The gloves are off. A short-fused septuagenarian with a decorated past is tangling with a brash young African-American who, while less accomplished, can take a punch and give one back. I’m speaking of – what else? – the rhetorical slugfest between filmmakers Clint Eastwood and Spike Lee.
Lee started it. The African-American filmmaker was at the Cannes Film Festival recently, promoting his upcoming film, “Miracle at St. Anna,” about an all-black U.S. Army division that fought in Italy during World War II. Lee contrasted his project with the two films that Eastwood made about the Battle of Iwo Jima, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” pointing out that neither had any African-Americans in them. He said those same concerns were voiced by African-American World War II veterans when the films came out.
“Clint Eastwood made two films about Iwo Jima that ran for more than four hours total, and there was not one Negro actor on the screen,” Lee said at Cannes. “In his vision of Iwo Jima, Negro soldiers did not exist. Simple as that. I have a different version.”
Since “Letters from Iwo Jima” told the story of the American assault on the island from the perspective of the Japanese, one wouldn’t expect there to be African-Americans in that film. But “Flags of Our Fathers,” which told the story of how U.S. forces beat back the Japanese and planted the Stars and Stripes on Mount Suribachi, is fair game.
Then Dirty Harry fired back at Lee.
“Has he ever studied history?” Eastwood asked in an interview with the Guardian newspaper in London. He claimed that there was a small number of black troops on Iwo Jima as part of a munitions company. “But they didn’t raise the flag,” he said. “If I go ahead and put an African-American actor in there, they’d say, ‘This guy’s lost his mind.’ I mean, it’s not accurate.”
Speaking of being accurate, it is worth noting that Lee never suggested that Eastwood should have depicted an African-American helping to raise the flag. He merely pointed out that Eastwood didn’t include African-Americans in the film in any capacity.
Then Eastwood made it personal, saying about Lee, “a guy like that should shut his face.” Lee came back with some over-the-top comments that added gasoline to the fire.
“The man is not my father,” he told abcnews.com. “And we’re not on a plantation either.” Lee said that the 78-year-old sounded “like an angry old man.” Lee insisted he did know history, including “the history of Hollywood and its omission of the 1 million African-American men and women who contributed to World War II.” As he phrased it, “Not everything was John Wayne, baby.”
Preach on, Spike. That’s what Latino veterans and their advocates were trying to tell Ken Burns last year when he put together for PBS a 14-hour documentary on World War II that, while careful to include the experience of African-Americans, initially left out any mention of the more than half a million Latinos who contributed to the war effort. It took protests and threats of boycotts to get Burns to sprinkle in 28 minutes of new interviews and photographs of two Latinos and one Native American.
Eastwood should have learned from that controversy that people aren’t inclined to forgive such historical omissions, especially when they involve military service. Despite the fact that he felt it necessary to make a whole other movie to show the Japanese perspective, Eastwood somehow failed to include the contributions of African-Americans.
According to a recent article in Time magazine, those contributions were significant. Eastwood was right that African-Americans weren’t directly involved in raising the flag on Mount Suribachi, memorialized in the famous photograph. That feat was accomplished by five white servicemen and a sixth who was a descendant of Arizona Pima Indians. But Eastwood was wrong to try to minimize the role that African-Americans played in the battle for Iwo Jima with dismissive comments about how there was only a small number of black troops in a munitions company.
Historians claim that between 700 and 900 African-American soldiers participated in the month-long assault on the island, according to the article. While barred from combat duty, they risked their lives piloting amphibious vehicles onto shore, unloading and transporting ammunition to the front lines, and burying the dead – all while braving enemy fire.
That’s a compelling story. And, as a gifted storyteller, Clint Eastwood ought to be sorry he missed it.