By Jeff Labrecque
March 28, 2014 at 03:39 PM EDT

The Harlem Hellfighters

In The Harlem Hellfighters, World War Z author Max Brooks resurrects the heroics of World War I’s mighty 369th U.S. Army Infantry Regiment. The titular all-black unit faced appalling bigotry: They were forced to train in hostile South Carolina, issued broomsticks instead of guns, and eventually dumped on the depleted French Army because the American Army had no intention of letting them fight side-by-side with white soldiers. Undaunted, they volunteered for the most dangerous assignments and soon became one of the most decorated — and feared — Allied fighting units.

Brooks, the 41-year-old son of Mel Brooks and the late Anne Bancroft, has been ruminating on this story for three decades. When his screenplay was repeatedly rejected, he partnered with artist Caanan White on a graphic novel instead. Less than 48 hours after the finished book made the rounds, Sony picked up the movie rights for producer Will Smith. Brooks dreams of a big-name cast like that of 1962’s WWII classic The Longest Day. But he’s also cautious. “Whether this movie gets made or whether it doesn’t, the book lives,” he says.

Click below for an extended chat with Brooks, as well as art from The Harlem Hellfighters, available April 1:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The story of the Harlem Hellfighters has been ignored by most history books, but you’ve been obsessed with it for 30 years. How did a 10-year-old discover them?

MAX BROOKS: My parents had assistants, and part of their job was picking me up from school. They had this one guy, Michael Furmanovsky, a university student getting his degree in history. He was picking me up from school, and he said it just as a throwaway: “Hey, did you know that there was a unit of black soldiers that the U.S. government set up to fail in World War I?” I couldn’t believe it. To a 10-year-old white kid from the west side of L.A., that kind of injustice was incomprehensible. But what made it stick was the fact that I was just a weird kid — I was interested in that kind of stuff.

When did you decide that this was a story you wanted to tell?

In the late ’90s, when TNT did Buffalo Soldiers and [HBO did] the first Tuskegee Airmen movie, I thought [Hollywood] might be interested in the story. It went beyond race, because the truth is, if you take out the color of their skin and just look at their combat record, the Hellfighters spent more time in combat than any other American unit. The first American to win the Croix de Guerre was one of them. And they brought jazz to France. If these guys had been white, they would’ve been part of our American narrative since the 1920s. So I wrote the script and nobody wanted it. Everyone was like, “No, no, no. We’re not going to do a story about black soldiers in a war nobody cares about.” And then I met with LaVar Burton and that changed everything — because I was ready to give it up. LaVar Burton sat me down and said, “Look, there’s a lot of Harlem Hellfighters scripts going around but yours comes closest to the truth, so don’t give up on it.” And I thought, All right, I won’t.

A lot of authors write a graphic novel hoping it will become a movie. You went the opposite route. When did you shift?

That was five or six years ago, right around the time I was actually working on Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks, my first foray into comics. The great thing about a graphic novel is that you don’t have to worry about money. The stakes are much smaller. It could be as long and have as much information as I wanted. So when it came time for Random House to ask me, “Well, what’s your next project?” I said, “I want this to be my next book.” I think they were kind of hoping for World War Z: Part II.

After I read the novel, I did some homework to see if you had embellished the slights that black U.S. soldiers endured from their own government. Of course, you hadn’t embellished at all.

Since I’ve been working on this for 15 years, there were a couple moments where I had to actually go back and revisit my research material, because I didn’t believe it. That secret letter from General Pershing to the French [telling them not to commend black soldiers], you can read it in its entirety in the library. It’s shocking, the lengths that our own government would go to — the energy expended on defeating its own soldiers instead of defeating the Germans.

You addressed prejudice in a smaller way in Shadow Walk, and in the Hellfighter‘s Author’s Note, you wrote you unofficially had a major in race relations while studying in the Virgin Islands. What did you mean by that?

For me, studying in the Virgin Islands was — I mean, it wasn’t an eye-opener, because I always knew there was racism. I got that black people got a raw deal in this country. But I didn’t really understand the day-to-day racism, the constant relentless battering, until I became a minority. And to be prejudged by everybody all the time on the color of my skin, that was shocking. And it wasn’t always negative. Some people liked me just because the color of my skin. Or emanated to talk to me just because of the color of skin. They were curious. But there was that constant prejudgement that was definitely sinking into my bones when I was experiencing that. Let’s not get too high and mighty: I still got to go back to white America, so I was only a tourist in that way. But it certainly was a taste of what black people have to go through every day.

Some of the characters in The Harlem Hellfighters were real people, like James Reese Europe. But others, like the narrator, Mark, are amalgams, correct?

I am beholden to the memory of these real people, so I have to tread very carefully. That’s actually why I made my core platoon, my core squad of guys, I made them mostly fictional, because I didn’t want to offend the families of these people. Like Henry Johnson, he’s a real guy. So I sort of made his character a little blander than say, Edge. Edge I made up. And because Edge is fictional he can say, “Wow! White people paying me to kill white people? Glory halleluiah!”

The character Edge is fictional, but you named him after a professor of yours in college.

Wayne Edge was an amazing professor. He told me that the greatest crime white people ever committed against black people was erasing their history. That stuck with me. It’s hard to face your future when you don’t have the confidence of your past.

You use pop culture from the period as crucial plot elements, including D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a blatantly racist film that reflected attitudes of the time — so much so that Woodrow Wilson screened it at the White House.

I had seen Birth of a Nation in college, and it just blew me away. The movie itself didn’t blow me away; it was the reaction to it. Like you said about Wilson, people loved that movie — white people. That was the Star Wars of its day.

After years of rejection by studios, your story is now in development at Sony. Was it just a matter of having something tangible to hand someone, or did 12 Years a Slave perhaps represent some shift in Hollywood?

It’s funny you ask that, because I get asked that all the time about zombies. Like, when I wrote Zombie Survival Guide, nobody was writing about zombies and now zombies are everywhere and why is that? I don’t know. Maybe it was a combination. Maybe it’s a combination of The Butler, 42, and 12 Years a Slave. Maybe the Trayvon Martin case has brought racism back into the forefront. Maybe there’s just so many times you can call the president of the United States a subhuman mongrel before people get angry. I mean, Ted Nugent just called President Obama a subhuman mongrel. He’s talking about race mixing. Race mixing, we have to remember, used to be a hanging offense in this country. On racism, I think we’ve made unbelievable strides, obviously. But clearly, as Ted Nugent reminds us, we still have a ways to go.

With Will Smith involved, I’m encouraged that your movie will receive a budget that will bring this war and these characters to life in a credible way. Because there’s not a great Hollywood tradition of WWI movies.

You can see why it’s easier to make WWII stories. It’s victorious Americans raising the flag over Iwo Jima or storming Normandy Beach. Whereas WWI, you’re just sitting in a trench, and it’s very bloody and brutal and at the end of the day, what the hell is it all for? And I think that’s one reason that it’s not a very popular war. It doesn’t make for good stories and it’s not as clean a narrative. But the truth is, WWII wouldn’t have happened had there not been a WWI. The seeds of WWII happened in the first one.

I know there are smarter people than I already working on this, but I have two words and a letter for you to pass along to the folks casting the lead role of Mark: Michael B. Jordan.

Oh my God, wouldn’t he be amazing? I always love ensemble casts. Like, I loved a movie like The Longest Day, where it’s like, “Oh, I know that guy. Oh, and another guy.” I shouldn’t be optimistic and dare to dream because then that’s the quote they use when the project gets canceled. But in a perfect world, I would love to see an ensemble cast of the great African-American talent that we have, because this country has a galaxy of brilliant African-American actors and who wouldn’t want to see all of them in it, even if it’s for like one line or one scene. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

The Harlem Hellfighters

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