By Kim Bennett, The Seattle Medium
How much do you know about the Buffalo Soldiers? They were all-Black army regiments established after the Civil War? They were called Buffalo Soldiers because of their fierceness in battle and the texture of their hair?
A lot of what we think we know comes from Hollywood films and bite-sized blurbs in U.S. history textbooks. But how much do we really know about their stories? Likely not that much.
Director and producer Dru Holley is on a mission to change that with his first feature film entitled Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts. The film, which premiered at the 48th annual Seattle International Film Festival this year, offers an eye-opening look at what these individuals overcame and faced as they took part in the Indian War, the Spanish-American War, played key roles in the settlement of the West, participated in the displacement of indigenous people, and fought overseas furthering American interests in the Philippine-American War.
The historical documentary, which does not gloss over the difficult parts, provides a unique narrative to a part of our history that has been overlooked and overshadowed.
“It’s our responsibility to tell our stories,” says Holley. “It’s not the White folks’ responsibility to tell our stories. We can’t look to them to guide us. [We can’t ask] why aren’t they making a movie about this? Or why aren’t they teaching us this? It’s our job to do that.”
With the bones of a documentary wrapped in an engaging mix of visuals, the film recounts the stories of several men and women, with connections to the Pacific Northwest, who fought and served as Buffalo Soldiers. Reenactments woven in with interviews and commentary from historians propel the narrative forward as the viewer learns about figures like Charles Young, Moses Williams, Cathay Williams, and others.
The role of the Buffalo Soldiers in the development and expansion of this country is critical and complex. Refusing to shy away from some of the uncomfortable topics, Holley presents the realities of the time and circumstance, where former slaves were tasked with subjugating other people of color. Contradictions and all, the portrayals are grounded in the lived experiences of the individuals featured in the story.
“I wasn’t trying to make a promotional film. I was making a documentary about history, and history is complex,” states Holley. “That was a different time. I’m sure there’s a lot of different perspectives of our people of that time…But these were ex-slaves, getting a check and not having to be sharecroppers. They were going to do what they told them to do.”
Drawing from experiences and learning from his fellow filmmakers, Holley employs a variety of cinematic devices to bring the Buffalo Soldiers to life on screen. Taking notes from classic historical documentaries and infusing the film with some additional elements like graphic novel-style illustrations and a musical score with hip hop, Holley is able to strike a balance between educating and entertaining his audience.
“There were a lot of practical reasons why we went with animations,” Holley explains. “Reenactments are too expensive, especially for my first film. Wanting to aim at a younger audience, wanting to add more color, and not just wanting to stare at old images are some of the reasons why we went with the motion graphics with the images.”
The importance of diverse perspectives can’t be overstated and this historical documentary drives this point home. With the reenactments, old photography, and expert interviews, exploring different perspectives was not limited to the Black point of view in the film. Holley was very intentional about including indigenous voices in the mix, particularly around the role that the Buffalo Soldiers played in displacing indigenous people from their homelands.
“It was just part of the journey and discovery in this film. We needed someone, an indigenous American, to give us that perspective. We can’t speak for someone else,” Holley explains. “Also, the Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle. Those guys are completely authentic, so we had to use them to help with the reenactments.”
Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts is steeped in history, yet it’s timely. With one of the key figures in the film, Colonel Charles Young, being honored and promoted posthumously to brigadier general just last month, these stories are relevant today. Understanding our history and having knowledge of our people is very much part of the here and now.
“These are our ancestors. They weren’t slaves. They weren’t in the hood. They were out on the western frontier,” says Holley. “We’re cowboys. We’re soldiers. We’re not just what they portray. We gotta’ write our own narrative and we gotta’ tell our own history so we know who we are.”
To learn more about Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts go to https://buffalosoldiersmovie.com/.