Morgan Freeman presides as an exec producer over this quality docudrama detailing a still-festering wound from World War II. Yet as passionate and well constructed as “Mutiny” is, it ultimately devolves into rancorous speechifying that somewhat blunts its impact. And what exactly does the opening disclaimer “based on true events” mean? Does it differ at all from “inspired by real events,” which is flashed onscreen at the film’s conclusion? On TV, reality and truth surely remain enigmatic concepts.
We also learn before the final “Mutiny” credits roll that “all characters were fictionalized,” aside from that of Thurgood Marshall (powerfully played here by Joe Morton), and that “certain scenes were created for dramatic purposes.”
Thanks a whole lot for the honesty, guys, but if the characters are composites, and portions were manufactured out of whole cloth, exactly what in Jim Henerson’s teleplay is actual? With this kind of explosive material, it’s a key question that is left hanging.
Telepic’s basic facts remain undisputed and little known. On July 17, 1944, a Victory ship anchored at the Port Chicago Munitions Base near San Francisco exploded, killing 323 men and injuring 390. It was the most severe homefront disaster of WWII. The majority of the affected naval enlisted personnel (202 dead, 233 wounded) were black sailors assigned to ship-loading duty.
According to “Mutiny,” the disaster was an accident waiting to happen. The decidedly one-sided script indicates that the untrained black munitions loaders were treated with disdain by their white superiors and pressed to load the ships faster, despite escalating safety issues. There was even open wagering on which of “the coloreds” would meet which quota.
The film shifts gears at midpoint to become the story of how 258 of the black seamen balked at returning to work loading the bombs after the explosion, rightly fearful of another. But officers ordered all of the shellshocked survivors back to work almost immediately.
Threatened with a charge of mutiny, more than 200 of the men acquiesced and went back to work. The 50 who refused were given dishonorable discharges, convicted of mutiny and sentenced to 15 years hard labor. President Truman would commute the sentences after the 50 had served four years. But an act of Congress exonerating the holdouts has yet to be.
“Mutiny” tells the tale through the eyes of fictitious soldiers named Ben Cooper (Michael Jai White), Vernon Nettles (David Ramsey) and B.J. Teach (Duane Martin). Their white opposition is represented by the semi-compassionate Lt. Maravich (Adrian Pasdar) and the evil snake Lt. Kirby (Matthew Glave).
All of the performances are strong and consistent under helmer Kevin Hooks’ careful guidance.
But even as “Mutiny” tells its infuriating story with the right touch of indignation, the film finally topples under the weight of all that anger and seems to be harping on the obvious. As drama, the movie is generally compelling. As history, it feels oversimplified and overwrought. Tech credits are all first-rate.