Missing Black People In The Media

When Spike Lee asked why Clint Eastwood’s movie Flags Of Our Fathers had no black people in it, Clint Eastwood responded with anger saying that ‘a guy like him should shut his face’.

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!


10 thoughts on “Missing Black People In The Media

  1. I hear your arguments but are you not missing out a fundamental point here. This movie was specifically about the experiences of the 6 white and one native american that raised the flag. What is it that Eastwood is supposed to rewrite? If it was a movie looking at the overall assault on Iwo Jima then yes were there no black actors then it would be unrepresentative because there was a supply division that was black. But in this case Lee is picking on the wrong movie. It is factually accurate nothing more nothing less. Just what is it that Eastwood is supposed to do? How can he write in black actors into a story where there are no black protagonists?

    And the reason is because of the segregation that existed in the US army until the Korean war. 99% of war stories pre 1950 are going to have a predominant colour because (for all the things that are wrong with it that we now thankfully understand) these are just the facts of how it was then.

    Or an alternative view. Are we saying that because there are no black protagonists in the story of the flag on iwo jima (which produced one of the most iconic photographs of world war two) the story should not be told?

    To gauge Eastwood fairly on his “racist” attitudes I might suggest you check out the “Bird” his tribute to Charlie Parker. For a man who according to Spike Lee is a racist this is a touching tribute to Charlie Parker with a shockingly large number of black actors. I was shocked at the tokenism.

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  3. “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.”

    There are so many things with this part of your analysis. For one thing, Eastwood is not in any more of a “dominant” position than Spike Lee. Both are independents and have made their directing careers as such, both famous on their own right. Furthermore, while I like Clint Eastwood as a director, Spike Lee is the more academically studied of both (as in film schools, arts, critical studies, etc), recognizable as an iconoclast, so in that sense I would say he is, if anything, Spike Lee is the “dominant” one. Your statement, while trying to criticize an assumed inequality, is in fact creating one by default.

    You also miss the fact that this was done by one director (Spike Lee) while promoting his own war film. While you will read many comments around that claim he may have done this to get some press for his film (which I can’t wait to see), I personally think it says volumes about arrogance from Spike Lee’s side: It was in poor tasteand unnecessary. But what really made it bad for him was what the prior commenter mentioned: The historical facts in this case are in Eastwood’s side, thus amplifying the negative effect.

  4. @Mighty 7 – I would disagree with you…Regardless of how learned or iconoclastic Spike Lee is in the film world, in wider terms, as a black person his viewpoint – and that of other black or minority people – is not the dominant viewpoint that is represented in media or society. That viewpoint tends to be a white, western European one.

    Let me give you an example – some of my white friends ask me why I read black women’s magazines. I tell them that many women’s magazines are written for white people. They say that I’m looking for race issues where none exist. I then point out to them that, as an example, pretty much every hair and beauty page is addressed – although it is not said – at white women and i know this because they talk about things like skin going red in the sun and freckles and about long, straight hair – i.e. things that black women do not have. Now, why should those magazines address black women when they are mainstream publications? They should address the dominant majority, right?. The funny thing is, that the people reading the magazine, who tend to be white, do not realize that that magazine is written for them or that as a black woman there can be quite glaringly obvious things that do not pertain to me. That’s because when you are in a majority position, you do not read life from a minority perspective.

    Now, in terms of education and how I’ve been brought up, there is nothing vaguely un-mainstream or minority about me. I’ve had a better education that many white people, for example. However, that does not mean that I see people like me or things that speak to me in every day life. And I think Spike Lee was pointing at that in this case.

    Now, whether or not a black person was involved in the flag raising scenario is a matter for debaate because an African-American marine – Thomas McPhatter – who was actually there at the time claims that an AFrican-American man provided the pole (although he did not actually raise the flag). Furthermore, there were also African-American soldiers in Iwo Jima and they were not documented Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima either.

    To be honest, this debate is about much more than Spike Lee v Clint Eastwood for me. I think Spike is making a very important point and pointing to something deeper here, which is a general erasing of black people from some types of historical documentation, particularly war documentation.

    @Phil – Indeed you are right that there was segregation in the US army. I don’t agree with your point though. Segregation does not mean that hundreds of thousands of black people did not fight on the front line. They did. They may have received inferior pay and inferior living conditions but when it came to fighting and dying with the white soldiers, they were definitely equal!! I cannot see why a film being made now, even if documenting something pre 1950, would not include those people?

    Of course Eastwood or anyone else should tell the story. This is not an either/or proposition – it’s about accuracy. That – to be honest – is all that Spike Lee has actually asked about. He has simply asked that if there were black people there why were they not shown? I think that is a perfectly valid point.

    It makes me laugh as well that anyone could say that if Spike Lee thinks Eastwood is racist,he should check out his Charlier Parker film. I don’t see what the two have to do with each other. It’s like saying someone cannot be racist because they have 1 black friend. Come on now! To be honest, I don’t think anyone is saying that Eastwood is racist anyway. The point made by Spike Lee is that black people were taken out of the story and the question he asked is why. That’s really it. Now, Phil, what do you mean that there were a ‘shockingly large number of black actors’? Just seems like a strange thing to say…and why would it be tokenism. Jazz at that time was a predominantly black domain and played by predominantly black people.

  5. Like most disputes in the media, Clint and Spike seem to be arguing two separate points. The challenge with racial disputes is that most racism/ prejudice is subconscious. For example, if a Black person makes a charge against a White person on racial lines, the White person takes offense because they feel like they are being called a flagrant racist. In reality, the White person may just be exhibiting a behavior that is normative in the greater culture, and is therefore unexamined and unintentional. Similarly, with gender, men are not used to being called out for chauvinism. It is normative for men to be somewhat sexist, and when called on it, some may become defensive. Nevertheless, acknowledging this misunderstanding does not let Clint off the hook, but he is certainly not alone.

    I think I believe what I just wrote, but it could be b.s.


  6. Pingback: Blacks In War Movies - Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna » BlackPerspective.net

  7. Have you seen Unforgiven? Clint directed and starred in it and cast his friend Morgan Freeman as his supporting actor. It’s a western. Spikes argument is stupid. The reason there are no Blacks in Flags of Our Fathers is because there are no Blacks in it. That’s all. It’s that simple. No racist conspiracy here.

  8. Spike Lee should indeed shut his mouth. He’s the kind of person that just wants to complain about anything. Go ahead, complain about every other person on the face of the earth you disgree with.

    What a whiner, just like Rev Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.


  9. Spike lee has a big point, when black people point out the racist under tones of are white brothers they get upset,the truth hurts and u have the history that backs lee’s claims.

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