Flags of Whose Fathers?

There’s a dust-up between two Hollywood directors that reveals some of the white racial frame in operation in American history and in popular culture representations of that history. Spike Lee observed at the Cannes Film Festival recently that there aren’t enough black actors in war films (photo credit: Babelgum). Lee said:

“Clint Eastwood made two films about Iwo Jima that ran for more than four hours total, and there was not one Negro actor on the screen… There’s no way I know why he did that. That was his vision, not mine. But I know it was pointed out to him and that he could have changed it. It’s not like he didn’t know.”

Clint Eastwood’s two recent films about Iwo Jima, “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “Flags of Our Fathers,” focus on the battle of Iwo Jima and the iconic flag-raising that happened on the American side of that battle. While lots of bloggers and pundits are quick to point out that Eastwood’s “Letters..” was told from a Japanese perspective on the battle and “and I’m pretty sure that they, at least, didn’t have a lot of black soldiers,” so obviously, Spike Lee is just a “controversy hog.” Hogwash. Spike Lee makes an insightful, valid point about how the white racial frame operates in Hollywood. Eastwood’s response was telling:

“Has he ever studied the history? They [African-American soldiers] didn’t raise the flag. The story is Flags of Our Fathers, the famous flag-raising picture, and they didn’t do that. If I go ahead and put an African-American actor in there, people’d go ‘This guy’s lost his mind.’ I mean, it’s not accurate. A guy like him should shut his face.”

This is a sort of classic response by an elite, white man who can only see history through a white racial lens that obscures the reality of African American soldiers’ contribution. The fact that Eastwood chooses to tell this particular story – the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima – is a response to the white perspective on which stories are honorable, valuable and worth telling (photo credit: Wild About Movies). Eastwood chooses to re-tell a story that is primarily about whiteness. (Indeed, the one character that is not white, played by Adam Beach, is a Native American soldier who is a tragic figure that is the personification of the stereotype of a “drunk Indian,” further valorizing the white soldiers who are his comrades.) The challenge that Spike Lee is putting to Clint Eastwood here is really: flags of whose fathers? It’s so beyond Eastwood’s grasp that African Americans might have been involved in a story-worth-telling strikes him as inconceivable and he becomes nearly hysterical in his response. In a rhetorical (white) power move Eastwood – perhaps drawing on his “Dirty Harry” persona – tells Lee to “shut his face.” One can only speculate on what Eastwood meant by his use of the phrase, “a guy like him.”

Being told off by white people is not new for Spike Lee one suspects, so he responded to Eastwood’s comments. In an interview with ABC News, Spike Lee said:

“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. The thing about it though, I didn’t personally attack him. And a comment like ‘a guy like that should shut his face’ — come on Clint, come on. He sounds like an angry old man right there.”

This line is really the key to this controversy, and to the white racial frame, it seems to me: “He makes his films, I make my films.” Every cultural product – whether it is a film, a book, a photograph or a poem – has an author that shapes that product. The difference in our culture is that Spike Lee’s films get widely interpreted as “black films” or “African American cinema,” whereas Clint Eastwood’s films are simply “American,” or “mainstream.” And, Eastwood gets a total pass on that by the press, by cultural critics, and by other filmmakers. You know, until Spike Lee spoke up. Spike’s on solid ground when he makes this proposal to Clint:

“If he wishes, I could assemble African-American men who fought at Iwo Jima and I’d like him to tell these guys that what they did was insignificant and they did not exist,” he said. “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 World War II.”

I hope that Eastwood takes Lee up on his offer. It’s time that white Hollywood directors (and producers) move beyond the white racial frame and start creating media that more accurately reflects the tremendous diversity that is the most interesting part of American culture.


  1. Joe

    Yeah, not surprising. Eastwood is an old Republican ideologue, and now McCain supporter. The Republican party has been the "white man’s party" since the 1960s now.

  2. Jessie Author

    Yeah, the bit about Clint Eastwood isn’t surprising, but I thought it was a *little* surprising – and delightful – that Spike Lee called him out so publicly. It’s not going to go well for Spike Lee from here, I suspect. The conservative pundits and bloggers are already piling on.

  3. Joe

    Yes, Spike Lee’s work will become much harder now, and he may eventually be excluded from key white connections for speaking out against racism. It happens with most Black entertainment industry folks, when they speak, they go under slowly.

  4. bev

    here’s an interesting link re: the feud that has a quote from a black marine sergeant who fought in the iwo jima.


    to quote from the link:

    “Lee accused Eastwood of ignoring other critics who picked up on the absence of black soldiers when Flags of Our Fathers premiered.

    Thomas McPhatter, a US marines sergeant who crawled up the landing beach under a hail of Japanese fire, was one of hundreds of black servicemen involved in the attack.

    He said: ‘Of all the movies that have been made of Iwo Jima, you never see a black face. This is the last straw. I feel like I’ve been denied, I’ve been insulted, I’ve been mistreated. But what can you do? We still have a strong underlying force in my country of rabid racism.’

    Lee pounced on Eastwood’s derision of the idea that a token black American should have been included in the famous scene, where the Stars and Stripes, on a makeshift pole, is hoisted aloft on the island.

    He said: ‘I never said he should show one of the other guys holding up the flag as black. I said that African-Americans played a significant part in Iwo Jima.'”

  5. Jessie Author

    That’s a great quote, Bev ~ thanks for dropping that link. Yes, there is a ‘strong underlying force’ of ‘rabid racism’ in this country. Eloquently said.

  6. Joe

    Yeah, I just got a long handwritten letter from a black Marine, college educated, late 40s, and he has gone through hell in a northern state trying to find a permanent job. He recounts one incident of discrimination after another. Black service men who often end up poor, and poor men of color generally, often seem to be the most forgotten in this sick country. And the white conservative types mock Obama for his principled stand on phony flag pin wearing and keep telling us they are the patriots! Many of them could care less about our soldiers, especially of color.

  7. Wes

    Hello everyone:

    Wasn’t World War II another well planned and orchestrated atrocity that changed international boundaries, increased the West’s hegemony, killed millions of souls and reaped incredible fortunes for war profiteers?

    And didn’t similar if not exact barbarities also play out in Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan.. just to name a few other places?

    Isn’t “WAR” almost always a racket where cunning rich men devise fables for the dividing and conquering of the people … deeming them gullible (patriots) while liberating (stealing) their real estate, freedom and money?

    So, why do men permit diversionary tactics (as in, what group wasn’t accurately represented in a movie paying homage to an inhuman and evil war that shouldn’t have occurred in the first place) How noble is it really to be remembered for raising the flag of a sick nation on foreign soil intent on sacrificing lives and spilling blood..for what? Freedom?? Are the people today truly free? Why do people side-step the bigger question re: why men allow themselves to be manipulated into killing each other, how to stop it, and how stop the sociopaths (racist-white supremacists) that desire to annihilate us all?


  1. Spike Lee to Clint Eastwood on knowing history « don’t do that

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