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When 12 Years a Slave took home the Best Picture Oscar, it sparked the obvious conversations about what, if any, race-heavy implications it would have on future cinema. Less than a week later, Sony Pictures is heading into potentially prestigious waters by talking about one of the bravest groups of black men to ever walk the planet. Along with Overbrook Entertainment, they’re creating a big screen adaptation of Max Brooks’ upcoming graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters, a historical bio of the oft-forgotten World War I soldiers.
With what look like masterful illustrations by Caanan White, The Harlem Hellfighters will hit stores April 1 from Broadway books, and according to Variety, Brooks himself will be adapting his own words for the screenplay. Brooks, the son of legendary comedian Mel, made a name for himself crafting the oral history World War Z, one of the finest pieces of zombie fiction out there. Hopefully whoever comes in to direct this flick doesn’t pull it completely off the rails like Paramount and Marc Forster did with World War Z. Otherwise this movie will end up being about a bunch of rich white guys.
The titular Hellfighters were officially the 369th Infantry Regiment, and the graphic novel is set to tackle their story from the foundation and into actual combat, though one has to wonder how deep it’ll get into the harsh treatment they received upon returning home. Formed in 1913 as a part of New York’s National Guard, the squad was built up for duty in the racially-divided South Carolina, and sent out into France where they saw active duty in the war in 1918. And by "active duty," I mean they destroyed the German enemies in front of them, once taking on a six-month tour that was the longest stretch of any WWI unit’s deployment, all with relatively few casualties.
Now we’re all familiar with the way U.S. soldiers were treated once they returned from Vietnam, but the 369th saw it worse, as they weren’t publicly recognized and were left out of the Victory Parade. Despite these egregious dismissals, many individuals from the unit achieved high honors, both here and in France. It’s hard to believe it was only two years ago when Red Tails came out and underwhelmed everyone, but I’m thinking this is will have a completely different feel to it.
It’s possibly worth noting that while John Lassiter and Caleeb Pinkett are listed as producers, Overbrook was co-founded by Will Smith, who will almost certainly be paying close attention to where this project is going. He’s way too old to play Pvt. Henry Johnson, the most decorated of the Hellfighters, who along with Pvt. Needham Roberts took on an entire 24-man horde of Germans. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) But he’ll probably find a way to get in this one. Either way, I can’t wait to read it.