Mary Pat Kelly, director, producer, screenwriter and contributor to Irish America magazine, doesn’t always pick topics that interest the mainstream media. In 1984, she was commissioned by Rolling Stone to write about President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Ireland. While in the country, she covered the elections.
“In those days there was still a lot of violence. The idea of going out to vote was courageous to do.” Rolling Stone decided not to use the article. Later, while working for ABC’s Good Morning America, she met SDLP party leader (and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize) John Hume. While the show included him in their “Face Off” section, they gave him little coverage. Kelly found herself drawn to the SDLP, but found it was an angle to the Northern Ireland situation she was unable to pitch successfully.
“Television and media were not interested in presenting the SDLP side of the story. They didn’t understand what I found, that people in Northern Ireland wanted peace and an end to violence, and were willing to vote that way. I decided to do it myself.” So Mary Pat Kelly did what she does best. She networked — gathering the friends she’s made in the SDLP while following the elections — and put together her own documentary, To Live For Ireland, which aired on PBS, showed at the San Francisco Film Festival and won awards.
Recently, Mary Pat found herself in a similar quandary when trying to pitch Proud.
“It’s not the kind of movie Hollywood makes right now,” Mary Pat confided, and even the financial backing of Tommy Hilfiger wasn’t enough to interest studio execs.
The film, based on a true story, follows the USS Mason, an all-black naval ship during World War II. During a period when blacks were delegated to only menial tasks in the military, the USS Mason was created as an experiment, and marked the first time African Americans were entrusted with positions of prominence. In the film, an African American war correspondent, Thomas Young, suggests to the protagonist, Lorenzo DuFau, that the USS Mason was set up to fail. DuFau responds that the project will have to be a disappointment then, as he and his fellow sailors plan to succeed. The Mason then escorts envoys across the North Atlantic, battles German U-boats, and survives a storm so mighty even the British navy refuses to cross it. Mary Pat contends that the success of the USS Mason paved the way for integration in the armed forces,
“If the Mason had failed or not have done so well, it might have taken longer.”
Hilfiger’s then 16-year old daughter, Ally, came up with the idea of making the film without the backing of a big studio.
She said, “what’s the big deal? Why don’t you just direct it and we’ll do it?” Mary Pat responded with, “Why don’t you just produce it?” and Ally did just that.
Mary Pat referred yet again to her list of friends and contacts, and came up with a startling — if not outright bizarre — concoction for a cast list. Screen legends Ossie Davis and Stephen Rea (The Crying Game, The Butcher Boy) make appearances alongside John Hume and Tommy Hilfiger. For Davis, who narrated Kelly’s prior documentary about the Mason, his performance in Proud would be his last. Since Kelly didn’t have a large budget for Proud, the payoff for the actors was ideological. For Kelly and the others, Proud was an attempt to undo the erasing of the African American from history.
“I realized that my memory of World War II, since I wasn’t alive, came from watching old movies,” Kelly said, “and from watching them you would think black men weren’t in World War II, you’d have no idea of the contributions they made.” Mary Pat’s efforts were rewarded when, in 1994, President Clinton, in a 50th anniversary celebration of D-Day, formally recognized and thanked members of the Mason crew.
Though she was operating in an era supposedly more progressive than the pre-Brown v. Board days depicted in her film, Kelly found that she still met with resistance in trying to obtain recognition for the Mason crew. Though prior to Clinton’s announcement, no formal honor had been given to the sailors, Kelly found a recommendation for commendation in the files of the Mason’s captain. When she presented the document to a Navy official, she was met with the response, “how do I know you didn’t just type this up yourself?”
Mary Pat first stumbled across the story of the USS Mason when researching an article for Irish America magazine about the 300,000 Americans stationed in Northern Ireland during World War II. During her research, she came across the following headline in a black newspaper: “Irish First to Treat USS Mason Crew Like Real Americans.” Derry was the largest naval base in all of Europe, and the Mason crew was one of several to take their liberty leave there. What they found was that the locals were so warm and gracious that for the first time, many of the sailors knew what it was like to be actually treated like a fellow human being. After probing more, Mary Pat came across the name of a surviving veteran, James Graham. When she called, he told her, “I’ve been waiting for this phone call for 50 years.”
After meeting another veteran, Lorenzo DuFau, Ally and Mary Pat decided to center the film around his story. Mary Pat said that she was attracted to his philosophy.
“A line in movie that comes straight from him is, `I never let hate take me over because then they would have won.’ He’s dealt with a lot of prejudice, but he knew that if he ever let himself get angry, it wouldn’t do anything to the other people causing the problems, but would destroy him.”
Ally also found DuFau inspiring:
“He kept telling me how important it is for young people to just listen, listen in life to people who have gone through certain experiences, whether it be movie making or being in a war.”
When the film screened at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23, one could sense a wave of relief in the tiny yet fully packed theater. Proud, perhaps the first film ever made about the African American experience in World War II, finally offered some justification.
“For black audiences, they know this story, watching the film just validates it,” Kelly said, “but for white audiences, it’s a revelation.” Among those present at the screening was Governor George Pataki, who agreed to fund the release of the film in upstate New York.
“He loved it,” beamed Ally, “he thought it was such a New York movie, it’s so New York,” she gushed. ♦
Proud can be viewed on Amazon video and Apple TV+.
Read more about the U.S.S. Mason in U.S.S. Mason Makes Historic Trip to Northern Ireland by Mary Pat Kelly.