- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2005

“Proud,” the true story of the men of the USS Mason who weathered racism to become the only black sailors to take a Navy warship into combat during World War II, certainly needs to be told.

Just not on the big screen.

Not that it isn’t compelling enough. But in the hands of writer-director Mary Pat Kelly — a former staff member at ABC’s “Good Morning America” who has gotten her share of mileage from the tale with a 1995 book, “Proudly We Served: The Men of the USS Mason” and a documentary of the same name the following year — it feels more like a force-fed history lesson.

Asking moviegoers to shell out seven bucks or more when the film is playing alongside slick but far less substantial fare is like asking a 5-year-old to choose a slice of liver over a Big Mac.

Sadly, the movie was the final feature film for the great Ossie Davis (by chance, a World War II vet) who died earlier this year. As Lorenzo DuFau, the movie’s heartbeat and center, Mr. Davis delivered a dignified performance filled with conviction that was the trademark of his long career.

After a glimpse of the men aboard the Mason on the day of its christening in 1944, “Proud” fast forwards to the present, where DuFau, now in his 80s, is roused from his sleep by the late-night partying of his grandson Larry (Albert Jones) and his pals Kevin (Erik LaRay Harvey) and Marcus (Jeffrey J. Nash).

Understandably grumpy, grandpa lashes out at the three about their rap CD. “That’s not music,” he hisses before beginning his trip down memory lane.

With that, DuFau whips out a treasured scrapbook. We’re instantly transported back to World War II, where Mr. Jones assumes the role of DuFau in his youth.

Without explanation, Kevin and Marcus are transformed into DuFau’s Navy buddies James W. Graham and Gordon Buchanan. Who knows why? Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to save money by using the same actors, but that seems unlikely because “Proud” was bankrolled by noted fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger and produced by his 20-year-old daughter, Ally — whose credits to date include a stint as a co-producer and star of the MTV reality series “Rich Girls.”

The racism starts early. Before boarding the Mason, the three are called the n-word by the commanding officer and get into a fight with a group of white sailors. Once aboard, they meet up with Thomas Young (Darnell Williams, best known as the troubled Jesse Hubbard on the ABC soap “All My Children” in the 1980s), a war correspondent clad in military attire.

Miss Kelly’s one-dimensional characters deliver speeches rather than dialogue, and the acting feels labored. Oscar nominee Stephen Rea (“The Crying Game”) isn’t too bad as an Irishman who rolls out the welcome wagon for the Middies when they get liberty in the Irish city of Derry. On the other hand, Aidan Quinn (recently seen in HBO’s “Empire Falls”) is wooden in his mercifully brief performance as Commodore Alfred Lind.

“Proud” also suffers from a lack of excitement that is fatal in what is, after all, a war movie. Aside from a dangerous mission through the choppy waters of the Atlantic, one of the movie’s few dramatic peaks centers on the sailors’ fear of being classified AWOL when they get lost on their way back to the ship after a night on the town at an Irish pub.

“Proud” means well, but a made-for-cable film — or even direct-to-DVD, where it will likely land in just a few weeks — would have been a better fit.

**

TITLE: “Proud”

RATING: PG (One racial slur, frequent depictions of bigotry)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Mary Pat Kelly. Produced by Ally Hilfiger. Adapted from Miss Kelly’s book “Proudly We Served: The Men of the USS Mason.”

RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes

WEB SITE: www.proudthemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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