The Spike In The Eastwood
One of my all time favorite movies is Gladiator featuring Russell Crowe as the Spaniard General Maximus Decimus Meridius, the lead character in an entire cast of powerfully portrayed, well developed characters. The movie is a story about a crucial time in the development of the Roman Empire. With the defeat of the barbaric Germanians, Rome is ready for a new era that promises peace for the known world. The emperor is old and is ready to retire now that victory is complete. But before there can be a proper transition of power the emperor is assassinated by his son in a selfish grab for power. That’s all of the story line given away here. If you haven’t seen it already take a moment to go rent it. Or even if you have seen it, take a moment to appreciate it one more time.
Although the movie is a good story with good direction resulting in good performances from good actors with a good script replete with good dialog and a good score, one of the best things about this particular action drama is its depiction of ancient Rome as a racially diverse culture. The Rome of the Gladiator shows a society teeming with black people.
With very few exceptions, movies depict ancient Rome as a totally homogeneous Caucasian culture with extremely little to no racial diversity. Despite the reality of ancient roman artifacts that will occasionally illustrate coal black people, many of us have been programmed to think that ancient Rome knew nothing of black people. Even the people of ancient Egypt are more likely to be portrayed with obviously white actors like Charlton Heston or Yul Brynner rather than anybody of African ancestry. Through this subtle and racially exclusive Hollywood manipulation, many of us have learned to minimize to the point of elimination the African’s influence on the European cultures and vice versa. The movie Gladiator has done a lot to break through some of the racially biased interpretations of ancient Rome.
Earlier this year I was watching a program about the black soldiers who served in World War II and participated in the Normandy invasion. The United States government had a blatantly racist policy that did not allow black soldiers to serve with white soldiers or to even be trained as fighting soldiers. Black soldiers were usually permitted to serve as guards, kitchen help, transportation engineers (a fancy euphemism for delivery drivers), camp and battlefield janitors, medical orderlies, and other support roles for their white counterparts. Black soldiers did not eat with their white counterparts or were given the same food as the white soldiers. It was customary that black soldiers were given the food unfit for the white soldier’s consumption.
When the United States invaded Normandy, France, the German soldiers had a field day cutting down the American soldiers that stormed the beeches. While surviving soldiers continued to fight, overwhelming the defenses, and push the Germans back into the countryside, the black soldiers were employed to help cleanup the chaos left behind. Many of the people who were helping the wounded and transported supplies to the beech were the black soldiers. But look at any movie that depicts the D-Day invasion of Normandy and all you will see are white soldiers bravely putting their life at risks and cleaning up the mess left behind. The sacrifices and contributions of the black soldiers are not acknowledged, recognized, or even remembered.
On the program, one of the black soldiers that participated in the D-Day invasion was being interviewed. He was bitter about his experiences with the United States military. The old black soldier was asked why he did what he did. The old man replied that he was fighting for his country, the only country he knew, the only country he loved. But the only black soldiers in World War II that America know are Robert Jefferson played by Jim Brown in the movie the Dirty Dozen or James Kinchloe played by Ivan Dixon on the serial comedy Hogan’s Heroes.
There is a story in the entertainment news that Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood are having a bit of a disagreement. It began when Mr. Lee questioned Mr. Eastwood for not casting African Americans in his World War II films Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers when there were black soldiers present at Iwo Jima. Mr. Eastwood responded by saying that black troops were not involved in the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima and also suggested that Mr. Lee should “shut his face”.
How many all white films have been made about Iwo Jima? How many films about Iwo Jima have been told from a black perspective or have included at least one black character in a major role? At a time when Hollywood and other movie makers have told their war stories from just about every perspective of white people it would be a unique film that would be daring enough to tell the story of Iwo Jima from the black perspective.
Why were there no black soldiers involved in the raising of the American flag on the island of Iwo Jima? Was it because there were no black soldiers on the island? Were the black soldiers busy working down on the beeches cleaning up white people’s blood and various body parts left behind as the white soldiers stormed the hills entrenched with the enemy? What role did racism play in the distribution of jobs and responsibilities in this part of the war effort? There is a real opportunity to tell a real, racially inclusive story here with wide appeal. But instead of an opportunity for racial inclusion the choice is made for high profile squabbling.
It’s been my experience that when an observation of possible racial exclusion is made, invariably somebody will respond defensively with uncivil aggression. Mr. Eastwood’s suggestion that Mr. Lee should “shut his face” is uncalled for as well as totally unnecessary. Mr. Eastwood’s dismissal of black people in any significant role on Iwo Jima does not respect the sacrifice and contributions of the black soldiers and other military personnel. Black people have contributed to these happenings in ways that the dominant community gives credit for.
One day, somebody might have the foresight to tell the story from the black person’s perspective. Too bad it won’t be Mr. Eastwood.