Thursday, May 22, 2008

Spike Lee is right

He just criticised Clint Eastwood during the Cannes film festival:

The Oscar-nominated African-American director, one of the most influential figures in contemporary cinema, said that black soldiers were conspicuous by their absence from Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Hundreds took part in the battle for the Japanese island in 1945.

Lee said: “There were many African-Americans who survived that war and who were upset at Clint for not having one [in the films]. That was his version: the negro soldier did not exist. I have a different version.”

He was speaking at a press conference in Cannes, where he gave the world premiere of an eight-minute trailer for his latest feature film, a war drama with which he hopes to set the record straight.
The presence of black troops at Iwo Jima was not insignificant. To be precise:
In the Iwo Jima landings, beginning on 19 February 1945, the 442d and 582d Port Companies and the 471st, 473d and 476th Amphibian Truck Companies were assigned to the Garrison Force but attached to the Amphibious Corps (Marine) for the assault... The 592d Port Company, divided into three groups, landed in the fourth wave...
The US Marine Corps commended the bravery of the (black) Dukw* companies in their final report on the action.

The quote comes from a remarkable book, The Employment of Negro Troops by Ulysses Lee, from a series of Special Studies with the general title U.S. Army in World War II (page 637 in the original hardback edition). It was first printed in 1966 and is still in print as a paperback. The publisher's blurb on Amazon runs as follows:
Ulysses Lee’s "The Employment of Negro Troops" has been long and widely recognized as a standard work on the subject. Although revised and consolidated before publication, the study was written largely between 1947 and 1951. If the now much-cited title has an echo of an earlier period, that very echo testifies to the book’s rather remarkable twofold achievement; that Lee wrote it when he did, well before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and that is reputation–or authority and objectivity–has endured so well.
I've felt strongly about this ever since I lived around the corner from the West Indian ex-Servicemen's Association in Clapham, London. During the celebrations on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the War, these proud, smartly dressed old soldiers, who had patriotically named their sons "Winston" and moved to the country they had served, were more or less ignored.

I'm struck by how angry I still feel, typing about it now.

The Times article linked to above goes on:
Lee’s film reflects the pain felt by the segregated black soldiers. One says in the film: “I love Italians. I ain’t a nigger here. I’m just me.”
That was very much the experience of black American soldiers in the UK, too. Of course, the picture was mixed, but on the whole black troops stationed in the UK found there to be a, to them, amazing lack of prejudice. When discrimination was suggested, the majority of Britons refused to accept it. One of my favourite examples is this, from the last link:
Vicar's Wife Insults Our Allies
[2.1] The women of Worle, Weston-super-Mare, are amazed by Mrs. May, wife of their vicar.

She called them together and attempted to lay down a six-point code which would result in the ostracism of American coloured troops if they ever go to the village.

[2.2] The women of the village have come to the angry conclusion that this code amounts to an insult to the troops of our Ally. These (in her own words) were the rules Mrs. May laid down:

1. If a local woman keeps a shop and a coloured soldier enters, she must serve him, but she must do it as quickly as possible and indicate as quickly as possible and indicate that she does not desire him to come there again.
2. If she is in a cinema and notices a coloured soldier next to her, she moves to another seat immediately.
3. If she is walking on the pavement and a coloured soldier is coming towards her, she crosses to the other pavement.
4. If she is in a shop and a coloured soldier enters, she leaves as soon as she has made her purchase or before that if she is in a queue.
5. White women, of course, must have no social relationship with coloured troops.
6. On no account must coloured troops be invited to the homes of white women.

Mrs. May forbade her hearers to mention her 'talk' to the newspapers.

But they were so astonished that they told their husbands.

[2.3] One of the husbands, a local councillor, is preparing a full statement to be sent to the Ministry of Information.

He said: 'If the woman is talking like this in the name of the Church, I should be interested to know what her husband's bishop thinks of it.'

Mrs. May's reason for not making her code public, she said, was that 'it might hurt the coloured troops if they heard of it.'

Feeling is so high in the district that it is more likely to hurt Mrs. May.

A local woman who attended the meeting told the Sunday Pictorial last night: 'I was disgusted, and so were most of the women there. We have no intention of agreeing to her decree.'

Any coloured soldier who reads this may rest assured that there is no colour bar in this country and that he is as welcome as any other Allied soldier.

He will find that the vast majority of people have nothing but repugnance for the narrow-minded uninformed prejudices expressed by the vicar's wife.

There is - and will be - no persecution of coloured people in Britain.

Sunday Pictorial 6 September 1942
Something happened, between 1945 and 1965, to take a fairly arbitrary pair of dates, to harden and expand racial prejudice in Britain. Was it the advent of mass immigration? People find abrupt change hard to accept. That idea is reinforced by the way racism has receded as a generation that was born into the changed Britain came to adulthood and, now, middle age.

In any event, Spike Lee is right, the service of these men should not have been airbrushed out of history and his new film, about a black unit fighting in Italy during WWII, is to be welcomed at least to the extent it will help re-balance our view of those events.

The Christian/Conservative movie website Libertas disagrees. They call Lee's comments 'grievance mongering' and 'whining'.

I hadn't realised that dishonouring the memories of people who served their countries was a Conservative value.

*When I was about 13, I saw a Dukw advertised for sale in the Exchange and Mart, but my mother vetoed the idea of me buying an amphibious landing craft - typical Mum, huh?

I still want one...


Anonymous said...

"the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s": is that a cack-handed attempt to attribute civil rights advances to white folks like JFK, rather than giving credit where credit is due? If so, double-plus-alpha ironic.

PS I've Dukw'd through swamps in Queensland. Lurvly.

Peter Risdon said...

I am seriously envious. That must have been fun.

Trooper Thompson said...

Well said. George Orwell comments a few times on the issue of racial prejudice in Britain with regard to the US army presence, remarking that 'the general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the negroes' after giving an account of a drunken soldier trying to pick a fight with him, ('As I please' 03/12/1943) and also of incidents of colour bars being introduced, which were invariably caused by proprietors giving in to pressure from a small group of clients, noting that 'this kind of thing cannot happen when public opinion is on the alert and disagreeable publicity is given to any establishment where coloured people are insulted.' ('As I please' 11/08/1944)