“Assault at West Point: The Court-Martial of Johnson Whittaker” is a made for TV movie about a shameful incident from America’s past. Whitaker was one of the first African-Americans to attend West Point and while there was the only African-American cadet. He underwent the silent treatment and ostracism for four years. In his senior year, he was accused of staging an assault on himself in order to get sympathy because he feared an upcoming philosophy exam. He was court-martialed and expelled. The movie covers the court-martial using transcripts from the trial.
The movie opens with the elderly Whittaker and his sons defending their home against cross-burning racists. A white reporter interviews him about his past and this launches the film into flashback mode. The way back machine places us at the beginning of the trial. Whittaker (Seth Gilliam) is accused of mutilating himself and tying himself up to his bed. Gen. William Sherman insists on a court-martial of the “ignorant coon”. Whittaker’s lawyer is a well-respected white man named Daniel Chamberlain (Sam Waterston), but Whittaker insists that a friend named Richard Greener (Samuel L. Jackson) be involved in his defense. Greener is an African-American who graduated from Harvard. He wants to approach the trial as an example of racism. Chamberlain wants to defend Whittaker in a color-blind way. The two will be at logger-heads throughout the trial. The prosecutor is the Judge Advocate of West Point. Major Asa Bird Gardiner (John Glover) is a formidable opponent, plus he has the decked stacked in his favor.
The movie uses the common format for a movie about a trial. Witnesses take the stand and this usually leads to a flashback to reenact the testimony. These scenes are broken up by arguments between Chamberlain and Greener about strategy and attempts by Greener to track down witnesses to refute the prosecution’s case. There is also a subplot about the assorted newsmen following the trial. They range from racists to liberals. The key prosecution witness is a hand writing expert who testifies that Whittaker wrote a threatening note to himself prior to the assault. Chamberlain’s idea of refuting this is to call another expert who disputes that it is Whittaker’s handwriting but then proceeds to expound that being colored, Whittaker was incapable of “shamming” an assault and was unconscious when discovered because he is a coward! Another damaging witness is the doctor (Eddie Bracken) who dealt with Whittaker. He lies and testifies that there was very little blood involved. Greener convinces Chamberlain to put Whittaker on the stand. He does well under intense questioning by Gardiner. After closing arguments, the trial goes to the five judge panel. A wild card development impacts the outcome.
|"I know you're trying to get me to lose my cool and|
start cursing, but I don't do that in a made for TV movie."
This is a significant film that tells a forgotten story from America’s tainted past. It does it accurately. The movie was based on a book by historian John Marszalek. The book reopened the case, but it was the movie that brought the attention that resulted in a posthumous commission by President Clinton in 1995. (The verdict had been overturned by President Arthur in 1883, but West Point refused to award the commission because he had failed the exam.) The movie covers all the basics of the trial and uses actual testimony. The scenes outside the courtroom are probably enhanced, but it seems likely that Chamberlain and Greener butted heads. Greener was a significant figure in the African-American community. He was the first black to graduate from Harvard. One theme of the movie is the depiction of how an intelligent colored man had to tread lightly in white society. Jackson does an excellent job showing how has to control his righteous indignation in order to get things accomplished. It is behind closed doors with Chamberlain that his true beliefs come to the fore. These scenes are instructive in portraying the state of civil rights in the 1880s. Chamberlain represents the supposedly enlightened whites. He ticks off all his pro-Negro bona fides and then argues that they don’t want to rock the boat by bringing up race at the trial. The movie portends the future as Chamberlain, after the trial, let his racist flag fly in a number of ways.
The movie is not showy. It definitely does not have high production values. It makes up for this in acting. Samuel L. Jackson is perfect as the seething Greener. You keep expecting him to jump up and yell “I’ve had enough of the mutherf’ing snakes in this courtroom!” As it is the most the screenwriters give him is a simple “shit”. It must have been difficult for him to suppress his normal screen persona. Waterston is a good match as the closet racist Chamberlain. Their scenes where they argue strategy are well done. Glover does a good job as Gardiner. He is not Snidely Whiplash – he does not twirl his mustache a single time. But he realistically represents a archetype that existed in the military back then. The supporting cast is fine for a low budget film. Seth Gilliam is solid as Whittaker and it’s fun seeing Eddie Bracken as the doctor. There is nothing special about the cinematography and music. It is what it is for a made for TV movie that could easily be a teleplay.
In conclusion, watch this movie. If you are not infuriated, you’ll learn something about yourself. And shame on you if you're not upset with what happened to Johnson Whittaker.
GRADE = B