The late Ossie Davis’ last film, directed by Mary Pat Kelly, financed by Tommy Hilfiger and produced by Hilfiger’s 16-year-old daughter, salutes the crew of the USS Mason, the only black men the Navy sent into combat during in World War II (the other 11,000 black sailors served in menial jobs). A weird hodgepodge, “Proud” is part history lesson, part family saga, a lyrical nod to the Old Sod, a Navy recruitment flag-waver and a war actioner. Earnest, intermittently rousing pic, skedded for a fall opening, should coast on Davis’ masterful perf before being archived by cable for suitable occasions.
Davis’ standout presence in his swan song film completely sells the pic’s wraparound plot wherein his character recounts to his grandson (Albert Jones) and two tag-along, hip-hop-blasting college buddies (Jeffrey Nash, Erik LeRay Harvey) the story of the Mason.
This trio of listeners serve as the leads in the wartime flashbacks that follow, as if imagining themselves in the roles of Davis and his two best friends.
Narrated in occasionally redundant voiceover by Davis, pic lays out the struggle of those involved in the Navy’s historical “experiment,” probably designed to fail and prove blacks incapable of assuming positions of responsibility.
Pic’s overall structure is determined both by Davis’ narration and by the presence of black war correspondent Thomas Young (Darnell Williams), who was assigned to cover the Mason. His frequent to-the-camera interviews with sailors abstractly punctuate the film, creating a broader sociological framework.
At the same time, it is the reportage of the real Thomas Young that supplied the historical records on which the film is based, as well as extensive black-and-white 16mm footage of the Mason and its crew in action.
Helmer Kelly, who previously assembled a straightforward docu on the same subject, freely, mixes B&W archival excerpts with kinetically edited color reenactments to great effect.
Aside from generally excellent combat scenes, pic is uneven. The bigoted animosity of a petty officer, for instance, or the Admiralty’s dismissal of the captain’s praise of his crew’s valor as exaggeration unfold with the leaden sententiousness of a grade-school pageant.
On the other hand, a confrontation between the sailors — entertained on deck by a male dancer and three high-kicking chorus girls — and a bunch of dockside workers, angry at the fraternization of white cuties with black males, economically highlights the era’s all racism while dramatizing the crewmen’s transformation into a fighting unit.
Kelly’s refusal to naturalize the pic’s many disparate elements gives it a didactic directness that saves nearly all but the hokiest moments.
Unfortunately nothing can redeem “Proud’s” well-meaning, triumphant finale. Stirring though its redressing of longstanding wrongs may be, the mishmash of real and fake survivors, and the restaged ceremonies presided over by fictional actors cheek by jowl with newsreel coverage of President Clinton and the secretary of the Navy are hardly visually inspiring.
Lensing by Thom Martini is sharp, contrasting nicely with actual WWII footage. Festival version of the score was not final, though a sappy ditty penned by helmer Kelly seems unlikely to disappear.