The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, June 06, 2008

Spike Lee "Uppity"?

Courtney Hazlett at MSNBC described Spike Lee as "Uppity" in his complaints that Clint Eastwood featured no black soldiers in his two films about Iwo Jima. (Eastwood rather lamely replied that the films were about the men who raised the flag, who were all white. Right. And how many extras were there, Clint? Looked like thousands, to me. And every one of them white. I admire you, man, but sell that bullshit somewhere else.)

Now, I don't know about you, but about 80% of the time when I hear someone being called "Uppity," the person being called such is black. And the one using the term says, basically, "it's in the dictionary...nothing racist was meant." Hmmm. I think this is one of those things where we'd have to do an analysis of cultural use of the term to see whether it is in fact used toward black people disproportionately. Sure as hell feels that way.


Anonymous said...

Dude, there were only 3 black support companies at Iwo Jima. Out of all the division, the actual black percentage on that island had to be in the fractions of a percent.

Steve Perry said...

I don't remember the last time I heard somebody say the word "uppity" with a straight face.

It was a term used a lot in the south when I was young, but not so much any more.

Yeah, it's in the dictionary, but in the unabridged, so are all the other words, so that doesn't cut any ice.

I can't ever recall it being used save to modify two other words: "Nigger," and "Woman," (sometimes with one of two terms substituted for "woman," i.e., "bitch," or "cunt.")

My offhand estimate would be that the percentages of uses would be 70/30, former over latter.

I have my own term I like for people who use "uppity" this way:

Assholes ...

evs said...


Spike should have done his homework on this one. Racial policies by the Department of The Navy momentarily aside, there are good yet unfortunate reasons why blacks didn't participate as designated combat units during the Pacific Campaign.

1. Blacks only comprised 4% of the USMC at the time.

2. Most of those personnel were in support units.

3. Because blacks weren't even allowed into the Marine Corps prior to 1942, this meant there were no black NCO's to lead black troops into combat. This is a VERY crucial element.

A. All services branches were segregated.

B. The backbone of any fighting unit are it's corps of noncoms.

C. What this means in totality is you couldn't even have a fighting unit because segregation wouldn't allow these units to be lead by white noncoms, and there were no combat experienced ones to be had.

Another salient point is that both films by Eastwood dealt primarily with the first wave or first waves of Marines to hit the beaches. The flag raisers wave was the first of the first. By the time Ira Hays & Company reached a half-way point to Mount Surabachi, the support units which contained blacks were just making it to the beach, but by then the storyline was half way up the mountain. To have shown blacks prior to that point would have been simply a gratuitous gesture.

Did blacks fight in the pacific Campaign? Sure. Lots of times, or rather more times given credit for, however, they were support troops caught up in the fighting after the initial waves were sent in and fought as a direct result of the nature of island combat which is close quarters and not defined by strict battle lines of us here, them over there, and especially on Iwo Jimi and Saipan where the Japanese had extensive and elaborate underground defenses for offensive and defensive fighting.

There's just more to the story, and even more to this particular one told now, than Spike realizes or cared to find out before going off.

Anonymous said...


To the best of my knowledge, there were extremely few black soldiers of any sort in WWII. Not because blacks were cowards but because, after WWI, a racist decision had been made to bar them from combat units. Ugly but true. Eastwood's casting reflected historical reality; to make it different, he'd have had to deliberately lie about facts in 1941-1945.

Life is hard. Reality's ugly.

--Erich Schwarz

Steven Barnes said...

There were plenty of blacks in WWII--certainly fewer of them in combat (but my Dad was one) and apparently few in the Pacific Theater. Technically, Eastwood is off the hook for this. Frankly, he could have afforded to have had a single image of a black soldier, but it wouldn't have been the story he wanted to tell. Was that story influenced by race? Hmmm. I took a quick look at Eastwood's record. I found 11 movies with black characters in any of the first 15 roles listed in the IMDB. Eleven characters. Six of them die: Unforgiven, Bird, White Hunter/Black Heart, Sudden Impact, Magnum Force, Absolute Power. That's 55%. Anyone care to do a little analysis of white male parts in those same movies to see if it's less than that? Or whether the percentage of white males in general who die in Eastwood movies is this high. Damned straight, I think this kind of imagery is influenced by one's perceptual filters. And...I love Eastwood. It just hurts a little, that's all.

Steven Barnes said...

Just for fun looked at the second male leads, to see what percentage of them died. Three (Absolute Power--Gene Hackman, Magnum Force--Hal Holbrook, and Sudden Impact--Pat Hingle). Too small a selection to really mean anything, but still casually illustrative. Black people dying at a higher than average statistical rate--especially if it is much higher--would be the kind of unconscious choice I've been talking about.

evs said...

"Frankly, he could have afforded to have had a single image of a black soldier...".

Doing what? To have kept things even reasonably historically accurate any blacks shown would have been on the beach way into the film where there were no scenes that I can immediately recall in the first place, or as litter bearers or graves registration personnel into the interior and I'm not even sure blacks even held those positions within the USMC at the time.

Now sure, "dramatic license" comes into play and Eastwood COULD have presented any imagery of blacks he so chose to do, but to what end? For the sake of it and keep Lee off his back? OK, perhaps she should have, but then what? I have an idea, but it'll hold for the moment.

Also Steve in keeping somewhat historically correct, the Battle of Iwo Jima wasn't for and about Mt. Surabachi. It was all about Japanese airfields on the island. That was the whole point of the exercise. The vast majority of the Marines were engaged there along that part of the island and while I'm not sure; but it's easy enough to find out, I'd bet you the vast majority of any supporting units, black and white, were there and not on the Surabachi end of the island. That would make perfect military sense.

A last point on direction that's wrong historically would be at the film's end. Recall the shot of the guys taking a swim? There was a long shot of the beach and it was virtually deserted along that part of the island. No so IRL. It was PACKED with people and supplies going and coming because the battle lasted another 30-days after the flag raising.

I know from film-making like I know what's on the far side of Pluto and Eastwood's record speaks for itself, but on this one his actions don't appear to warrant the beef from a historic POV.

AF1 said...

I'm with Eastwood (who was pretty historically accurate and had a large black cast in "Bird" by the way.)

Spike is coming across as a race huckster. Seems like he's always looking for a racial angle to whine about.

Anonymous said...

Why oh Why...Does she still have a job?

Anonymous said...

"Uppity." One might use it about a youngster. Spike is younger than Clint, but he's a grown man, not an uppity young punk. So the word does seem to have a racial connotation in this context, whether Lee's comments are on the mark or off.

Tom Head said...

I thought "uppity" was acknowledged as a borderline racial epithet a long time ago. The idea that anyone in the mainstream media would feel comfortable using it in describing a black man is bizarre.

And "shut his face" was a childish response from Eastwood.

That said, I think Lee was technically wrong in his criticism of Eastwood; I think he might have been thinking of the depictions of Iwo Jima that incorrectly portrayed the folks as more racially diverse than they were, which is understandable since those have been the prevailing depictions of Iwo Jima.

It bothers me that whites are overrepresented in Hollywood to the extent that they are, but I also get a little bit annoyed at films that incorrectly and consistently pretend that there was more diversity and racial harmony in a given situation than there was.

Steve Perry said...

Spike and Clint are still at it -- Spike had a comeback to the "shut his face." line, about Clint not being his father and them not being on de plantation.

But, as has been said, Clint gets a pass on this one. Right is right.

mjholt said...

"Uppity" in his complaints that Clint Eastwood featured no black soldiers in his two films about Iwo Jima.

Yeah, So? One of my favorite Tee Shirt messages is:
"Uppity Women Unite"

Spike Lee, if he would not be offended, can join that movement.

There were lots of men and women in WWII who were not white. My co-founder in Clarion West was J.T. Stewart and her mother was in WWII and she was among the African-American women in the service who were honored in the 1980's I believe at an exhibit at a major museum in L.A. I wish I could remember more about this. There is a lot of documentation about the valor and honor of people of every ethnicity and race in WWII. Hispanics were notable absent in Ken Burn's The War. Women tend to be left out of everything except as whores, b-girls, and noble widows and mothers. I'd like to see someone do it right.

Steve Perry said...

One of the first questions you ask yourself as a writer, before you put words on paper or a computer screen is, "Whose story is it?"

I'd like to see those stories of the Others in history, those who tend to get glossed over all to often.

In the Eastwood case under discussion, the story was about the guys who raised the flag in that famous picture on Iwo Jima. If there were black troops anywhere around, they deserve a place in the crowd b.g. shot. If not, putting them there is inaccurate.

Not that Hollywood gets it right most of the time, but still ...