In the left corner, you have the highly quotable, controversy-courting filmmaker Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee. In the right, the generally taciturn but sometimes just as headline-quote worthy actor-director Clinton Eastwood, Jr. At stake: the accuracy of the racial makeup of the casts of “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima.”
Lee threw the first punch at a Cannes press conference on the film he’s just finishing up, “Miracle at St Anna,” a drama about four “Buffalo Soldiers” in the 92nd Division fighting in Tuscany during World War II that he suggests is a corrective to films like Eastwood’s:
“There were many African-Americans who survived that war and who were upset at Clint for not having one [in ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’]. That was his version: the negro soldier did not exist. I have a different version…. It’s not like he could say he didn’t know. It was a conscious decision not to have any black people.”
Eastwood refused to respond at his own press conference for “Changeling,” which took place half an hour later, but had no such hesitations in an interview with the Guardian on Friday. Not one to mince words or, apparently, think twice when speaking on record to a reporter, he said:
“He was complaining when I did Bird [the 1988 biopic of Charlie Parker]. Why would a white guy be doing that? I was the only guy who made it, that’s why. He could have gone ahead and made it. Instead he was making something else.” As for Flags of Our Fathers, he says, yes, there was a small detachment of black troops on Iwo Jima as a part of a munitions company, “but they 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”…
Eastwood pauses, deliberately – once it would have provided him with the beat in which to spit out his cheroot before flinging back his poncho – and offers a last word of advice to the most influential black director in American movies. “A guy like him should shut his face.”
And now back to Lee, who’s responded to the ABC News:
“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 … 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…
“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… Not everything was John Wayne, baby.”
Clint, you had me until “shut his face.” I love approximately 50% of Lee’s films and still wish he would shut his face approximately 90% of the time, but no one’s going to throw my ill-considered remarks far and wide on the news wires. By taking Lee’s bait, Eastwood does look like a grumpy codger, albeit one who’s very generously doing his part to help publicize Lee’s latest work.
Elsewhere, on the main IFC.com site, Aaron Hillis gets clarification from Werner Herzog on the tiff with Abel Ferrara we’re all longing to see play out:
That’s “Bad Lieutenant,” right?
Yes, it’s a completely new version that people think is a remake, but it’s a completely different story. I’ve never seen the “Bad Lieutenant” that was made sometime in the ’90s, I guess.
You told Defamer you hadn’t even heard of Abel Ferrara.
I don’t know who he is, but I heard he has a good, gruff face and maybe he would be good as a gangster in the movie. The last James Bond is not a remake of the previous one. They’re completely different stories, but the leading character is somewhat similar.
But the Bond movies are a series. So basically, the only thing your film has in common is its title?
Well, there is a bad lieutenant in the previous film and in this one. We may even drop the title. I don’t know yet. [It’s] not to avoid it, even if people think it might be a remake. You see, once this kind of rumor is out, you can never stop it. It’s like slashing open a pillow on the roof of your house and the wind blows in it and spills all the feathers out into the landscape. Now go out and find those feathers again and put them back in the bag. It’s impossible. We have to enjoy it as it is. I think we have to allow the rumors to live on. We cannot stop them, so let them live on.
[Photo: Lee’s “Miracle at St. Anna,” Touchstone Pictures, 2008]