Full name: ‘Assault at West Point: The Court-Martial of Johnson Whitaker’, this 1994 TV movie was written and directed by Harry Moses. It’s the real life story of Johnson Whitaker ( Seth Gilliam, Father Gabriel from The Walking Dead ), a young cadet serving at West Point, who after getting assaulted by his cadet mates, is framed into having done the actions to himself.
The movie takes place in 1880, Johnson Whitaker, a young African-American man from South Carolina, is a former slave and now cadet at the West Point Military Academy in New York. One day, he’s tied by his legs, cut in the ear, and knocked unconcsious, with his blood leaking all over the floor. Not long after, he attempts to sue these attackers, but due to the color of his skin, is brushed off by the court as a liar. This is until he gets his big shot, he meets Harvard graduated lawyer Richard Greener ( Samuel L. Jackson ), who since also being black, can relate to his cause, having experienced his fair share of racism over the years.
Greener works the case alongside his mentor Daniel Chamberlaine ( Sam Waterson ) who is not helping Johnson for justice like Greener, rather to aquire fame.
The majority of the film can be split into two categories, the actual court case, where throughout the film, a series of people are interviewed, and part two, discussing the case. Despite the film being named after him, Johnson Whitaker is not only not the main character, but actually a fairly passive side character, while Greener is the brains, the courage and in somes ways, a mentor to young Whitaker. The court seems largely against Johnson’s case, seemingly always choosing white people to speak who have a bias against blacks. Making Johnson slowly lose more and more hope. Eventually, Greener sets off on a course to Richmond, Virginia, given the time he of course has to take the colored wagon. He brings back a Professor with him, an expert who would go into the trial neutral, in the hopes it would help win the case.
The trial itself uses a variety of evidence, from blood stains, to possibly forged writing in Johnson Whitaker’s name. Motives ranging from racism, conflicting the act to himself for not wanting to take an exam and simply his fellow cadets not liking him. The court not so shockingly siding with Whitaker’s opposition.
In the end, Whitaker is found guilty. Being dishonorably discharged from the academy and sentenced to one year of hard labor. Johnson confronts Chamberlaine that he refused to ackknowledge race in the case. Stating that he is the reason they failed. 40 years later, Whitaker is a farmer with two sons. He gets an interview from a reporter, after telling him his story he’ll be on the front page of a newspaper. The End.
I went into the film having no idea about the history of the case or it’s characters. I also had no idea if the film would be any good or not, given how as of writing, it had only recieved one single three-star review on Amazon Prime. A rating I don’t quite agree with, but we’ll get to that later. One thing that surprised me about this, is that even though it came out in the mid-90s, it looked and felt like it could have been released in the 70s or even 60s. From the camera quality and placement, to the acting, dialogue and directing stlye, everything seemed to fit the time period. Which is escpecially shocking, given how today, almost all movies feel like they came out-now. The days of old school style filmmaking, quite frankly for better, but probably worse are gone. That however, is definately a topic for another time.
The film did a good job at exposing how people of the time were. A more modern take of a subject like this would be the series ‘The People vs OJ Simpson’ starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and John Travolta. Though despite being most likely guilty, he got away with it, unlike Whitaker. Overall, I’d give this film a 7/10.