According to Clint Eastwood, there were indeed a few black people there in Iwo Jima, but they didn’t raise the flag (which is apparently the film’s focus). He then goes on to say that he made the film based on “… the way [he] read[s] it historically, and that’s the way it is”. Well, Mr Eastwood, that’s precisely the point Spike Lee was making – maybe how you see it isn’t actually how it is.
Spike Lee’s comments are not about tokenism, nor about equal opportunities. This is about the role of movie makers in documenting historical truth, not just ‘as they see it’ but as it actually is/was. In writing black soldiers out of war movies, film makers such as Clint Eastwood are actually re-creating their own – inaccurate and distorted – version of history and passing it off as fact.
Mr Eastwood is not the only war film maker to write history from his own perspective, a perspective which does not include any people of colour. Black soldiers appear in very few Western war TV series or films despite the fact that they fought on the front lines for Western countries in sizeable numbers.
Do you know that at least 16,000 black people from the Caribbean fought for Britain in World War I and at least another 10,000 fought for Britain in World War II? In America, close to 200,000 African-American soldiers fought in the Civil War. You probably don’t. And why not? Because those people are the missing black people – rarely spoken about, and rarely depicted in TV or film – which happens to be one of our most prominent mediums for the reenactment of history. Why is their presence not deemed important enough to be included? Not just in Eastwood’s film, but in any war film? Why should Spike Lee be accused of playing the ‘race card’ just because he is pointing out that films about war without black soldiers are factually inaccurate?
Clint Eastwood’s response to Spike Lee was not suprising. It is hard for people who are in a dominant position in society to look outside of that dominant viewpoint and see that their view may not be representative of the entire picture. However, a person of colour drawing attention to that fact is accused of seeing everything along racial lines, therefore having their argument reduced to being the view of someone who thinks only in terms of black and white.
Considering how much emphasis is put on war heroes and commemorating the lives of those who died for their countries, it really is sad that the lives of black soldiers who fought and died for countries that they were not even from seem not to be worth remembering.
This Eastwood/Lee argument is actually about much more than Eastwood’s film. It’s about the role of the mainstream media in general in story-telling – or story re-creation. People question the role of black-orientated media, such as black news sites or black magazines because they cannot see how skewed mainstream media is towards representing one, dominant point of view, that is believed to be all-inclusive, but is in fact very one-sdied. Like in war films, black people and black stories are often hidden or missing from mainstream media stories (or presented negatively if they do appear). and OK folks, before you say it, let’s keep Obama out of this. He is one man!
African-Americans are often shocked to hear me – as a black person – speak with a strong English accent. Their shock is not simply a matter of ignorance, it’s also because they see very few, if any, black British people on TV or in films that come out of England. Yes, over the years there have been some black musicians who have come to the fore, but in the visual medium, in the main we are hidden. I remember many black Brits asking why the film Notting Hill had no black people in it, when Notting Hill is an area of London is well known for its large number of black residents. Some people would say – well, black people in Britain only make up 10% of the population.. just as Clint Eastwood said that there was only a small detachment of black soldiers in Iwo Jima at the time in which his film is set. But so what?! Small numbers does not mean that those people are not relevant or were not there at all.
This is why I am a big advocate of black media. It is necessary, in order for the past and the present to be an accurate representation of life. Can the Clint Eastwoods of this world be expected to represent anything other than his world view? It may be that a small number of black people in a war film is not really important or worth putting documenting to him. This doesnt make him a racist, it just means that he has one way of seeing the world. However, to black people like Spike Lee and myself, the stories and lives of black soldiers are just as important as everyone else’s and deserve to be part of the documentation of war. Hell, we deserve to be part of the documentation of mainstream life, as it is today!