In this "post-racial" world this latest dust-up between Clint Eastwood and Spike Lee seems decidedly old-fashioned. I cringed when I read about it and sincerely hope that the next big fight between a legendary but crotchety old white guy and a brash younger black guy remains much more civil.
In the Eastwood-Lee feud Lee clearly has historical accuracy on his side. In establishing scenes on Iwo Jima with hundreds of extras Eastwood whitewashed the black soldiers unloading munitions on the beach. Along with telling Lee to "shut his face," Eastwood went on mischaracterize Lee's complaint. "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."
Lee responded: "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," he said. "For him to insinuate that I'm rewriting history and have one of the four guys with the flag be black ... no one said that. It's just that there's not one black in either film. And because I know my history, that's why I made that observation."
What is typical in this discourse is the white accused of racism not fully understanding the relative subtlety of the black complaint. Full understanding wasn't helped by the fact that the criticism came from Spike Lee, famous for his unvarnished talk. What Clint is missing here is that Spike has mellowed considerably as he's grown into one of the most interesting filmmakers working today (along with Mr. Eastwood). Yes, Spike was young and wrong when he complained about Eastwood tackling Charlie Parker in "Bird," but that was back in 1988.
Eastwood needs to understand that Obama's breakthrough is about the future but there is still a lot of past out there where we have not yet gotten our due. It was not until a film I worked on, The Tuskegee Airmen, came out on HBO that these exceptional black pilots entered American popular culture.
Trey Ellis is the author of Bedtime Stories: Adventures in the Land of Single-Fatherhood.