Of Race and Historical Dramas

by Latoya Peterson

When events in history are adapted for the silver screen, how accurate do we expect them to be? And what version of history does that present?

Clint Eastwood and Spike Lee have apparently gotten into a tiff about the historical accuracy in Eastwood’s films. New York Magazine’s Vulture blog summarizes:

At Cannes a few weeks ago, Lee blasted Eastwood for not including any black actors in his duo of World War II movies, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. “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. “If you reporters had any balls you’d ask him why. There’s no way I know why he did that — that was his vision, not mine. But I know it was pointed out to him and that he could have changed it. It’s not like he didn’t know.”

Today Eastwood fires back in an interview with the Guardian, in which the director snaps, “A guy like him should shut his face.” He defends his movies by noting that no black soldiers were among the ones who raised the flag at Iwo Jima, which is true, but not exactly the point — Lee wasn’t demanding that Eastwood change a real-life person’s race. Those movies had plenty of soldiers in them, not all of whom were based on actual people (say, Marines 1–4 in Letters From Iwo Jima) — couldn’t one or two of them have been played by black actors?

The actual Guardian article alluded to in the blog post clarifies Eastwood’s position a bit more:

“Has he ever studied the history?” he asks, in that familiar near-whisper.

The “he” is Spike Lee, and the reason Eastwood is asking is because of something Lee had said about Eastwood’s Iwo Jima movie Flags of Our Fathers, while promoting his own war movie, Miracle at St Anna, about a black US unit in the second world war. Lee had noted the lack of African-Americans in Eastwood’s movie and told reporters: “That was his version. The negro version did not exist.”

Eastwood has no time for Lee’s gripes. “He was complaining when I did Bird [the 1988 biopic of Charlie Parker]. Why would a white guy be doing that? I was the only guy who made it, that’s why. He could have gone ahead and made it. Instead he was making something else.” As for Flags of Our Fathers, he says, yes, there was a small detachment of black troops on Iwo Jima as a part of a munitions 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.”

Lee shouldn’t be demanding African-Americans in Eastwood’s next picture, either. Changeling is set in Los Angeles during the Depression, before the city’s make-up was changed by the large black influx. “What are you going to do, you gonna tell a fuckin’ story about that?” he growls. “Make it look like a commercial for an equal opportunity player? I’m not in that game. I’m playing it the way I read it historically, and that’s the way it is. When I do a picture and it’s 90% black, like Bird, I use 90% black people.”

Eastwood pauses, deliberately – once it would have provided him with the beat in which to spit out his cheroot before flinging back his poncho – and offers a last word of advice to the most influential black director in American movies. “A guy like him should shut his face.”

Well, well, Clint, tell us how you really feel.

I find both Eastwood and Lee’s comments fascinating as historical truth is a strange thing to discern. I can see Lee’s perspective clearly – non white people often find that their contributions to history are whitewashed, relegated to footnotes, or omitted completely. And to continue this view of history – after certain “facts” have been disproven, or new information has come to light about the role of people of color in certain conflicts – is a smack in the face.

Eastwood, from his quotes, appears to be both baffled and resentful that Lee is advocating for a more inclusive view of history because in his mind, research points to a certain set of white characters who were involved in this event – end of story. However, he is right on one count – the flag raisers at Iwo Jima were not black. (Eastwood did not provide a justification for the second movie set in the same period – that movie apparently focused on the lives of Japanese soliders.*)

Is Eastwood doing the best job with the information he has? Is the onus on white directors to provide a full version of history? Or is their main goal just to tell the story?

(Thanks to readers Joan and Marjannaa for the tips!)

*Edited to provide the correct information.