Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Clint, Spike, and the Iwo Jima Whitewash

Now that Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood have stopped shooting off accusations and insults at each other, and the feud between these well-honored and respected Hollywood directors has left the gossip blogs and celebrity cable shows, The Ethics Scoreboard can coolly and calmly examine the ethics issue they were really debating. It was this: did Eastwood have any obligation to show black American soldiers in his two films about the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II?

Lee was quoted as complaining, “He did two films about Iwo Jima back to back and there was not one black soldier in both of those films. 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.”

Eastwood’s retort, after all the nastiness is filtered out, amounted to saying that the African-American soldiers were not relevant to the stories the two films were telling. One, “Flags of Our Fathers,” focused on the four soldiers who raised the flag over the island in the war’s most famous image, and none of them were black. The other looked at the battle from the Japanese perspective, and was mostly in Japanese. It would not have been accurate, Eastwood said, to show black soldiers in combat.

As usual, what seems like one straightforward ethics question is really several murky ones. Lee’s complaint itself can have several interpretations. Is he saying that…

  • …Eastwood distorted the historical record by not showing black soldiers in combat? Well, it depends how you look at it. There were many non-combat African-American troops assigned to carry ammunition, but they were pressed into combat when the furious fighting began. This itself is a fascinating story, and one that was chronicled in Yvonne Latty’s 2004 book, “We Were There: Voices of African-American Veterans.” But that wasn’t the book that spawned Eastwood’s script, and it wasn’t the story he set out to tell. Spike Lee has no business telling Clint Eastwood that he needs to make a movie that addresses the lack of proper credit accorded to black American soldiers, any more than Eastwood should tell Lee to make more movies about the Swedish migration to Minnesota. If Eastwood had made a film that was a historical overview of the battle, Lee would be on more solid footing. But Eastwood’s film was focused much more narrowly.

  • …Eastwood, knowing that the role of African-Americans in W.W.II has been neglected by Hollywood, was obligated to do his part to correct the cinematic record? This complaint is at the fault line between affirmatively doing wrong and not going out of one’s way to do something good. It would have been thoughtful, admirable, bold, and many other fine things if Clint Eastwood had decided to use some of the footage in his film to show the little-heralded combat contributions of blacks in the battle of Iwo Jima. That does not mean that it was wrong for him not to do this. It was, at worst, ethically neutral. Eastwood, like Lee, is an artist, and has a right to tell his story his way, as long as it does not harm others. He did not, unlike Oliver Stone in his despicable film “JFK,” intentionally misrepresent and manufacture historical facts, leaving audience members deceived and confused. He told the story he wanted to tell, the way he wanted to tell it, without grafting on any one else’s historical or political agenda. Does that mean that the historical neglect of the black G.I. in W.W.II movies isn’t high on Clint’s priority list? Probably. But it is not wrong for him not to share Spike Lee’s priorities.

  • …Eastwood had an obligation to give black actors jobs in his film? This is the non-traditional casting argument, that even if it was strictly accurate to show only white American soldiers in the Iwo Jima films, filmmakers have an obligation to hire minority actors, even if they will make a film historically inaccurate. George Clooney, in his recent movie “Leatherheads,” made Lee happy by casting black actors as W.W. I doughboys. But Clooney’s film was a romantic comedy, not a historical drama. There is artistic and historical integrity, and there is affirmative action. Sometimes, a film maker can balance them, as Clooney did. Sometimes he cannot, or simply chooses not to try. Affirmative action at the expense of an artistic vision is not any artist’s ethical obligation. If Lee was suggesting otherwise, the answer to him is simple: go make your own W.W. II movie, Spike!

And, ultimately, that is the ethical verdict on the entire controversy. During the height of the insult volley between Eastwood and Lee, the media was full of laments by veterans like Thomas McPhatter, a black man who was indeed involved in combat in Iwo Jima. He feels the contributions of men like him have been largely ignored in historical accounts, and he is right. He was stung that the two Clint Eastwood films made no effort to correct the record, and his disappointment is both understandable and reasonable. Of course he feels that way. He and the other black veterans have been wronged. And it would have been a good thing, a kind thing, if Eastwood had devoted a few seconds of his film to the exploits of black soldiers in the battle, as Michael Bay did in his film “Pearl Harbor,” showing the documented heroism of a black Navy cook who manned an anti-aircraft gun in the heat of the bombing. But he had no obligation to do so.

Nobody has an ethical obligation to adopt someone else’s cause, regardless of how noble and important it may be. Make your own movie about African-American soldiers in World War II, Spike. Don’t tell Clint Eastwood how to make his.

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