Byline: Nancy McAlister, Times-Union staff writer
Before Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, there was Asa Philip Randolph. The Crescent City native, educated in Jacksonville, was an early civil rights leader who helped create the first black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
The story of the union's struggle with the Pullman Company from 1925 to 1937 is dramatized in 10,000 Black Men Named George, which debuts at 8 tonight on Showtime. Andre Braugher portrays Randolph. Other cast members include Charles S. Dutton, who plays Chicago union organizer Milton Webster, and Mario Van Peebles, who appears as Ashley Totten, one of the founding members of the Brotherhood.
Railway porters were often called "George," after railway car magnate George Pullman. Hence, the title of 10,000 Black Men Named George , which details the early civil rights struggles of union organizers. Porters were paid $60 a month and subjected to working conditions that provided no job security, adequate benefits or safety from the whims and degradations of passengers.
Directed by Robert Townsend, the film reflects the union's hard-fought origins. Starting with 570 members, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters eventually had membership rolls of more than 6,000. But its quest for recognition was often thwarted, at times by smear tactics -- Randolph's wife's salon business was ruined by innuendos about communist sympathies -- or by subterfuge and outright violence. Many porters with union ties were fired. Each obstacle became a proving ground for Randolph, who had previously failed six times to form other trade unions.
The presence of Braugher, an Emmy winner for his portrayal of Detective Frank Pembleton on NBC's Homicide, is enough to lift the film's quality. 10,000 Black Men Named George, which suffers at times from flat characters and a prevailing sense of earnestness, is grounded by his talents.
Rather than simply canonize Randolph, Braugher gives him a leader-in-the making persona. Living in privilege compared to the men he seeks to represent, Braugher's Randolph begins his immense task with a zeal slowly worn down by the powerful odds against him. At one point, he's even ready to quit. "I'm just a damn fool, a dreamer," he confides to his wife. "This is work for someone else, another generation." But such talk is premature. As President Franklin Roosevelt begins his first term, the federal Railway Labor Act is passed and, soon after, the Brotherhood is recognized by the American Federation of Labor. …