Assault at West Point: The Court-Martial of Johnson Whittaker (1994)
Johnson Whittaker (Seth Gilliam) has spent 4 years at West Point as one of the first African-American cadets and in that time he has been shunned by his fellow cadets due to the colour of his skin. But with just 8 weeks to go before he and his fellow cadets are due to become Officers Johnson is assaulted and tied down in his bed by his fellow cadets. Whilst those in charge decide Johnson assaulted himself to garner sympathy ahead of an exam the news of what happened spreads. It spreads to lawman Richard Greener (Samuel L. Jackson) who likewise has experienced racism in his career who joins forces with Daniel Chamberlain (Sam Waterston), a fame hungry lawyer, to defend the case but only find themselves at odds over how to do so.
True stories of racial injustice. I have come across a few movies in my time which tackle these sorts of stories and expectedly they bring out some strong emotions from those who watch the movie and get hooked by the story of injustice. As such when it comes to "Assault at West Point: The Court-Martial of Johnson Whittaker" I have come across more than one opinion which rates this as a great movie but more because of the fact that thanks to the movie an important story of racial injustice is told not actually because the movie itself is great.
With that said what we get in "Assault at West Point" is the trial of Johnson Whittaker where he is charged with assaulting himself in advance of an exam. What we are presented with is three elements; the prosecution showing that Whittaker could have done the assault himself and whilst far fetched had cause to, we get the conflicted defence of Greener and fame hungry Chamberlain and then we get a feel for the racial situation of the time where there were people who felt because of Whittaker's skin colour he wasn't clever enough amongst other things. And whilst it never reaches the depths which this story could have it does a reasonable job of painting a picture of the period and the racial situation of the time.
Now I hate to say this but "Assault at West Point" is held back by it being a TV movie and never quite getting the authenticity right. Everything about the movie's look feels static and stilted. Basically it feels like a period drama which gets itself bogged down by the period look rather than telling the story. This in turn holds back the actors and Samuel L. Jackson looks uncomfortable during great swathes of the movie, restricted by everything and unable to breathe life in to his character. It is the same throughout with Sam Waterston also struggling, seemingly shackled to a script which doesn't allow him to breathe life in to the character. It may not be the script it might be the limitations of a shooting schedule which has a strict time line to follow but sadly something makes the movie feel stiff. The one exception to this is Seth Gilliam who when Whittaker gets to take the stand he gets his chance to shine and shine he does, delivering what most of the movie is missing.
What this all boils down to is that "Assault at West Point: The Court-Martial of Johnson Whittaker" highlights a time of severe racial injustice whilst telling this little known story of such injustice. But as a movie the production lets it down and there is too much of a regimented, stiff feel to the movie which stops the characters from coming across as real.
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