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Make Their Day?

Spike Lee versus Clint Eastwood

Jun. 25, 2008
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I am an unabashed admirer of Spike Lee movies, especially Do the Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992). His achievements as a director are among the most notable of the last 20 years.

  Thus, I took to heart Lee’s recent criticism of Clint Eastwood for failing to use black actors in Flags of OurFathers and its companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima (both 2006). In fact, some 900 blacks participated in this bloody World War II battle, including my late uncle, Lonnie Brake, a U.S. Marine from Milwaukee.

  On the whole, though, Eastwood has an admirable record in employing blacks for juicy roles in the 26 movies he’s directed or produced since 1971. In my view, Lee was off base in giving the impression that Eastwood’s body of work is racist. That is simply not the case. Lee was correct, however, in pointing out that Eastwood’s omission in Flags of Our Fathers only reinforces the idea that black contributions to America’s struggle in World War II were minimal.

  According to Lee, in Eastwood’s telling of Iwo Jima, “The Negro soldier did not exist. … It’s not like he could say he didn’t know. It was a conscious decision not to have any black people. … It’s just that there’s not one black in either film. And because I know my history, that’s why I made that observation.”

  Responded Eastwood: “A guy like him should shut his face. Has he ever studied history?” Eastwood said he was well aware that there was a small detachment of black troops on Iwo Jima, “but they didn’t raise the flag.

  “The story is [about] the famous flag-raising picture, and they didn’t do that,” he continues. “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 countered: “The man is not my father and we’re not on a plantation… Come on, Clint, come on. He sounds like an angry old man there.” Then he suggested that Flags ofOur Fathers be rewritten to feature a black character.

  This was not the first time Lee has complained about the storied actor-director. In 1987, he griped about the fact that Eastwood directed Bird, the searing, true-life flick about saxophonist Charlie Parker. Lee apparently felt the story needed a black director.

  “Why would a white guy be doing that?” Eastwood asked rhetorically. “I was the only guy who made it, that’s why. He [Lee] could have gone ahead and made it. Instead he was making something else. When I do a picture and it’s 90% black, like Bird, I use 90% black people.”

Ethnic Casting

  Eastwood has cast many talented black actors in his films, including Scatman Crothers, Laurence Fishburne, Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Albert Popwell, Mario Van Peebles, Courtney B. Vance, Isaiah Washington and Forest Whittaker, in such films as PlayMisty For Me (1971), Sudden Impact (1983), Heartbreak Ridge (1986), Bird (1988), Unforgiven (1992), Space Cowboys (2000), Mystic River (2003) and Million DollarBaby (2004).

  Ironically, Lee, who has directed some 20 movies, came under racial fire himself in 1999 in the wake of his Summer of Sam, the chilling tale of the Son of Sam murders in New York in 1977. But most of the hits were ill-advised and beyond the pale. For example, family members of some of the youthful victims of the killer, David Berkowitz, were upset with Lee about his characterizations in the film. Included was Mike Lauria, whose daughter, Donna, was Berkowitz’s first victim.

  And some Italians took Lee to task for so-called “insensitive” portrayals of this ethnic group. This, despite the fact that Lee employed two Italian-American screenwriters—Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli—to make sure what was presented on screen was on target for that era in New York (mid-1970s).

  Not only that, Lee was beaten-up big time by Bill O’Reilly during a 1999 appearance with Colicchio and Imperioli on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor.” In the surly host’s strongly stated view, Summer of Sam had no redeeming features.

  Bottom line: No matter who makes Hollywood “message” movies, their accuracy and relevance is always open to debate. And like beauty, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.


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