When Power Lawyer Bob Darwell isn’t working on deals for clients like Amazon Studios, Nickelodeon and Wondery, he’s a documentarian.
Darwell’s latest film, Black Uniform, tells the story of 12 Black men and women who served in the U.S. military during major conflicts dating back to World War II — including 104-year-old Romay Davis, who served in the 6888th, the only all-Black female battalion that was sent overseas during World War II, and former former Congressman Charles Rangel, who received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his service in the Korean War. (Watch the trailer here.)
It won best documentary at the Los Angeles Documentary Film Festival, Orlando Urban Film Festival and Diamond State Film Festival, and received the Luminary Award at the L.A. Awareness Film Festival.
Darwell’s first doc, The 90s Club, debuted at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in April 2022 and won best documentary at the Manhattan Film Festival, among other honors. It centers on a dozen “very well-aged” people in their 90s, and is streaming on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S. and U.K.
In honor of Veterans Day, Black Uniform is screening at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival on Friday, and there will be a free cookout for veterans and their families. On Nov. 18, the doc will play at the Montgomery Film Festival, which Darwell says he’s especially excited for because Davis is attending.
Darwell spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about making the films, finding his subjects and what’s next on his to-doc list.
Why did you decide to start making documentaries?
The 90s Club I always had some inspiration for in the back of my mind. I wanted to do something to promote the wisdom and vitality of the very well-aged. My parents had passed away a couple of years ago, and it was kind of more and more in my head that I wanted to do something to kind of attack ageism. I wound up talking with a dozen people who were in their 90s. I focused on that group because many people live into their 80s now. You think of somebody who’s 90, and most of us think they’re not having an active life, but quite a few people are very engaged in the world. That work-from-home time [during the COVID-19 shutdown] gave me the freedom on the weekends to go make this documentary.
What inspired Black Uniform?
In making the first one, I kind of got a little bit of the bug. This is a lot of fun and I am loving the oral history part of it, and getting people’s stories, and then editing it into something that can be shared with a broader audience. I knew that I wanted to do something that would benefit veterans. My father served in the Army during the Korean War, but it was not really anything that we ever talked about while he was alive. So, I thought I would do something historical about people serving in the different wars.
The last interview that I did for The 90s Club was with Fred Gray, who last fall got the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Joe Biden. He was a civil rights attorney who helped Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, and represented them on all of their major cases. During that interview he talked about his experience with the draft. Since I was already going to be interviewing people from World War II, Korean War, Vietnam and Desert Storm, I thought that I would focus on black men and women who had served.
How many people did you end up talking to?
I repeated again with 12 for Black Uniform. Two from World War II, a Tuskegee Airman, who was 96 when I interviewed him. He’s now 97. [There’s] a woman that served in the Six Triple Eight, which I think Netflix is doing a scripted feature on. It is the only female black battalion that served overseas during World War II. She was 102 when I interviewed her. She’s 104 now. [There are] two from Korean War, two from Vietnam, a few from Desert Storm, and a woman who’s presently serving who was the first female black Army Ranger.
How did you find these people?
With The 90s Club it was all kind of word of mouth. Me telling people that I was going to do that film and someone would say ‘You should talk to my grandmother.’ Apart from Dick Van Dyke, who I targeted from the outset. I mentioned to someone in the office that I wanted it to be regular folks, but my dream would be to have Dick Van Dyke. They said ‘Oh, I see him sometimes at the gym.’ When they ran into him, they asked if he would participate, and I called him the next day.
For Black Uniform, it was a little bit more targeted because I knew I wanted at least two people from each conflict going back to World War II. So, that involved a little bit more research.
What is your favorite story from Black Uniform?
While it focuses on black men and women that served in the military, it really just brings attention to the fact that no veteran has the same story. Some encounter a life of disability afterward, or post-traumatic stress. One of the women I interviewed is one of the 28 percent of women who are sexually assaulted during their term of service.
The nature of discrimination against black veterans has changed over time. World War II was segregated. Now what what you see is that black veterans maybe have a harder time accessing the benefits that they’re entitled to.
Veterans are a group that doesn’t really receive the appropriate appreciation and recognition and attention that they deserve. A lot of people go into the military to obtain those benefits — schooling, to have a pension if you’ve served 20 years — and then be able to start something new afterward. It’s really tough to hear that people who put themselves on the line like that have challenges in obtaining those benefits. They have to navigate the administrative organizations and deal with the bureaucracy of doing that. A lot of times they don’t really have a support system that helps them with that
Do you have a third documentary in the works or an idea for another one?
I do, yeah. I think the third and final one of this style of 12 oral history interviews would be Crowning Achievement, which would be former Miss Americas from the various decades. There is a woman in Minnesota who’s in her early 90s who won in the late 1940s. [It would] get a perspective of Miss America from the 40s to present day. The nature of that pageant, or perception of it, has changed pretty dramatically from when I was a kid. It was always one of the most watched shows of the year, and now I don’t think I’ve seen it in a decade or two.
So, [it would be] a little bit about the nature of the pageant, and what motivated these women to enter. Many have gone on to really achieve amazing accomplishments using that platform. I think that Lee Meriwether (Batman: The Movie) was the winner during [one of] the first televised Miss America pageants. The most successful probably is the one who lost her crown, Vanessa Williams. Gretchen Carlson was a Miss America. I’m going to focus on the ones who won, looking back at how it helped their lives or hindered it in some way.
What’s up next?
I was asked by the producing team of Lia Rodriguez and Pilar de Posadas to direct Snow Angels: Alaska’s Fierce Female Flyers. I’m heading to Anchorage at the beginning of December to start filming the documentary about the women pilots of the Arctic.
Interview edited for length and clarity.