American film directors Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood in a more cordial moment during an event in February 2007.  (Photo: Jeff Vespa/WireImage)

When Harry Met Mookie

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

June 11, 2008

Call it the tale of the celluloid tape: In this corner (aka the West Coast of the U.S.) representing the state of California (and constituents as former mayor of Carmel), Clint Eastwood, 78, the current dean of American filmmakers.  In the other corner (aka the East Coast) representing the state of New York (and the students he teaches as a professor at New York University Film School), Spike Lee, 51, the most prolific American filmmaker of the last 20 years.

When they direct films both have been known to act in them on occasion, though they don't any longer.  Their most famous work in front of the camera were as the personas of Dirty Harry and Mookie, two distinctly different characters, one who shoots first and asks questions later (except for, "Do you feel lucky?  Well do ya punk?", asked right before dispensing "justice" with a bullet), the other who talks a lot, exhorts people to wake up!, reminds his onscreen (and real-life sister Joie) that "slavery days are over -- my name ain't Kunta Kinte," and sparks a neighborhood uprising by hurling a garbage can and a cry of one word: "hate!"

Speaking of that word, do Clint Eastwood and Spike Lee despise each other?  No. 

Lately however, both directors have openly sparred with each other over film representations of World War Two U.S. soldiers.  In 2006 Mr. Eastwood's companion films on WWII, "Flags Of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima" were released worldwide to great critical acclaim.  Last month at the 61st Cannes Film Festival Mr. Lee pointed out that not one black U.S. soldier appeared in either film, in a war, the Brooklyn director cited, in which many black soldiers fought for America.  Mr. Lee's cinematic rejoinder comes this September, almost two years after "Flags" was released, with Mr. Lee's epic World War Two drama "Miracle At St. Anna", about several U.S. soldiers in an all-black regiment caught behind enemy lines in Italy while fighting against the Axis powers of that country and the Nazis.

According to numerous published reports, while at Cannes last month Mr. Lee said that "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."  After further questions beyond a Cannes press conference were posed to Mr. Eastwood in an interview with The Guardian newspaper, the director from Oakland whose film "Changeling" was at Cannes and will open in November, said of "Flags Of Our Fathers" that "if I go ahead and put an African-American in there, people'd go, 'This guy's lost his mind.'  I mean, it's not accurate."  Mr. Eastwood is correct when he posits that the actual flag on Iwo Jima in Japan was raised by white soldiers, although black soldiers were in Iwo Jima serving in a munitions company, including a veteran named Thomas McPhatter, who in The Guardian on Monday said that he had provided the pipe for the pole that the flag was raised on.  Mr. Eastwood's statement rings true, especially to several New York firefighters.  In an unrelated corollary in December 2001, a group of white New York City firefighters were upset about a statue unveiled at the Fire Department of New York headquarters in Brooklyn which depicted a racially diverse trio of fire department staffers raising the American flag amidst the rubble in New York on September 11, 2001.  In fact, the three firemen who raised the flag on that fateful day were white.

In reference to Mr. Lee's criticisms, Mr. Eastwood said in The Guardian that "a guy like that should shut his face", which prompted the outspoken Mr. Lee to respond, "First of all, the man is not my father and we're not on a plantation either.  He's a great director.  He makes his films, I make my films . . . ".  Referring to the "shut his face" comment, Mr. Lee said, "Come on Clint, come on.  He sounds like an angry old man right there." 

The difference in both filmmakers' arguments is a matter of scope.  Mr. Eastwood's position revolves around the specific act of the American flag being raised in Iwo Jima.  The veteran director, who is working on his next film, entitled "The Human Factor", about post-apartheid South Africa, also cheekily quipped, "I'm not going to make Nelson Mandela a white guy."  Mr. Lee, who was arguing in a more broad context, made his response clear.  "For him to insinuate that I'm rewriting history and have one of the four guys be black . . . no one said that."

The feuding directors at Cannes last month.  (Photos: Getty Images)

While some in the mainstream media have made tabloid bait out of the Mr. Lee-Mr. Eastwood tete-a-tete, many have not analyzed the truth or falsity of what the filmmakers are arguing.  Mr. Lee makes his statements out of context and spirit when he says of Iwo Jima and Hollywood depictions of WWII that "I'm not making this up.  I know history.  I'm a student of history. And I know the history of Hollywood and its omission of the one million African-American men and women who contributed to the second world war.  Not everything was John Wayne, baby."  Indeed, no war movies about the last world war contain black soldiers (look at "Saving Private Ryan" and see if you see a black soldier there), and certainly not in major roles, and that is a fact.  To this point, only in Vietnam war films made by Hollywood have black soldiers been depicted ("Platoon", "Full Metal Jacket", etc.), although in the Civil War back in the 1800's "Glory" spotlighted the 54th Massachusetts all-black regiment, even if some had objections to Edward Zwick's story being told through the eyes of its white protagonist (Matthew Broderick), who played Robert Gould Shaw, whose letters the film was based on in part.  Mr. Lee's "Miracle" will be the first World War Two film that depicts black soldiers. 

Furthermore,  films like "Mississippi Burning", about the 1964 Mississippi murders of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, two Jewish and one black voter registrant, all from the northern U.S., completely rewrote history, giving the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- no friend to blacks during the turbulent period -- a heroic gloss. 

Similarly, in "Boys Don't Cry" an Oscar-winning film, is a moment in the film's violent climax completely omitted the presence of one of the boyfriend of significant character of a woman friend to Hilary Swank's character.  The boyfriend, who in actuality was black, was killed during the bloody real-life episode that Kimberly Peirce shoots in the film.  Yet his character is omitted from the director's film.  At the same time, films often take dramatic license, although there is alternately a fine line and huge difference between dramatic license and outright distortion.  Perhaps these lines and differences can be more easily understood if not digested when a film claims to be "inspired by a true story" instead of "based on a true story".  The latter requires a more careful adherence to the facts and to history.  For the record, Mr. Eastwood also directed Ms. Swank in "Million Dollar Baby" and has used black actors in a number of his films, including "Absolute Power", "True Crime", "Mystic River", "Unforgiven" and his very first feature film directing effort "Play Misty For Me", in 1971, among others.  Mr. Eastwood's consistent utilization of black actors however, does not balance out any historical inaccuracies that "Flags" and "Letters" may have in them regarding the lack of black soldiers. 

Surprisingly during this recent sparring match, Mr. Lee did not take Mr. Eastwood to task about his depiction of the late legendary jazz musician Charlie "Bird" Parker in Mr. Eastwood's "Bird", released 20 years ago.  The film, which Mr. Lee had some strong opinions about when it was initially released, showed Forest Whitaker's Parker as a drug-addled tragic figure, bathed in a lot of dark and ominous shades via Mr. Eastwood's lead character.  In real life Mr. Parker had his struggles with drugs but there was certainly much more to his life.  Some had relatable complaints about Michael Mann's "Ali", in which Will Smith played Muhammad Ali and was depicted more as a jive-talking, smart-mouthed womanizer than he was an articulate and astute political activist, American patriot and charismatic figure. 

Mr. Lee refers to history and Hollywood and its omissions of blacks, and there is no doubt that Elizabeth Taylor played the Egyptian leader Cleopatra back in the sixties, that Al Pacino played a Latino character in "Carlito's Way", that Anthony Hopkins played a black professor passing as white in "The Human Stain" and the other endless portrayals of whites in roles that were really played by blacks.  (Compare and note that Tom Cruise played a colonel who fought alongside the Japanese in the 2003 film "The Last Samurai", also directed by Edward Zwick.)  Similarly, because of the omission of blacks in many Hollywood films and the systemic racism in the industry that had kept blacks on the back burner in both minimal and demeaning roles right up until the 1960's, there has been a corrective.  Sidney Poitier smashed through these barriers in the sixties in "Lilies Of The Field", playing a worker who inspires and bonds with a group of white nuns.  The role, according to some reports, was originally written as a white character.  Mr. Poitier won the Oscar in 1964 for the film during the violence that ripped America apart at the seams, the first win of a Best Actor Academy Award by a black actor. 

Since the 1960's, thanks to a lot of lobbying and activism by Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte among others, many black actors have been able to play roles that were originally scripted for white actors.  Arguably the biggest beneficiaries of such lobbying have been Denzel Washington (who played Gray Grantham in "The Pelican Brief", a character who was white in John Grisham's novel) and Samuel L. Jackson, who has played characters who otherwise were originally scripted as white in a number of films.  Interestingly, Mr. Jackson will play a resentful and racially hostile neighbor in September in "Lakeview Terrace", a bigoted police officer who resents the married couple -- a black woman and white man (Kerry Washington and Patrick Wilson) -- who have moved in to the house next door to his in an exclusive Los Angeles suburb.

Taking everything into account, the sniping between Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood has actually been a good thing.  Honest open dialogue, even if it has been tinged with harsh or sharp language on both sides, is a good thing, not because it sells newspapers or ad space, but because it hopefully inspires more thought and further discussions about the issues raised.

And for that, we all feel lucky for the chance to wake up and think.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.

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