Streaming services often acknowledge annual observances like Women’s History Month, among others, with a curated selection of material. Several of these celebrations include movies exploring the lives of individual Black women, including recent offerings like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and The United States vs. Billie Holiday. However, it becomes clear that many of these movies don’t focus on certain collectives of Black women—specifically those who have served in the military. Their stories and historic contributions during war time are certainly worth more exploration and recognition.
Pop culture representation, even heavily dramatized depictions, can spur greater interest in STEM, history, or similar careers for younger generations. Hidden Figures is a fantastic portrayal of intelligent Black women actively contributing to the NASA space program; the film’s popularity spurred a greater interest in science and technology for young girls of color. This leans into what’s been said countless times: representation matters.
The State of Black Military Black Women Today
Black women undoubtedly have a prominent yet complex role in the military. About 30% of enlisted women are Black, despite only representing 13% of the population. They have dealt with a litany of challenges due to racism and sexism, both issues that are still pervasive to this day. Black women in the military are also more likely to be victims of sexual assault and to be homeless compared to white military women.
Stories about Black military women can shed light on deeper truths about why and how they navigate this space. Additionally, these depictions can be a connective tissue between history and its trickle down effect into current issues. This is in addition to the Hollywood’s primary reasons for loving for military films: entertainment and drama.
We have seen this through films like Glory, Red Tails, and Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, all of which focus on the nuances of being a Black man in the US military. But, although studied in academic circles, popular culture has never paid attention to Black women’s complex military history. It’s an erasure at worst and a disconnection from acknowledging their past and present experiences at best. These untold stories, if handled properly through a Black lens, could be well received by audiences. And there’s certainly a lot of history to pull from for these narratives.
The Stories Worth Celebration
During the Civil War, several Black women spied for the Union army, smuggling information to Union Generals, and even positioning themselves in the Confederate White House. A movie about an all-Black women spy ring is the type of thrilling and eye-opening educational story we need. There’s also the stories of Black nurses on the Navy hospital ship Red Rover. The were not fighting on the front lines but they were a critical part of maintaining order and health. Exploring their social/work challenges and interpersonal connections could be an interesting TV show in the vein of M.A.S.H.
Black women were historically unable to formally enlist in the official military ranks; however, auxiliary group organizations gave women a chance to pursue non-combat jobs. Thanks to a concerted effort by Black communities, including activists and civil rights heroes like Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later changed to the Women’s Army Corps) was open to a small percentage of Black women. Thousands sought to join in 1942.
The 404th Armed Service Forces Band stands out among auxiliary groups as the United States’ only all Black women military band. They helped sell War Bonds and raise public support for the war effort in Black neighborhoods around the country. The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion would clear massive mail backlogs in Europe. Their often used phrase was “No mail, low morale” and they distributed over 17 million pieces of mail, letters and packages that were usually the only connection between a soldier and his family.
After the war ended, these women came home to no fanfare or veterans benefits; they resumed their civilian lives working and raising families. In fact, as recently as 2019, the 6888th battalion survivors were still fighting for recognition.
It was only after the war’s end that the WAC would be made an official part of the Army and the military itself was integrated. They paved the way for all women to pursue the military as a long term career in various job classifications. Their stories should no longer be rare knowledge, but rather the kind that film studios fund and release.
After all, we have seen military movies focusing on the white female military experience like G.I. Jane, Camp X-Ray, and the ’80s classic Private Benjamin. We have yet to see one film, whether completely fictional or loosely based on historical records, that centers and gives respect to the service of Black women.
Black Military Women in Sci-Fi
This is not to say that movie portrayals of Black women in the military are completely absent. On the contrary, science fiction gives us more representation than any other genre. Captain Marvel’s Captain Maria Rambeau actually portraying a pilot was particularly memorable, which makes her off-screen death in WandaVision all the more tragic.
There’s also Rihanna in Battleship, Tessa Thompson in Annihilation, and Kandyse McClure in Battlestar Galactica. The original Star Trek show broke ground when it cast Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura. So sci-fi at least attempts to show more Black women in uniform, even if it has a fantasy lens. But there is still a need for more real-life depictions.
We know military movies aren’t going away. They’re too profitable and moviegoers like seeing things blow up. So, if we’re going to keep making them, how about we tell some new stories? It’s time to center Black women, who’ve always been more loyal to the US than it has been to them.