Pamplin Media Group – Portland Film Festival pays tribute to Black soldiers in new film

The documentary about the regiments of Black soldiers is being shown at the Portland Film Festival.

This story is part of our ongoing series on the Portland Film Festival. Click here for more coverage.

One day, shortly after moving to the Pacific Northwest from Colorado, filmmaker Dru Holley volunteered to shoot some video footage at a film festival in Tacoma, Washington, and brought along his daughter.

“And, I hear her say, ‘Oh horses!'” Holley said. “I looked up and saw something that made me proud, Black Union soldiers galloping up a hill in a scene that looked right out of the 19th century.

“I thought, ‘Are they Black cowboys?’ It dawned on me these were (reenacting) Buffalo Soldiers, and it clicked. I thought of the Danny Glover movie (from 1997) and the Bob Marley song (from 1983). … ‘Those are the Buffalo Soldiers.’ I was sad and disappointed that it took me while to remember who they were and sad that my daughter might never know.”

So, through his Portland-based Black Bald Films, Holley set out to make a documentary about the Buffalo Soldiers, who were Black US Army regiment members in the post-Civil War era. They fought in the Indian wars and Mexican punitive wars in North America, and in conflicts in the Philippines and the Spanish-American War in Cuba, all while still dealing with civil rights issues even after slavery ended — racism, bias and segregation — on the homefront.

Holley’s 59-minute film, “Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts,” has been shown at some festivals, and this year landed at the Portland Film Festival. Read our review of ‘Buffalo Soldiers, and through the Comcast X1 voice remote and Flex streaming service, and it’ll screen Monday, Oct. 17, and Sunday, Oct. 23, at the festival’s Lloyd Center east wing venue.

[Related: Read our review of ‘Buffalo Soldiers]

Holley, who lives in Vancouver, Washington, has produced some shorts, and he has worked on local projects such as the Albina Vision Trust and online Travel Oregon neighborhood spots. “Buffalo Soldiers” is his first feature film.

“The point of the film was to continue the history and shine a light on these Black patriots,” he said. “They were fighting for America against enemies and at the same time fighting for civil rights and not to be persecuted.

“These men fighting for America were sent to fight other people of color. Black folks were divided about that.”

As to reasons why the Black men joined the US Army under such circumstances, “I’m sure a lot of their actions were money motivated,” Holley added. “They were leaving the South as sharecroppers and making $13 a month, more than any money they had in their lives, and they didn’t have to work in the sun all day.”

The Black regiments were nicknamed “Buffalo Soldiers” by Native Americans, because of their hair and its resemblance to the hair on the animals. The regiments were disbanded by President Harry S. Truman in 1948.

It took four years to make the film. There are interviews with scholars, reenactments and graphic treatment of photos to bring them alive. It’s done in a graphic animation style.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to do so many fellowships due to this film,” Holley said, referring to Stanley Nelson’s Firelight Documentary Lab Fellowship and others.

“And, stay tuned, it could be coming to a TV near you.” He wouldn’t be specific.

Meanwhile, Holley has other things in the works. His four-part Albina Vision Trust series includes the shorts “Where Should We Go?,” which examines the redlining and displacement of the Albina neighborhood, and “Playing Possum,” about the 1981 incident in which two police officers threw dead possums at the Black-owned Burger Barn in Northeast Portland.

Of “Playing Possum,” Holley said: “It’s educational and fun, an animated short that explains the backstory of the Portland Black community and what they’ve dealt with.”

The two other shorts will be about the Black community now in Albina.

Another of his projects is a feature-length documentary, “New Slaves,” about prisoners making money by working behind bars on everything from herding wild horses in Colorado to harvesting timber in Oregon (not just making license plates). Another is “Exonerated,” about Americans exonerated after being convicted of crimes.

“And we’re doing great stuff in the city with Travel Portland, making neighborhood videos with the great Ime Etuk as director,” Holley said.


When: Through Oct. 23, streaming available through Nov 27.

Where: Lloyd Center east wing venues, and streaming available at and via Comcast Xfinity X1 voice remote and Flex streaming service.

Tickets: Movie marathon tickets for $59-$99; passes are $149 (industry), $249 (students, seniors), $299 (all-access) and $450 (VIP); virtual tickets for $15 provide a viewing window of 72 hours; in-person tickets range from matinee screenings for $7 (before 5 pm) to $15 for all movies from 5 to 10 pm; and, it’s $15 for the “Date Night” special for two tickets after 10 pm using the discount code “DATENIGHT.”

Comcast: For subscribers with an Xfinity X1 voice remote or Flex streaming service, simply say “Portland Film Festival” into voice remote during the festival.


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