Why ‘Overlord’ Blackwashes History

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While the J.J. Abram-produced war film Overlord is sleekly produced, it has a shameless reverse-racism at its core. Hollywood has a bad habit of “whitewashing,” the practice of casting a white actor in a role that was a person of color in the source material. A prime example is casting Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese woman in Ghost in the Shell (2017.) But in Overlord we have “blackwashing”, via casting Bokeem Woodbine and Jovan Adepo as members of the elite 101st Airborne Division. The problem is that in 1944, the U.S. Army was strictly segregated. No blacks were admitted to the 101st Airborne until after 1948. Is it really so bad that Overlord ignores this fact?

Hell yeah. Overlord’s blackwashing denies the importance of the 125,000 black Americans who served overseas during World War II. It cheapens the achievements of real heroes among famous segregated units, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, the 761st Tank Battalion and the lesser-known but equally distinguished 452nd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion and the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. Caring about the facts of military service may seem obscure to the ordinary citizen, but if you are an American who served this nation in war, you care about what was real and what was bullshit. Overlord might be seen as “entertaining fiction” for younger audiences. But for anybody that does not know the facts about the black struggle to participate in World War II, it lies to the public about history. And while it’s essential to give people of color more roles in Hollywood movies and balance the scales of equality, this crazy mis-characterization of the 101st Airborne Division is the wrong way to fix the diversity problem. One could say: “Come on, what does it matter? It’s a silly horror movie.” But history does matter. Ask any Jew about World World War II and they will strongly remind you we must never forget the specific facts of what happened in the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Chelmno, Dachau, Ebensee, and Flossenbürg.

The filmmakers are either completely ignorant about World War II, or lazy, or incapable of simple storytelling, or they ill-advisedly cast black actors at the last minute to soothe their white liberal guilt and meet the current Hollywood people-of-color quota. Or, most likely, they figured it was cool and would appeal to a generation they know is uneducated about history. Considering the pedigree of the talent behind Overlord, it’s hard to tell which of these moral crimes is at work. But it’s clear they’ve given no thought to the social and political implications of their decision. Producer J.J. Abrams has a long list of successes; he should know better. Screenwriters Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith have both worked on quality Oscar-nominated projects in the past. They, too, should know better. Director Julius Avery is a neophyte who’d be better off selling used cars or shooting light beer commercials. Maybe they all thought they were being edgy and making the Nazi zombie-apocalypse version of the musical Hamilton, minus the rap numbers, gravitas, and historical relevance. If that’s the case, they failed, because Overlord minus it’s blackwashed cast is a familiar bore.

Overload might feel fresh to moviegoers who aren’t fans of the war film genre, but it’s a mashup of the sub-genre of “military mission movie” combined with familiar horror and zombie elements. For reference, take a look at The Guns Of Navarone (1961) or Where Eagles Dare (1968) or Kelly’s Heroes (1970) or Saving Private Ryan (1998), and even 28 Days Later (2002). Also see The Frozen Dead (1967), They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968) and Adrenaline: Fear the Rush (1996), plus most obviously, the influential Re-Animator (1985.)

The only “fresh” element in Overlord is a black lead actor (Jovan Adepo) which recalls the groundbreaking, original zombie movie Night Of The Living Dead (1968), featuring the charismatic Duane Jones. In 1968, indie director George Romero cast his black friend Jones as the lead alongside a white blonde female co-star, Judith O’Dea. Hinting at mixed-couple miscegenation, the casting was seen as radically transgressive though actually Romero used Jones simply because he liked how Jones looked on film. Also, Jones was available in Pittsburgh. Romero wasn’t pushing any political agenda, he just wanted to get his movie shot. But now, in 2018, casting a black lead in the wake of Creed (2015), Get Out (2017), and the mega-hit Black Panther (2018) smells like a self-conscious agenda to prop up an otherwise too-familiar zombie splatter story with urban hipness.

The worst violation of Overlord is in giving the impression of a racial equality that did not exist within the military during World War II, and still doesn’t exist in America today. Even though the film is supposed to be a fun zombie romp, the take away from Overlord is that blacks, Jews, and whites fought harmoniously side-by-side during the war. This blackwashing of history serves no one except the white supremacists who currently want to pacify black audiences. If one person sees Overlord and thinks that the U.S. military was happily integrated in World War II, that’s one person too many. We live in perilous times of “fake news” and “alternate facts” and an expertly lying President. It’s irresponsible to add to that confusion, even in a silly B-movie. Images matter. Films matter. And the broad strokes of history matter, especially black military history.

Eric Coyote earned his Master of Arts degree in critical theory from the University of Southern California. He writes about movies, Hollywood, and culture.

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