Courtesy: Smithsonian Channel/Public Media Distribution
African-Americans have made so many great contributions to this nation throughout the course of its now 242 years. They have also made great accomplishments over that time both for themselves and that have opened roads for those who have come after them. From agriculture to business and even to politics and beyond, those contributions and accomplishments are innumerable. Now thanks to Public Media Distribution and Smithsonian Channel, yet another area in which African-Americans have made great (or in this case soaring) accomplishments has been brought to light as we mark Black History Month in the form of the documentary program Black Wings. This program is an important addition to the ongoing study of African-Americans’ contributions and accomplishments because of its story first and foremost. This will be discussed shortly. Its pacing is just as important to discuss in examining its whole, and will be touched on later. The companion interviews and vintage material used to help tell the story rounds out the doc’s most important elements. Each element is important in its own way to the program’s overall presentation. All things considered, they make Black Wings a welcome addition to the ongoing celebration of African-Americans’ contributions to America and their accomplishments throughout its history.
Smithsonian Channel’s new documentary Black Wings is a high-flying success for Smithsonian Channel. That is because the almost hour-long program brings to light a part of African-American history that doesn’t seem to be typically addressed when discussing African-American history — the contributions to and accomplishments within the aviation industry. This applies both during Black History Month and at other times of the year. Yes, it is addressed, but not to the extent of African-Americans’ role in the nation’s business industry, education system and other major areas. The story presented here presents African-Americans’ accomplishments and contributions not just through one aspect of the aviation industry, but in general. From their role in World War I and World War II to the commercial flight industry and even the private industry, the story covers as much ground as possible without allowing itself to get bogged down. What’s really impressive here is the fact that those who helped tell the story are largely everyday people, save for perhaps one well-known female astronaut. Other famed figures such as James Banning and Thomas Allen — The Flying Hobos — and Marlon Green –Continental Airlines’ first African-American pilot — get the recognition that they deserve, hopefully setting the ground to make them the celebrities that they should be. Green’s hiring by Continental would also make him the first African-American to be hired as a pilot for a major American airline. His story, and that of the “Flying Hobos,” couples with the stories of the everyday figures who themselves have done such great things for African-American (and American history in whole) to make the story overall one that will appeal to any aviation history buff. While the story forms a solid foundation for the program’s overall presentation, it is only one of the doc’s most important elements. Its pacing is just as important to discuss as the story itself.
The pacing of Black Wings‘ story is so important to its presentation because of the amount of ground that is covered over its nearly hour-long run time. There are discussions on African-American accomplishments within and contributions to the nation’s aviation history in regards to the military, commercial, private and even governmental (NASA). That being the case, it would be so easy for the program to get lost in itself and in turn to get bogged down. Luckily that was not the case here. From one story to the next, those behind the doc’s creation keep the transitions smooth and the story moving fluidly. Just enough time is given to each smaller story within the program’s bigger story to ensure viewers’ maintained engagement. From one to the next, this makes each smaller story memorable and impactful. Even up to the program’s end, the pacing is so solid, audiences won’t even have realized that roughly 51 minutes have elapsed. That is a tribute to the work put in to this aspect, and in turn proves why the pacing is so important to the program’s whole. It still is not the last of the program’s most important elements. The vintage footage and pictures and the interviews used to tell the overall story are collectively just as important as anything else to this story’s whole.
The visual and audio elements used to help tell Black Wings‘ story are so important because of the depth that they add to the doc’s presentation. The pics and footage of the “Flying Hobos'” cross country journey couple with the narration and stories from those familiar with the story, to make this a story that could so easily be made into a major blockbuster, or at least the subject of their own documentary. This critic personally would like to see them receive their own doc more so than an over embellished biopic based on actual events so as to properly pay tribute to them.
Much the same can be said of Thomas Hudner Jr.’s first hand account of Jesse Brown’s death in Korea. His personal account of Brown being shot down and the efforts taken to try to save Brown couples with footage of the air war over the continent to make it just as hard-hitting a story. That can even be said of the footage, pictures and interviews used to tell Marlon Green’s story. Audiences get to hear firsthand from Green’s daughter and other family and friends about his efforts to move from a military aviation career to a commercial career. Hearing his daughter speak of how proud she was of Green breaking the racial barrier that had for so long been held is itself moving. Seeing the applications that were discussed in his story adds even more depth to the words of those who told his story, making his story just as interesting as all of the others shared throughout the story.
Considering how much material is presented within Green’s story, that of Brown and of the Flying Hobos, one can easily go back to the program’s pacing and see again in hindsight how easy it would have been for the pacing to be problematic in this program. That’s especially considering that the program clocks in at just under an hour. Luckily though, that was — again — not the case. Taking all of this into consideration, not only does the pacing once again prove pivotal to the program, but so do the interviews, footage and pictures used to tell each of the program’s many stories. They are collectively what really make the stories and make them interesting. The pacing serves to keep them interesting. When this is all considered alongside the very selection of stories featured in this collection, the whole of these elements makes Black Wings a *ahem* “soaring” success (yes, that awful pun was intended) for Smithsonian Channel.
Smithsonian Channel’s new tribute to African-Americans’ accomplishments within and contributions to America’s aviation industry is a high-flying success of a program that succeeds during Black History Month and other times of the year. As has been noted already, that is due in part to its very focus and stories. African-American aviation history is one of those areas that has for decades been largely ignored when talking about African-American history. So, it is nice to see a presentation that covers not just the specific topic, but the topic in whole from one avenue to another. The program’s pacing insures viewers’ maintained engagement, especially with how much ground is covered here. The interviews, vintage footage and pictures that are used to tell the stories are the finishing touch to the program. They bring everything full circle. Each element is obviously important to the program’s whole. All things considered, they make Black Wings a work that will appeal to aviation history buffs, black history buffs and history buffs in general. In other words, it is a profile that deserves as much attention as any other African-American history profile. It is available now. It can be purchased direct online via Smithsonian Channel’s website and via PBS’ online store.
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