Thursday, May 22, 2008

Iwo Jima in Black and White

The Cannes Film Festival is a rather odd place to re-fight the Battle of Iwo Jima, but that hasn’t deterred director Spike Lee.

On Tuesday, the film maker took a shot at fellow director Clint Eastwood, criticizing the absence of blacks in his recent films on the battle, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima.

He did two films about Iwo Jima back-to-back and there was not one black solider in both of those films,” Lee said Tuesday at Cannes, where he was a judge in an on-line short film competition.

“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. I have a different version,” Lee said.

As the Associated Press reports, Mr. Lee will be offering his own “vision” later this year, releasing a film on African-American soldiers who fought in Italy during World War II. Fair enough.

Besides, there’s nothing like stirring up a little buzz for your next movie by taking a shot at someone else, particularly an icon like Eastwood. At age 77, the director is among the most honored at his craft, one of only a few to win multiple Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director.

On the other hand, some of Mr. Lee’s recent projects (the 25th Hour; She Hate Me) have bombed. Against that backdrop, you might say that Lee’s upcoming war movie, Miracle at St. Anna, could use a little advance publicity, and he guaranteed that by going after Clint Eastwood.

Regrettably, this isn’t the first time that Mr. Eastwood has faced such criticism. When the first of his Iwo series reached theaters in 2006, USA Today published an op-ed that voiced similar concerns. It was written by Yvonne Latty, a journalism professor at New York University, who claimed the absence of African-Americans in the film “reopened an old wound.”

However, such complaints have little merit, from either a historical or cinematic standpoint. If Mr. Lee bothered to watch Flags, he would find black Marines in a cutaway shot early in the film, and in a historical photograph that appears during the closing credits. Saying there are no African-Americans in the film is simply incorrect.

So, why aren’t blacks featured more prominently in the film? According to Professor Latty (and USMC records), a total of 700 African-American Marines served on Iwo Jima during the battle. But her opinion piece omits an important point, those black Marines represented less than one percent of the 80,000 who fought to take the island from the Japanese.

And, because of segregation, they were delegated to support roles. Most of the African-Americans on Iwo Jima were assigned to the 8th Ammunition Company and the 36th Depot Company, which landed on D-Day and handled the vital tasks of moving equipment and cargo ashore.

It was dangerous work; author James Bradley, whose book inspired Eastwood’s first film, writes of ammunition handlers who were “fused to the fireball” when Japanese shells struck their cargo on the beach. Mr. Bradley doesn’t list the race of those who died in that horrible moment, but based on the historical accounts, they were likely members of the ammunition or depot companies.

Though considered support troops, the black Marines who served on Iwo Jima did see combat from time to time. As Corps historian Colonel Joseph Alexander writes:

When Japanese counterattacks penetrated to the beach areas, these Marines dropped their cargo, unslung their carbines, and engaged in well-disciplined fire and maneuver, inflicting more casualties than they sustained. Two Marines, Privates James W. Whitlock and James Davis, received the Bronze Star. Said Colonel Leland S. Swindler, commanding the VAC Shore Party, the entire body of black Marines "conducted themselves with marked coolness and courage."

While the shore party performed valiantly, their actions were far-removed from the 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines—the unit that raised the flag on Iwo Jima and became the basis for Bradley’s book and Mr. Eastwood’s first film. The battalion and its subordinate companies were all white—another product of the segregated Marine Corps of World War II.

To film an accurate account of the flag-raisers (and their actions), Eastwood had to use a script (and cast) that reflected the military realities of 1945, not the p.c. sensibilities of the 21st century. There is nothing racist or inaccurate in doing that.

In other words, Ms. Letty and Mr. Lee ought to know better. But they apparently have their own agendas, whether it’s touting a book (in the case of the NYU professor), or Mr. Lee hyping his next film. And, we’ll give the director credit for putting his talent where his mouth is. The role of African-Americans in World War II has been largely ignored by Hollywood, and there are plenty of good stories that have never been told (the 761st Tank Battalion, which fought with Patton’s Third Army comes to mind).

But putting historical events on the big screen requires accuracy to fact and detail—no matter how uncomfortable that might be. With his Iwo series, Mr. Eastwood produced films that accurately reflected the battle and its participants, though portions of Letters is much more speculative than Flags of Our Fathers. For being true to his subjects (and the record of history), Clint Eastwood deserves praise, not condemnation.

We’re not sure how long Spike Lee will continue his tirade against his fellow director. But, we wish the entertainment press in Cannes—the same “journalists” who so eagerly reported his criticism—would ask Mr. Lee a simple question:

How was Mr. Eastwood supposed to put more black actors in Letters? That film was devoted to the Japanese defenders of the island. Their opponent—U.S. Marines—made only token appearances in the movie. To our knowledge, no Americans (black or white) were part of General Kuribayashi’s garrison. Perhaps Mr. Lee can solve this problem by remaking the Sands of Iwo Jima, with a multi-cultural flag-raising and an ethnically diverse Japanese Army.


Dan said...

Uh, but what about Eastwood & Morgan Freeman in Unforgiven?

George Smiley said...

Dan--Apparently that doesn't count (at least in Spike Lee's universe). Same thing for "Million Dollar Baby," another Eastwood-Freeman collaboration. I'm still waiting for Lee to call Mr. Freeman an "Uncle Tom" for appearing in two Eastwood productions.

Reading various accounts of Eastwood's career as a film maker, certain trends emerge. First, he knows exactly what he wants, and he only works with people who can deliver, regardless of their politics. He's worked with plenty of libs (Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and yes, Morgan Freeman) and all have been profuse in praising him as a director.

Noticeably absent from the list of collaborators is Spike Lee. I'm guessing that Clint never though much of his abilities (or his art) even before the Iwo Jima flap. I also suspect that Lee--a film school grad--is more than a little jealous of Eastwood's two Oscars for Best Director. In Spike Lee's universe, someone who learned direction on film sets (from such masters as Don Siegel and Sergio Leone) should never be considered a better director than an auteur like himself.

stackja1945 said...

Allan Dwan in the Sands of Iwo Jima in 1949 told the story now on DVD.

niccolom said...

I seem to remember people saying the same thing about "Saving Pvt Ryan." In Europe, as with the Pacific Theatre, blacks were regulated to support units. The only exceptions were the armoured unit mentioned above and if my memory serves me, an infantry unit that served in Italy.

Charles said...

Million Dollar Baby? Unforgiven? What does that have to do with the question or WWII? You can make any movie you like but you should be prepared for criticism. Stop twisting things. If you are going to do an accurate protrayal show blacks in the small dangerous roles that they played. hahaha

Bdsista said...

These comments really insult men like my Father who served in WWII and in Korea. My grandfather died loading munitions in an explosion during WWII. I don't think having seen both Eastwood films and Saving Private Ryan that with the cast of THOUSANDS, that it would have been too difficult to feature shots of African Americans doing the work they did to serve. But as an educator, it is extremely problematic to me to omit the contributions of persons present at a conflict when you can include them and present the full picture. Eastwood could have shown in the long movie that is was, a 3-5 minute scene showing Black troops unloading munitions and then firing upon the Japanese. His excuse was poor, and dishonored those who served. Does it matter that less than 1% of Black were at Iwo Jima? Do the deaths of our Veterans matter? Eastwood could have done his homework and made all of us proud, but he sinned by omission and instead of being a man about it he wants to whine about Spike Lee calling him on it. Spike wasn't the only one, the Black Veterans from Iwo Jima also commented on their being excluded. Having lived through the horror of WWII and Jim Crow and discrimination, can we now give these remaining old honorable Veterans their due? Let us not be so selfish. Let us set better examples for our children.