Like a lost video chapter of James W. Lowen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts focuses on the untold stories of United States history. The documentary highlights centuries of injustices and lost heroics of African American soldiers. Tales of bravery and heartache, along with courage in the face of discrimination, riddle the film. Writer-director Dru Holley uses primary sources to capture the heart of each soldier’s unique perspective and experience through decades of persecution.
The film follows the journals and accounts of William Cathy, Charles Young, and Mosses Williams and spans from The Plains Wars to the Spanish American War and military campaigns in the Philippines and across Africa. Each tale displays harrowing stories of battlefield bravery and unsung valor. Yet, with every act of self-sacrifice and Medal of Honor, the soldiers were undercut by the government-sanctioned oppression known as the Jim Crow laws.
Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts dives into the complex narrative of The Plains Wars with poignant understanding. Holley never evades hard truths, directly discussing how African American soldiers were empowered by the military and used by the U.S. government to oppress Native Americans. He expands on how African American soldiers never signed up to remove people from their homes. Yet, the government relied on them to uphold the appalling Indian Removal Act.
“…highlights centuries of injustices and lost heroics of African American soldiers.”
The documentary shines when it asks questions of its audience and holds a mirror to the world. The film confronts the audience with an ignored history and asks them to recall the phrase “those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Holley, alongside co-writers Dan Evans and Barbara Multer-Wellin, tells a vital story essential to understanding a long history of racial discrimination throughout the United States.
Despite its significance, how does the film distinguish itself from the 7th grade Social Studies documentary? You know, the one your teacher put on that time when they ran out of episodes of The Men Who Built America. Unfortunately, Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts falls into the same trap countless historical documentaries fall into: the classic/cliche old photos, reenactments, and professors talking heads, sitting in chairs format. Now, rinse and repeat until the credits roll.
To bolster its narrative, the film needs a stronger connection to the present. The director concludes the film discussing “The Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle,” a group dedicated to keeping the memory of the Buffalo Soldiers alive and educating people on the importance of their place in history. By concentrating on the memory of the Buffalo Soldiers through a modern program, the film gains life, energy, and deeper resonance with its audience. However, simply ending with the Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle feels like a missed opportunity to enrich the narrative.
Watching Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts, one cannot help but acknowledge its sheer historical value. The film raises awareness of the struggles of African American soldiers on and off the battlefield. The stories reverberate in the viewer’s consciousness: both in tandem, the painful history of the United States and the importance of not repeating the same injustices in the present. With regrets, the film adds little nuance to the narrative or makes efforts to engage audiences beyond the massive history buff. It will keep your interest for the sake of its significance but will lose most viewers outside the world of academia. I can give the film a light recommendation as a preamble to further study a subject intertwined with American history and its horrific history of racial discrimination.
"…shines when it asks questions of its audience and holds a mirror to the world."