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Morgan Freeman, 86, on His Documentary About WWII’s First Black Tank Unit: ‘American History Includes Black People’

‘761st Tank Battalion: The Original Black Panthers’ celebrates the heroes history forgot

spinner image morgan freeman in a scene from the history channel documentary 761st tank battalion the original black panthers
Morgan Freeman (center) in “761st Tank Battalion: The Original Black Panthers.”
Photo by André Chung/The HISTORY Channel

Morgan Freeman, 86, is a Hollywood hero: He won an Oscar as Nelson Mandela in Invictus, starred in Glory, The Shawshank Redemption and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, and was the voice of God in Bruce Almighty and the voice-over of authority in countless documentaries. When he won AARP’s Movies for Grownups Career Achievement Award in 2017, he said, “I started my movie career at the age of 50, and some of the best years have happened since then.”

Freeman honors some unsung heroes of World War II as executive producer of 761st Tank Battalion: The Original Black Panthers (on History Channel Aug. 20, 8 p.m. ET, streaming Aug. 21), a documentary that packs the dramatic punch of Spielberg’s Band of Brothers. It’s directed by Phil Bertelsen, auteur of the brilliant docuseries Who Killed Malcolm X? The 761st, an African American unit serving under Gen. George Patton, made history fighting for 183 days straight into the heart of Nazi Germany, surviving the bloody Battle of the Bulge and liberating Austria’s Gunskirchen concentration camp in 1945. Despite earning roughly 300 Purple Hearts, they came home to face the kind of discrimination they’d hoped that fighting for their country might dissolve.

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Freeman tells AARP about his long, emotional journey to reclaim the battalion’s perilous and valiant history.

Your movie launches with the image of Omaha Beach in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. The 761st landed there on Oct. 10, 1944, yet the clip exclusively depicts white soldiers. Why did you pick this moment as your starting point?

I’m inspired to tell tales like this from way back, being a child of the movies, westerns and war pictures I was always excited to watch. After a while, in my early teens, I didn’t see anybody that looked like me.

Did not seeing yourself reflected on-screen inspire you to change that — to make this history personal once you were in a position to change the narrative?

Yes. I still need to see the world in historical terms. It’s like we didn’t exist since the day before yesterday. Been like this for a long time. The fact American history includes Black people on any level, you want to talk about it. I don’t know what the resentment of our history is. There are people that resent accomplishment by Blacks. They still resent it today in this moment. I find it infuriating.

When did you start working on this project?

Over 20 years ago. A writer had a script about the battalion that he wanted us to help him get produced, just after Saving Private Ryan hit the screens in 1998. I complained to Steven about not seeing any Black people.

What was his response?

Steven said, “Well, yeah, I know, mea culpa.”

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There was a controversy then about the lack of inclusion in Saving Private Ryan, right?

Yes. I told Steven we wanted his help [producing our script].

But Spielberg went on to produce WWII projects with Tom Hanks — the documentary Shooting War: World War II Combat Cameramen (2000) and the miniseries Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010), and you went on to other movies?

Ultimately, the 761st Tank Battalion project was shelved.

spinner image morgan freeman having conversation with pentagon military personnel with secretary of defense lloyd j austin the third alongside him in a scene from the history channel documentary 761st tank battalion the original black panthers
Morgan Freeman with Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III in conversation with Pentagon military personnel.
Photo by André Chung/The HISTORY Channel

However, you persevered. Your two uncles served in WWII — how did the mystery of their stories pull you into this one?

My father and his two brothers were conscripted. My father was the only one with children so he was sent home. My two uncles remained. But I could find no record of them. At all. I thought that I’d heard that my favorite uncle was missing in action in the Pacific. Then, while making this movie, we learned that he was murdered and buried in France. When my father found out, he had his remains transferred stateside.​

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In the film, you sit down with one of the last surviving members of the 761st, now in his 90s, and his children — who discovered facts about his experience they hadn’t known. Why had the veteran kept secrets from his own children?

The problem of war veterans is, they don’t talk about exploits or whatever they did in the military. It was very hard for them to regurgitate their experience. When you’re killing and being killed, the fog of war is some kind of mindset that is different than your everyday life. That’s one reason you don’t get these oral histories. Whether Black, white or yellow, veterans don’t come back talking about their exploits. As a regular soldier, they go, they come back. If they come back alive, great; if they come back in a coffin, pity.

spinner image morgan freeman in an interview in the history channel documentary 761st tank battalion the original black panthers
Morgan Freeman
Photo by André Chung/The HISTORY Channel

At 18 in 1955, you enlisted to be an Air Force pilot, but they made you a radar mechanic. You thought that Black pilots were nixed by Gen. Curtis LeMay, who later inspired Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove and ran for vice president on segregationist George Wallace’s 1968 ticket. Was segregation an issue for you?

Segregation is an interesting concept. Off base we didn’t hang out with white servicemen. It was birds-of-a-feather syndrome. Segregation wasn’t imposed.

Was it different on base?

When you’re on the post, you’re all there together. Once we had a dance on the post. I hooked up with a white girl. There was a second lieutenant who dogged us, asking us “What are you doing?” and all of that, but the colonel set him straight.

How do you feel about the fight over civil rights today?

I’m not going backward. There are people who are attempting to reverse something. That’s on them. For me, if you are able to ban books, I don’t think that’s really possible. You can’t in this world. You can’t tell people they can’t read. If I’m in some sort of cocoon of unacceptance, that’s fine. I’m not going back. I won’t allow anybody around me to go back, either.

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