African Black American Film Society Celebrates African American Women in Times of War and Conflict

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Members of New York Film Academy (NYFA) African and Black American Film Society (ABA) attended the first annual Greenlight Women Celebration in February, hosted by actress, model, and singer Shari Belafonte and actress Wendy Davis.

NYFA students sat amongst filmmakers, magazine owners, and businesswomen for an amazing brunch followed by a Q&A to pay tribute to African American women that served our country in times of war and conflict.

As the lights dimmed and all eyes focused on the screen, ABA members sat mesmerized as they watched clips from the soon-to-be-released documentary, Invisible Warriors: African American Women in World War II, which captures the untold stories of black women who battled Nazism abroad as well as racism and sexism at home. When the picture faded to black, the students applauded the moving stories of bravery and incredible obstacles that these women endured. Directed by Gregory Cooke, the harsh circumstances that African American women faced during wartime resonated throughout the room.

Shari Belafonte and NYFA Producing Instructor Kimberly Ogletree led the discussion honoring four fascinating black female veterans that served in the Vietnam, Grenada, and Iraq wars. The women spoke of racism and sexism they encountered in the military, and their hopes for the next generation of soldiers, naval, and air force officers.

NYFA students learned the historical context of these stories, during eras when anti-war activities, major Civil Rights demonstrations, the rise of Black Power, and the burgeoning Women’s Movement would impact the lives of women serving in the military.  Each of the women took a moment to discuss the sexual assault they witnessed or experienced first-hand, and shared how they were able to cope.

Greenlight Women in Association with Loeb & Loeb Present: First Annual Black History Month Celebration Brunch on Saturday, Feb. 24th, 2018 at Sportsman’s Lodge in Studio City, California. (Photo by Arnold Turner/ATA)

Judith Welsh, retired JAG stated:

“You do not let your circumstances overcome you. You must overcome the circumstances.”

These veterans confronted adversity. Giving up, being broken, or walking away was never an option for these women. The opportunity for students to bear witness to their situations and war stories from the black female soldiers’ perspective was extremely educational, and these particular women were honored to share because they had never before been given a forum to speak about their experiences.

Retired Captain Joan Arrington Craigwell served as a flight nurse in the United States Air Force during one of the most heinous conflicts in Vietnam, the Tet Offensive. Joan’s voice was calm yet subdued as she spoke about the horrors she encountered from the frontline. Joan received the Bronze star for bravery and her service.

There was a dead silence across the room as Joan and Gloria spoke in detail about unbelievable moments they experienced first-hand.

A student asked, name one obstacle you had to overcome?

Craigwell answered, “Having to go to Vietnam and the surprises that you faced. I still have a thing about not being able to save every person. It’s a nursing thing and I still carry that guilt knowing it was impossible.”

Retired Army Lt. Colonel Dr. Gloria Willingham-Toure vividly remembers her obstacle, as a nurse having to make the painstaking decision of which injured soldiers would receive medical attention. She said, “When soldiers were flown directly from the battlefield they had some unbelievable wounds and I had to do triage like I never did before, which meant I had to walk past those I could not help. So I would cry, cry, and cry, until one of my commanders said, ‘You gotta decide today, are you going to be crying or help those that you can,’ and I changed at that point.”

The stories were so intense that a young comedian, Alycia Cooper, silently stood as all eyes shifted to her, and in one swift second she lightened the entire mood and tone in the room. As I glanced at the two tables of ABA members I could see a needed relief from the stories, because the realities of war are hard to hear.

Craigwell spoke of trying to desegregate one of her housing units in 1961. Her white friend had heard of a vacancy and asked if she could take it. When her application was denied they took up the issue with their higher-ups. They were told by command that this housing was set aside for black members.

When Craigwell pushed back she was reassigned. Those in attendance, at the brunch, tut-tutted at the thought. Craigwell assured them the move was for the best. “I started doing some of my best work after that,” she said. Currently, Craigwell works to help veterans with employment, housing, and counseling.

New York Film Academy student and veteran Hattie Sallie stood tall to applaud the honorees for their service. She said, “During my time in the armed forces, I could see the fruit beginning to bear which I attributed to the work and accomplishments of those that came before me.” She added, “There are more programs for soldiers battling PTSD. Officers are better trained. Progress is slow but it’s happening.”

Our honorees were Lt. Col. Patricia Jackson-Kelly, who served in the Air Force, Navy, and Army between 1977-2003. Jackson-Kelly stated, “I applaud the youth today; your movement has been so refreshing. If it wasn’t for you I don’t know what we would do. The young people are speaking up for what they believe in and I encourage you to do that.” Today, Jackson-Kelly is the vice president of the National Association for Black Military Women.  

Dr. Gloria Willingham-Toure is a retired Army Lt. Colonel. She served over 20 years in the reserves and in the Army National Guard. She began her career at Brooks Medical Center as a civilian nurse during the end of the Vietnam War. She retired from the 6222nd U.S. Army reserves Forces School, 5th Brigade, 104th Division Institutional Training, as the director of medical courses preparing our nation’s medical personnel for deployments.

Willingham-Toure stated, “My only prayer during the end of the Vietnam war was that I hoped that the training I had given my soldiers would help them stay alive.”

Judith Mary Welsh was a Personnel Specialist and retired JAG who served in the U.S. Navy. She served in Germany, where she won “Best Supporting Actress” in the 7th Corp tournament of plays. She retired from the 88th Military Police Unit. Welsh, and reiterated to the students to “Always overcome your circumstances.”

And finally, Joan T. Arrington Craigwell attended the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine. She would later work in Southeast Asia at Clark Air Base in the Philippines and Republic of South Vietnam. Craigwell stated, “We live in the greatest country in the world and attacking our democracy means death.”

When opening the celebration, the President of Greenlight Women, Ivy Kagan Bierman, highlighted the importance of the group’s mission statement. Their statement proclaims: “Greenlight Women is an alliance of accomplished, creative, business professionals whose mission is to champion women and promote diverse perspectives in media.” Bierman stated that the wording of their mission statement and the name of their group had been crafted carefully, because, “We’re tired of sitting in meetings talking about change. We want to make change happen, now.” 

Two New York Film Academy staff members sit on the board of Greenlight Women. Chair of the Diversity Action Group Kimberly Ogletree is a NYFA producing instructor and the chair of NYFA Los Angeles’ Industry Lab. Barbara Weintraub is chair of industry outreach and professional development, and she serves on the board of Greenlight Women as vice president.

The New York Film Academy would like to thank Greenlight Women for giving our students an opportunity to speak with the women who defended our nation. To learn more about the mission of Greenlight Women click here.

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