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.
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.