At the Movies

Buffalo Soldiers and the Italians who welcomed them get a Houston night

Buffalo Soldiers and the Italians who welcomed them get a Houston night

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A scene from "Inside Buffalo"
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Veteran Joseph Stephenson, left, with Fred Kuwornu, director of "Inside Buffalo"
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Buffalo Soldiers in Italy Courtesy of Fred Kuwornu
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President Barack Obama with Stephenson Courtesy of Fred Kuwornu
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I didn't know much about the famous Buffalo Soldiers until recently. It's my own fault: In school I was a math geek and didn't pay attention in history class. I've spent much of my adult life regretting my lack of knowledge of our nation's history, particularly that of the African-American.

Filmmakers are helping me bridge my knowledge gap. Fred Kuwornu, an Italian film producer of African descent, will present a free screening of his award-winning documentary Inside Buffalo at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on Monday at 7 p.m., recognizing Black History Month and the 150th Anniversary of Italian Unification.

African-Americans have served proudly in the military since colonial times. The term "Buffalo Soldier," coined by Native Americans to describe the bravery and tenaciousness of the black soldier, dates from the Civil War and generally describes any African-American soldier from 1866 to World War II.

Inside Buffalo tells the fascinating, heart-wrenching story of the African-American combat unit that fought in Italy in World War II; director Spike Lee covered the same subject three years ago with his feature film Miracle at St. Anna. Lee's film was primarily a dramatization of one key battle during the Italian campaign against the Germans.

Kuwornu, while inspired by Lee (Kuwornu played a character in Miracle at St. Anna) chooses to tell his story by interviewing actual surviving Buffalo Soldiers as well as Italian villagers who befriended these men who were so far from home. He also makes use of file and newsreel footage, and recreations of combat situations. (Actors from Miracle at St. Anna also appear as commentators.)

Kuwornu's emphasis is on the dual battle these soldiers fought: the challenge of combat, and of finding a place in a segregated society back home. He takes a close look at the Army's all-black 92nd Infantry division, which was sent to Italy in September 1944, ill-trained, ill-equipped, and often the subject of disregard and even abuse by its own white leaders. (One infamous speech by a white commander to black troops informed them that they were 10 percent of the U.S. population, and he would see to it that they would make up 10 percent of the war casualties.)

One of the most poignant personal stories concerns Lt. John Fox, a black soldier who sacrificed himself at the famous Sommocolonia raid (known by some historians as the "Little Battle of the Bulge") in Italy on Christmas Day, 1944. He radioed his subordinates to bomb his own position, as he was in proximity to a large group of the enemy.

The order, after being confirmed, was reluctantly carried out, and some 100 Nazi soldiers lost their lives along with Lt. Fox, whose body was found three days later.

However, the bravery and sacrifice of Lt. Fox, as well as all of his fellow black soldiers, went unrecognized for decades. When they returned home, in some cases after two years, there were no ticker-tape parades, no hero's welcome, no cushy jobs.

The U.S. government's highest military prize is the Congressional Medal of Honor. Over 400 of these were initially awarded to those who served in World War II; not one to an African-American, even though one million blacks served their country. The film takes a hard look at these and other injustices, but also describes the attempts at correcting them. I can honestly say after watching Inside Buffalo, not enough has been done.

Inside Buffalo is a co-presentation of the Museum of Fine Arts; the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston; the office of Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas’ 18th congressional district); and the Consulate General of Italy in Houston. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. for this program, with seating on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Several people will make opening remarks, including MFAH film curator Marian Luntz; Buffalo Soldiers National Museum director Captain Paul Matthews; Consul General of Italy Fabrizio Nava; and Congresswoman Lee. Remarks will acknowledge honored guest Arlene Fox, the Houston-based widow of Lt. John Fox, who was killed in action in Italy and received a posthumous Medal of Honor in 1997.

The screening will be followed by a panel discussion with filmmaker Fred Kuwornu; Captain Matthews; Alvia Wardlaw, director and curator at the Texas Southern University Museum; professor Angela Holder, Houston Community College; and Dr. Howard Jones, an independent historian and retired professor of history at Prairie View A&M University. Kuwornu’s appearance is part of the museum’s Visiting Filmmakers Program, supported by a grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.