Spike Lee has a new feature movie in the works.
Miracle at St. Anna is Lee’s epic offering that chronicles the little-known story of the all-black 92nd Buffalo Division, which did battle in Italy against opposing Nazi troops.
Last month, at the Cannes Film Festival, Lee took the opportunity to debut the eight-minute trailer for his film while also leveling staunch criticism of director Clint Eastwood’s decision not to show black soldiers in either of his most recent World War II-inspired films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.
As Lee pointed out during a press conference at the French coastal film Mecca, “There were many African-Americans who survived that war and who were upset at Clint for not having one [in the films]. That was his version: the Negro soldier did not exist. I have a different version.”
Lee, never the one to elude controversy or bite his tongue, has a factual foundation for his critique of Eastwood’s depiction of colorless combat. But as a veteran of the American film industry, he should know better. Our stories are almost exclusively told by our storytellers.
The truth is, almost 900 African-American troops took part in the Pacific battle on the island of Iwo Jima. Hundreds of them were there from the very first day of the 35-day military campaign, with most of the black Marine units assigned to ammunition and supply details.
Like many of the battles in the Second World War, chaotic landings and the unanticipated resistance of Japanese troops forced the black regimens to take up arms and fight for the very country that at the time viewed and treated them like second-class citizens.
According to Dr. Melton McLaurin, author of the soon-to-be-published The Marines of Montford Point, “One of the [Black] Marines I interviewed said that the people who were filming newsreel footage on Iwo Jima deliberately turned their cameras away when black folks came by.”
Despite this attempt to shroud the contributions of black servicemen at Iwo Jima, the information is there for any screenwriter or filmmaker conscientious enough to tell the whole story. Unfortunately, conscience is not an attribute usually associated with Hollywood.
Memorializing history is an exercise often based on perspective, and to expect white directors and filmmakers to be diligent in their representations of African- Americans is unrealistic at best, next to impossible at worst.
Just as it took Alex Haley to show the generational ramifications of slavery in Roots, Bill Cosby to show the reality of black professional, nuclear families in The Cosby Show and
Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington to chronicle the intellectual prowess of the Wiley College debate team in The Great Debaters; we need more of our storytellers to tell our stories.
Before indicting Eastwood or insinuating that his omissions of black troops was somehow racially insensitive, keep in mind that he directed the Academy Award-winning Bird, the biopic about the mysterious and unconventional jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. Until Eastwood got involved, the movie had been continuously delayed and postponed, but ultimately the film was made and Forrest Whitaker went on to win the best actor award at, ironically enough, the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.
As far as his war epics go, however, Clint did not do the right thing or the wrong thing; he did what most filmmakers do: told the story from his perspective.
You do the right thing Spike, and just keep on telling our stories.