|What is the measure of a man? Is it the cut of his suit? The size of his bank account? The kind of car he drives? Is it the resonance of his voice? Or is the measure of a man based on his ability set goals, stay focused and overcome setbacks in support of himself, his family and community? If you are in any doubt you need to see the film "Men of Honor."
Recently, I was truly privileged to attend the Washington, DC premier of the film. Among the invited guests were military and political dignitaries, which including Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig as well as a Hollywood contingent which included Cuba Gooding, Jr., one of the stars of the film, director George Tillman, Jr. ("Soul Food"), and producer Robert Teitel. All were there to honor and celebrate the life and achievements of Carl Brashear, the man who inspired the film and the first African-American to earn the titles of Master Diver and Master Chief, the Navy's highest rank for an enlisted man.
I must admit, I know very little about the Navy, in fact any real knowledge I may have of any branch of the armed forces is peripheral at best and is based on news reports and of course pop culture representations in film. But rest assured "Men of Honor" is no feel good story of "An Officer And a Gentleman," even though both titles would be appropriate for Brasher. Instead, this is the story of a man who did not know the word "quit." This is the story of a man who was tenacious and relentless in the pursuit of his goals even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
At the insistence of his father Brashear leaves the life of a Kentucky sharecropper at 17 to join the Navy with the expectation that anything the Navy had to offer would be a better life. As the father and son bid each other farewell, the father lovingly admonishes his son, "Never quit...be the best." This phrase would be a constant echo that motivated Brashear, who would suffer the indignities and cruelties of racism in the newly integrated Navy. However, Brashear allowed nothing or no-one, not Master Diver Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro), the Navy's bureaucracy, nor the loss of a leg, to cripple his dream of becoming a Navy diver.
"This movie doesn't scratch the surface of the 32 years that I served in the United States Navy," said Master Chief Brashear at the premiere. "There are a lot of things that I would have liked to see in there but they tell a very good story about my life. There's only so much you can put in a two hour movie."
Tillman does pack the two hours with a compelling drama that captures Brashear's incredible spirit and enthusiasm for life. They did however take creative license with some aspect of the film to advance the story. Most notable is the invention of the character Billy Sunday -- he is an amalgam of various Navy men whom Brashear has met throughout his career.
This story is a long time in the making. It took executive producers Bill Cosby and Stanley Robertson to get a script written in 1994 that would do justice to Master Chief Brashear's accomplishment. Three years later the directing and producing team of Tillman and Teitel were introduced to the story.
"We were editing "Soul Food" in 1997 when the story came across my desk and it was just a great story and quite honestly I was amazed by it," said Teitel. "Then we had to go meet Carl to ask him `Is this true? Are all these things true?' We really wanted to know because he all seemed so unbelievable. But once we met Carl we appreciated that there was even more to what he did. Once we met him we felt obligated to make his story."
Tillman concurred, "Master Chief Brashear is a hero who I knew absolutely nothing about and unfortunately I'm not alone, too few people do not know of his story. I mean, this man had a seventh grade education, started out as a sharecropper, but he didn't let his circumstance limit him. He preserved until he achieved the rank of Master Chief and Master Diver even after he lost one leg. Now you can't hear his story and not be inspired. This man is incredible.
Master Chief Brashear has seen "Men of Honor" several times and declares it is his favorite film. "I want everybody to leave the movie feeling inspired and uplifted. I want them to know that if they set their goals and work towards it with all their might you will be successful whether people like you or not."
Throughout the film, in addition to questioning my own resolve and trying to assess what if anything in my life that I am as passionate about, one truly interesting fact kept coming back to me. That is, throughout the history of African people in America, there is an enduring legacy of men and women, like Master Chief Carl Brashear, who have endured the injustices of white supremacy/racism yet they have been able to triumph.