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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Race & Hollywood

From day to day there is no telling what is going to pique my interest enough to fire up the ‘ol word processor. The recent dustup between directors Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood has inspired me somewhat.

I want to begin by saying that I believe Hollywood, and American culture in general owes a great deal of gratitude to Spike Lee. Lee is a brilliant storyteller and a masterful filmmaker whose takes on life from the African-American perspective was completely missing from, and sorely needed in American cinema before his arrival. The ripple effect goes beyond his own films as he has inspired a new generation of directors to join him in exploring the previously untold yarns of black America.

That being said Lee can hardly be considered a visionary or innovator. A study of his filmography shows that almost all of his movies are rigidly structured and formulaic. His films portray young, African-Americans striving to survive in a society controlled by a white America which at its best is ignorant and indifferent to their struggles and at its worst conniving and even murderous. People from other cultures and backgrounds merely serve as scenery as we follow or intrepid hero’s struggle against broadly-drawn and stereotypical villains who are almost always white.

What I am saying is that Spike Lee is a one trick pony. He is an artist who is gifted in his ability to disseminate the African-American experience into the culture at large, but has shown that he has a tin ear to the life experiences and perspectives of anyone whose skin color differs from his.

All of this makes his criticisms of Clint Eastwood both predictable and bizarre. That Eastwood’s films (particularly his WWII epics) do not reflect The African-American perspective is true, but my question is why do they need to? Anyone with a basic understanding of American history can tell you that while segregated from their white compatriots, African-American soldiers were present, served gallantly, and had an enormous impact in many decisive battles during the war. Their experiences are valid, and their stories need to be told. But to shoehorn in storylines about black soldiers simply to satisfy a more multi-cultural society than the one being portrayed would result in a jilted and clumsy narrative that would bring down the whole project around it.

Lee’s comments become even stranger when you consider that one of the films is about Japanese soldiers. I don’t think that there were any African-Americans serving in the Imperial Japanese Army, but if there were I would agree that theirs would be a story worth telling! It is to Eastwood’s credit that he has the ability to step out of his own skin and tell a story from the perspective of a different culture (and language). Something that Lee is either unwilling or unable to attempt.

It would be virtually impossible to tell the stories of African-American soldiers in WWII without making the film about segregation. While it is a worthy subject, racial segregation was not the only thing going on during that period. There are many stories stemming from that era all worthy of being told. To follow Lee's way of thinking is to say that they are not.

In his criticisms Lee has shown that he is no better than the filmmakers who came before him. Myopic in their craft they ignored the stories and contributions of those who were different then they were, building walls that required someone like Spike Lee to tear them down. Now new walls are going up with Lee as a bricklayer, necessitating the arrival of a new filmmaker toting a sledgehammer.