all the colonies from where tirailleurs came—and to which the benefits accrued—have long since declared independence. In January, 2023, the French government finally allowed the few surviving Tirailleurs Sénégalais to collect their €950 per month pension without having to live in France for at least six months every year. The change applied to only 37 people, most of whom were too young to have fought in World War II but instead served in postwar colonial conflicts in Algeria and Indochina. 91-year-old veteran Gorgui M’Bodji welcomed how he could permanently leave France. “I’m here and I can’t see the children,” he said. 

The above facts distinguish tirailleurs from American archetypes of the civil rights activist. The former, despite the injustices they endured, were never as intertwined with French identity as the descendants of African slaves are with American identity. French values were invoked to secure material benefits in one’s native surroundings rather than to obtain political and social power within France. Battlefield V nevertheless portrays its protagonist, Deme, as if he was an African American fighting in the Civil War. The developers might be forgiven, considering that they made no pretense of being committed to historical accuracy. But if truth is of little concern, why not depict tirailleurs as anti-French rebels as opposed to loyal Frenchmen? Does antiracism not demand that colonized peoples extirpate any affinity toward their former colonizers?


For all of their insistence on cultural revolution, progressives are not yet ready to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Like medieval Catholics seeking eternal salvation, guilt-ridden Western institutions purchase indulgences. But instead of paying the Church to acquire time in purgatory where the debt of their sins could be canceled, they dole out book deals, film projects, jobs, and artistic awards to their detractors. Simplistic narratives about representation legitimize the spoils system by convincing institutions that they are doing good deeds as long as they field minorities. A nuanced inquiry suggests that this has not always been the case; that diversity does not guarantee equality; and that minorities themselves might not even prefer an “equality” defined through superficial representation. It is apt to ask whether one is being lied to about his own history just so a few storytellers can amass power and prestige. If so, he is but a tirailleur, a mercenary for another’s gain.

Guzi He is a J.D. candidate at the American University Washington College of Law. He holds a B.A. in Government from the College of William and Mary and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese.

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