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The Hollywood Plunge

A Navy diver who overcame institutional racism and then health problems finds himself the subject of a film--even though he says he's no hero.

November 09, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Carl Brashear doesn't see himself as a hero--he was just doing his job. The first African American Navy diver, Brashear's struggles against racism and other adversities are chronicled in the new film "Men of Honor," which opens Friday. Cuba Gooding Jr. stars as Brashear and Robert De Niro as Billy Sunday, a master chief Navy diver who is Brashear's racist training officer. As the years go by, though, Sunday becomes one of Brashear's biggest supporters. (Sunday is a fictitious character--a composite of several men Brashear encountered during his career. It's one of a number of liberties the film takes with Brashear's life story.)

Director George Tillman Jr. ("Soul Food") recalls being "blown away" by Brashear's story, which he believes has a universal appeal. "The reason I have done this story is so that even people today will be inspired," says Tillman Jr.

The 69-year-old Brashear was born to a sharecropper family in Sonora, Ky. He quit school in seventh grade to help his father on the farm, and joined the Navy in 1948 shortly before President Harry S. Truman desegregated the U.S. military.

Even with Truman's edict, Brashear--like all African Americans and Filipinos--was confined to the ship's galley. But once Brashear observed deep-sea diving, he knew he had to become a diver. After sending letters to the Navy for 18 months, he was finally admitted to the Navy Diving School in Bayonne, N.J.

No one at the school wanted him there. His barracks mates moved to other quarters so they wouldn't have to bunk with him. And his final exam was sabotaged. But Brashear stood his ground and graduated. He went on to a remarkable career, despite losing half of his leg while recovering a nuclear warhead in the Mediterranean in 1966.

Learning he probably would never be able to dive again, Brashear decided to have his leg amputated. Fitted with a prosthesis, he convinced Navy officers he could continue to dive.

Brashear, the divorced father of three grown sons, was in town recently to attend the premiere of "Men of Honor." Still beaming from the event the night before, Brashear talked about the movie and his amazing life.

Question: It must be a surreal experience to see your life unfold on the big screen.

Answer: Yeah, not in my wildest dreams did I ever think that someday I would be the subject of a Hollywood major motion picture. In the Navy, I thought I was just doing my job and working toward my goal with all of my might.

Q: Were you as close to your father as it is depicted in "Men of Honor"?

A: Yes. He was a remarkable individual. He was always upbeat and had a good attitude. He had that spirit of "I can do anything." We call it a can-do spirit.

Q: Did his attitude help you overcome adversity in the Navy?

A: Yes, I attribute almost all of that to him. I draw my strength and my courage and my high spirits from him. But then I had to develop my own way of doing things. This movie will send a message to people that you have got to work hard and love yourself and other people to be successful.

Q: You attended the big premiere here of "Men of Honor." What was that like?

A: We had a premiere in Toronto, but it wasn't like this one last night. This topped it all for a premiere. I got a standing ovation when they introduced me. I saw a lot of [actors] I have seen on TV. And then to come face to face with them. I was so thrilled to meet Forest Whitaker.

Q: How did "Men of Honor" come about?

A: Well, the movie was up and down for about 19 years. But this time, when [executive producer] Bill Cosby's organization contacted me from the Navy, the first people I met to work on the movie was George Tillman Jr., who was the director, and Bob Teitel, the producer. These two young men said we are going to do this movie. It had a different thing to it [than when I was first approached]. I realized then this movie was going to be made.

Q: Were you on the set during the production?

A: I was there for most of the filming. I spent a lot of time with Cuba before the movie and I was available all the time after we started filming the movie for advice.

Q: Was it an emotional experience for you to watch certain moments in your life played out, including your accident?

A: It wasn't difficult because the way I look at it now, if I stayed upbeat with a good attitude while it was happening to me, I could watch it on the screen. I had some emotions back then, but I didn't linger on it. I didn't let it affect me. Sure, I went through some hard times in the '40s and '50s, but I didn't dwell on it. I didn't get down. My spirits stayed high.

Q: But didn't you get angry at the racism you endured?

A: I got angry because I'm human. But I didn't resort to any type of violence or hatred or dislike or disrespect.

Q: When did you start noticing a lessening in racism in the Navy?

A: I could communicate and get along with all people in the late '40s and early '50s. That is when I noticed it. I just had that special quality to make that happen. I was able to change people's minds.

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