Sunday, June 08, 2008

"Not Everything was John Wayne, Baby": Black Marines on Iwo Jima

Update: Montford Point Marines: Make Us Proud

Black Marines pose with one of the Army DUKW amphibious trucks used to bring cargo ashore and carry away the wounded for medical treatment to ships offshore. National Archives Photo 127-GW-334-114329

Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood got into a verbal dust-up at Cannes. Spike criticized Clint for not featuring any black troops in his recent World War II pictures:
Flags Of Our Fathers, which weaves together the stories of the marines who raised the flag over Iwo Jima in Joe Rosenthal's iconic photograph, and Letters From Iwo Jima, which focuses on the Japanese soldiers who fought to the death on the bitter island.

Though black Marines were not on Mount Suribachi when the flags were raised, they were caught in the thick of the battle as the official Marine Corps accounts of the assault on Iwo Jima make clear. Passages below are quoted from the USMC history of African-American marines during World War II written by Bernard C. Nalty:

"Black combat support units also took part in the assault on Iwo Jima, where, as at Peleliu, their presence confounded the policy of segregation. Because of the random intermingling of white and black units, an African-American Marine, carrying a box of supplies, dived into a shell hole occupied by white Marines, one of whom gave him a cigarette before he scrambled out with his load and ran forward. Here, too, black stewards and members of the depot and ammunition companies came to the aid of the wounded. A white Marine, Robert F. Graf, who lay in a tent awaiting evacuation for further medical treatment, remembered that: "Two black Marines . . . ever so gently . . . placed me on a stretcher and carried me outside to a waiting DUKW."

"PFCs Willie J. Kanady, Eugene F. Hill, and Joe Alexander of the 34th Depot Company relax during a lull in the action on Iwo Jima, where danger persisted even after the island was declared secure. Before they left Iwo, the company would become engaged when the Japanese mounted a banzai charge against Marines and soldiers." Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 113835

"At Iwo Jima, the 8th Marine Ammunition Company and the 33d, 34th, and 36th Marine Depot Companies served as part of the shore party of the V Amphibious Corps. Elements of the ammunition company and the 36th Depot Company landed on D-Day, 19 February 1945, and within three days all the units were ashore, braving Japanese fire as they struggled in the volcanic sand to unload and stockpile ammunition and other supplies, and move the cargo inland. Eleven black enlisted Marines and one of the white officers were wounded, two of the enlisted men fatally."

The first flagraising atop Mount Suribachi, February 23, 1945. photo by Staff Sergeant Louis R. Lowery

"On the early morning of 26 March, 10 days after Iwo Jima was declared secure, the Japanese made a final attack that penetrated to the rear area units near Iwo Jima's western beaches, including the 8th Ammunition and 36th Marine Depot Companies. The black Marines helped stop the enemy in a confused struggle during darkness and mop up the survivors at daybreak. Two members of the 36th Company — Privates James M. Whitlock and James Davis — earned the Bronze Star for "heroic achievement." One Marine from the depot company and another from the ammunition company were fatally wounded, but four others, two from each unit, survived their wounds. The African-American companies that fought at Iwo Jima shared in the Navy Unit Citation awarded the support units of V Amphibious Corps."

The second flagraising atop Mount Suribachi, February 23, 1945.
16 mm color film, by Marine Sgt. Bill Genaust.

Obviously, a film is the vision of the director. In the case of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood begins by focusing on the group of Marines who were immortalized in Rosenthal's photo of the second flagraising on Suribachi. But in the second film, Eastwood pulls the camera back for a wide shot to include the Japanese viewpoint. By broadening his range, but not including other elements of the USMC experience, Eastwood leaves himself open to fair criticism. Artists all make choices, but those choices are then open to discussion - Why this story and not that story? Why this character and not that one?

Spike Lee feels that Clint left out an important part of the story that continues to resonate in our current American existence. "Clint Eastwood is a great film maker and I respect his work, and he did two films about Iwo Jima back to back, and there was not one black soldier in both of those films," Lee said.

Spike is making a point here about emphasis when he fails to credit Clint for the inclusion of black characters on board ship before the invasion. Once the fighting starts the black faces disappear from the film.

Lee continues, "Add the running times of both films, that's about four hours. ... Many veterans, African-Americans who survived that war are upset at Clint Eastwood for not even having one, but Clint Eastwood is a great director and that was his vision. His vision of Iwo Jima: Negro soldiers did not exist. Simple as that you know. I have a different version."

"There were African-Americans on Iwo Jima", Eastwood admitted in an interview with the Guardian, "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. ... I'm not in that game. I'm playing it the way I read it historically, and that's the way it is. When I do a picture and it's 90 percent black, like 'Bird,' I use 90 percent black people."

Spike Lee's response, "If Clint 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.

Eastwood's final comment was out of character:"A guy like him should shut his face," Eastwood told the Guardian. "Has he ever studied the history?"

Spike Lee in an interview with ABC News retorted, "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 Eastwood is 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. Even though he's trying to have a Dirty Harry flashback, I'm going to take the Obama high road and end it right here. Peace and love."

Upon the release of Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Father's, Dan Glaister, the Guardian's Los Angeles correspondent, wrote an article critiquing Clint's omission of black Marines in the film. Glaister writes:
"The people carrying the ammunition were 90% black, so that's an opportunity to show black soldiers. These are our films and very often they become our history, historical documents." Yvonne Latty, a New York University professor and author of We Were There: Voices of African-American Veterans (2004), wrote to Eastwood and the film's producers pleading with them to include the experience of black soldiers. HarperCollins, the book's publishers, sent the director a copy, but never heard back."

"It would take only a couple of extras and everyone would be happy," Yvonne Latty said. "No one's asking for them to be the stars of the movies, but at least show that they were there. This is the way a new generation will think about Iwo Jima. Once again it will be that African-American people did not serve, that we were absent. It's a lie."

Glaister ends his article with telling words, "The first chapter to James Bradley's book Flags of Our Fathers, which forms the basis of the movie, opens with a quotation from president Harry Truman. "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know." It would provide a fitting endnote to Eastwood's film."

The history we don't yet know will create films and novels for the future. Let me start with an image: Black Marines struggling with ammo boxes under intense Japanese fire, diving into foxholes, sharing a brief cigarette with their white comrades in the Corps, and then moving up the line with bullets and grenades. Only to be ignored as Invisible Men by the war correspondents and the press corps as the battle is recounted.

Spike Lee in Los Angeles

Spike Lee will tell a bit more about the African-American experience in World War II with his upcoming film, Miracle at St. Anna , which focuses on four black US soldiers who get trapped in an Italian village.

Clint Eastwood's next film will be The Human Factor, starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in a tale about how Mandela used a campaign to have South Africa host the 1995 Rugby World Cup as a chance to unite his country.

More at:
Black Marines in WWII
Absent from history: the black Marines at Iwo Jima
Spike Lee Interview with ABC News
Clint Eastwood in the Guardian
One Version of History
We Were There: Voices of African-American Veterans


Anonymous said...

Why don't people mind their own business? This is purposely trying to introduce race into something that stands on it's own. Do we have to find out everytime we do something if an afro american, native american, etc was involved in any way? This is what makes people become prejudiced when they weren't before. Sick and tired of this political correctness. Spike Lee has a long way to go to catch up to the credentials of Clint Eastwood.

gregg chadwick said...

I have to disagree with you here about the origins of prejudice. One does not become prejudiced because one director disagrees with another director about their choice of story and character in a film. Prejudice is unfortunately taught from one generation to the next and carried forward. Only by understanding that the bigotry that we may give to our children is an awful inheritance can we move forward to a world where each individual is judged on their own merits not by the color of their skin.

Andrew Graff said...

Black soldiers where there. But as best as I can tell, they constituted just 3-4 companies - fewer than a thousand - of the 120,000 American soldiers taking part in the battle.

There contributions were valuable. They were not insignificant. But neither are they particularly large. I do not see how they merit inclusion merely by virtue of being black. If they can claim some right to being included in the story - which is hardly a full portrayal of the battle and has many other flaws and ommissions - by virtue of anything other than being black, then surely the stories of the tens of thousands of non-blacks can demand inclusion.

Who is standing up for those faceless and invisible heroes?

Merely by being black, they get more coverage than any ten of thier white peers.

gregg chadwick said...


I suggest that you watch the short documentary linked at the top of my post: Update: Montford Point Marines: Make Us Proud