A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this movie's R rating is primarily based on salty Navy language, including racist comments. Characters are in peril and one is badly injured. There are some sexual references. Characters have alcohol problems and one is shown in rehab.
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What's the story?
Raised by sharecroppers (Carl Lumbly and Lonette McKee), Carl Brashear, Jr. (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) enlists in the Navy. The armed services have just been desegregated, and he has hopes for new opportunities. It turns out that desegregation is more theoretical than real, and he is relegated to one of the few positions open to blacks -- kitchen duty on board an escort carrier. When the ship's captain discovers what a strong, fast swimmer he is, he is promoted to the search and rescue team. Dreaming of becoming a master diver, he sends more than 100 letters of application before being accepted to the Navy training facility. There, he faces further racism in his battle to become a master diver.
Is it any good?
Everyone tries very hard here, but the story is old-fashioned and predictable -- even down to the marriage proposal that melts the girl's heart and the courtroom climax. Carl Brashear, Jr. was the first black man to achieve the rank of Master Diver in the Navy. He was also the first amputee to be returned to active duty in the armed services. In MEN OF HONOR, produced by Bill Cosby, Brashear gets the kind of respectful, go-for-the-Oscar treatment that reached its zenith in the 1960s. The real problem is that the characters are so one-dimensional, the good guys so good and the bad guys so bad, that it has the feel of an after-school special.
I couldn't help thinking about the recent Spike Lee movie, "Bamboozled." The need to make the fictional Brashear so idealized echoes Lee's concerns about the minstrel show aspect of popular culture, making a real story less real to make it more entertaining. It would show more respect for both Brashear and the audience to let us see a character with more depth and complexity. It is especially disappointing that the story is so simplified that it should be suitable for kids, but it has strong profanity, earning it an R rating. I could not help being very curious, too, about Jo Brashear. A black woman doctor in the early 60s must have a story that is at least as interesting as this one. But we get no sense of what went into her life choices or how she handled her challenges. In real life, the marriage did not survive. But in the movie, she shows up at the crucial moment to provide love and support.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what motivates the characters. Brashear is asked why he wants to be a diver and he says, "Because they said I couldn't have it." Brashear asks Sunday why he is helping him after the amputation, and Sunday says, "To piss people off." It is pretty clear why Mr. Pappy does not want Brashear to graduate -- he's a racist. But why does the later commanding officer want Brashear to retire so badly? Talk, too, about the meaning of "ASNF" on Brashear's father's radio, and Sunday's response to it.
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