Filmmaker Elegance Bratton, a Marine Corps veteran and Sundance Film Festival alum, is set to direct the documentary “Hellfighters.” The film chronicles the life of James Reese Europe, an African American jazz pioneer who served as a lieutenant during World War I in the Black military unit known as the Harlem Hellfighters.
“As a veteran and artist like James Reese Europe, I immediately knew I wanted to tell his story,” Bratton said. “WWI was driven by Europe’s desire for control of Africa — there is a cruel irony in that the Hellfighters believed the only way to gain full meaning of U.S. citizenship was to sacrifice their lives for an America consumed with their own degradation.”
“Hellfighters” explores the legacies of Europe and his fellow bandmate and collaborator, composer Noble Sissle. Europe, who was born in 1880, was the son of a formerly enslaved man and IRS employee; his mother was a teacher. He overcame the odds to become one of the most prolific composers of his time, igniting the Harlem Renaissance, founding the first Black musicians union and inventing the genre Afro-Latin jazz. At the peak of his music career, he enlisted in the U.S. military during World War I. Shortly after returning home from battle, he died at age 39 when a fellow band member stabbed him.
“Hellfighters” features interviews with Colin Powell, former secretary of state and four-star general; Jon Batiste, musician and music director of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and rapper Black Thought of The Roots.
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The documentary, from Five Fifty Five and Rainshine Entertainment, is being produced by Chester Algernal Gordon and Kate Baxter, the founder and CEO of Five Fifty Five. Neeraj Bhargava and Sunil Doshi are executive producing.
Bratton began making films as a U.S. Marine after spending a decade homeless. He previously directed the documentary “Pier Kids: The Life” and the short film “Walk for Me.” His short film “Buck” premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
“The film packs a punch of perspective considering our director’s uncanny interrelatedness to the story. Elegance is a saxophone-playing, Harlem-residing, ex-military, French-speaking student of African American Studies,” Baxter said.