Sunday, June 8, 2008

Clint and Spike and World War II

A battle royal emerging between Clint Eastwood and Spike Lee over cinematic depictions of World War II has revived issues of how African American participation in that epochal conflict has been expressed in the movies. A war that ended more than three generations ago still gets attention, in Hollywood, at least.

Lee recently complained that Eastwood’s recent films “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” gave short shrift to the role of black soldiers in the pivotal battle of Iwo Jima. “He did two films about Iwo Jima back to back and there was not one black soldier in both of those films,” Lee said June 3 at the Cannes Film Festival. “Many veterans, African-Americans, who survived that war are upset at Clint Eastwood. In his vision of Iwo Jima, Negro soldiers did not exist. Simple as that.”

Eastwood rejected Lee’s criticism. He admitted to the U.K. Guardian newspaper that a small force of black soldiers did serve on Iwo Jima as a part of a supply company, “but they didn't raise the flag. The story is ‘Flags of Our Fathers,’ the famous flag-raising picture, and they didn't do that. If I go ahead and put an African-American actor in there, people'd go, ‘This guy's lost his mind.’ I mean, it's not accurate.”

In an interview with Germany's Focus magazine, Eastwood said it was nonsense to suggest he had “erased the role of black GIs from history.”

“Does he know anything about American history?" he said about Lee. "The U.S. military was segregated til the Korean War, and the blacks in World War II were totally segregated. The only black battalion on Iwo Jima was a small munitions supply unit that came to the beach.

"The story was about the men who raised the flag, and we can't make them black if they were not there.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Eastwood’s not entirely right: President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, officially ending segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces, in July 1948, almost two years before the United States entered Korea.

But a look at some of Eastwood’s films reveals a solid track record for verisimilitude, and a conviction for casting black actors when their appearance dovetails with his creative vision.

“Bird,” his 1988 biopic of protean jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, was hailed for accurate reproduction of historical details. Eastwood reportedly waged war with his longtime studio, Warner Bros., for four years to get the film made — a direct result of Eastwood’s decades-long love affair with jazz. The film won Forest Whitaker Best Actor honors at the Golden Globes.

Eastwood executive-produced the 1988 documentary “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser,” and reportedly assisted in financing the film. And Eastwood’s casting in other, later, more commercially successful films strongly suggests that his heart’s in the right place on interracial casting. His Oscar-winning 1992 Western, “Unforgiven,” starred Morgan Freeman in a sidekick role remarkable for its depth and nuance. Eastwood worked with Freeman again in “Million Dollar Baby” (2004); Freeman won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar the following year.

◊ ◊ ◊

Lee’s beef with Eastwood would more properly seem to be a problem with Hollywood’s history of depicting black and minority participation in America’s foreign wars.

Such films as “Bataan,” “Crash Dive” and “Sahara” (all 1943) starred integrated casts in WWII storylines, as well as “Home of the Brave” (1949), “The Steel Helmet” (1951) and “Pork Chop Hill” (1959). But these and few others were the exceptions that proved the rule.

The Red Ball Express — the celebrated company of black soldiers responsible for trucking the weapons and materiel needed by U.S. soldiers after the Normandy invasion — has been all but ignored by Hollywood, despite such mainstream depictions of the actual invasion, something that’s been done and redone often in films from “The Longest Day” (1962) to “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). The Red Ball’s exploits were the substance of one film, starring Sidney Poitier — and released in 1952.

Lee is taking matters into his own hands. His new WWII film, “Miracle at St. Anna,” which opens in September, stars Derek Luke ("Antwone Fisher"), James Gandolfini ("The Sopranos"), Kerry Washington (“The Last King of Scotland”) and John Leguizamo (“Summer of Sam”) in the story of four black soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division trapped behind enemy lines in Italy in 1944.

When it opens, it’ll offer moviegoers a refreshing addition to the war-movie canon: a film that puts black soldiers front and center in that pivotal American experience. There’s clearly room for stories about a band of another kind of brothers.
Image credits: Lee: Eastwood: Martin Kraft, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License 2.5. Black aviators: From Toni Frissell Collection (public domain).
'Vox update: A reader (Thank you, Anonymous) sends along a link to what's said to be a screenshot from "Flags of Our Fathers," one of the Clint Eastwood Iwo Jima-related films that Spike Lee called inaccurate for not including black troops. 'Vox can't confirm or deny its authenticity ... but check it out. They look like brothers to me.


  1. “He did two films about Iwo Jima back to back and there was not one black soldier in both of those films,” said Lee...

    Spike is either ignorant or a liar because Eastwood's movie did show black soldiers, as this screenshot from Flags of Our Fathers demonstrates:

    The fact that Eastwood included that scene, even though the movie is actually about the flag-raisers not the battle, shows how careful Eastwood was to acknowledge that there was a black presence at Iwo Jima.

    I repeat, Spike Lee is either ignorant or lying, & the only reason he's saying these things is to generate publicity for his own movie. That he chose to do so by smearing another filmmaker with unfounded implications of racism is a disgrace.

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