Tuesday, August 15, 2006


9/11's Invisible Man

It's an uplifitng story about Sgt. Jason Thomas, a retired Marine who headed down to Ground Zero minutes after the attacks, put on his uniform and plunged in to try and help save people.

He had been something of a mystery man until Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, which recounted the actions of him and another Good Samaritan leatherneck, opened last week.

The tale is indeed a nice one, with one slight caveat:

[Producer Michael] Shamberg said he apologized to Thomas for an inaccuracy in the film: Thomas is black, but the actor cast to portray him, William Mapother, is white. Filmmakers realized the mistake only after production had begun, Shamberg said.

Thomas laughed and gently chided the filmmakers, then politely declined to discuss it further. "I don't want to shed any negativity on what they were trying to show," he said. As for his story, Thomas said he is gradually becoming more comfortable telling it.

"It's been like therapy," he said.

Thomas shows his magnanimity by not feeling upset about the film's rather major historical error involving him. Yes, it makes sense to say that the important point is the overall story about humanity and details about race shouldn't really matter.

However, in the real world, race does matter -- both in the present in how people are often perceived and in the past in the context of the contributions various individuals make to society.

It's interesting that less than a year after 9/11, there was some major controversy over how a statue commemorating the historic photo of three firefighters
raising the American flag -- Iwo Jima-like -- in the middle of a smoking Ground Zero.

The photo itself was seen on the front page of newspapers around the world in the immediate days after the attack.

The three firefighters were all white. Several minority groups -- including the "Vulcans", the black firefighters support group -- wanted a "representative" statue commemorating the moment but showing firefighters of different races. Other groups and media organizations called for a statue that looked like the guys who were actually there -- three white guys.

At the time, I thought the accuracy of the moment should outweigh politically correct motives (which is what happened with the statue). Now, however, seeing how the heroism of Sgt. Jason Thomas -- a black serviceman and patriot -- has, accidentally or otherwise, been "whitewashed," I wonder if those black firefighters didn't have a point after all.

Many people going to see World Trade Center will assume that it is a fully accurate movie. It doesn't take away from the emotional general story that Jason Thomas is depicted as being a white man. However, history would have been much better served had Oliver Stone, Michael Schamburg and Co. gone a little step further to show who Thomas truly was and not allow him to disappear into celluloid invisibility.

UPDATE: A friend points me to this Slate article showcasing a real 9/11 "invisible man" -- someone Stone and Co. completely ignored (as opposed to just getting the race wrong).

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