- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2008

Clint Eastwood, who at 78 looks as if he could still land a devastating right hook, doesn’t need me to defend him.

“A guy like him should shut his face” is about as close to fighting words as you’re likely to hear from an elderly, Oscar-winning filmmaker.

Spike Lee - as talented as he is infuriating, as intriguing as he is doctrinaire - has that effect on a lot of people.

While at the Cannes Film Festival last month, Mr. Lee chided Mr. Eastwood for purportedly failing to acknowledge the existence of black GIs in 2006’s successive World War II epics “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

“Clint Eastwood made two films about Iwo Jima that ran for more than four hours total, and there was not one Negro actor on the screen,” he said while promoting his own World War II film, “The Miracle at St. Anna.”

Mr. Eastwood shot back this week in an interview with the London newspaper the Guardian with the aforementioned “shut his face” declaration. He maintained that, despite the grand scale of its backdrop, “Flags” was a tightly focused narrative about the particular men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima.

Mr. Lee, who is to appear in Silver Spring on Thursday to accept an honor at the American Film Institute’s Silverdocs festival, continued the rhetorical duel, telling ABCNews.com: “First of all, the man is not my father, and we’re not on a plantation either.” Further, he called Mr. Eastwood an “angry old man.”

This last putdown was particularly rich, coming, as it did, from one of cinema’s most potently angry young(ish) men.

Entertaining as the Eastwood-Lee tussle has been, it also is a profoundly depressing indicator of the extent to which popular culture has been poisoned by identity politics.

It’s bad enough that a fellow filmmaker such as Mr. Lee apparently demands that Mr. Eastwood approach his craft the way presidents appoint Cabinet secretaries - that, in effect, movies should “look like America.”

That was the gravamen of Hispanic activists’ complaint against documentarian Ken Burns last year: They represent a certain share of the American population - not to mention close to $1 trillion in consumer market strength - and they deserve a seat at the table of “The War.”

No matter that Mr. Burns chose a geographically specific framework in which to recount Americans’ experience during the war or that the director cast a wide voluntary net for anyone and everyone to come forward and share memories.

In the identity-politics game, outcome always trumps even the fairest of processes.

In his interview with the Guardian, Mr. Eastwood appeared unaware - as, understandably, did Mr. Lee - of a cutaway frame in “Flags,” unearthed by a commentator on the New York magazine blog Vulture, that did in fact show a group of black soldiers.

Then again, just think of how pedantically playgroundish such a defense would have sounded: “Check again, Spike. I did, too, include black people.”

What’s worse than the crudity of pigmentational bean-counting is the can’t-win paradox that is the essence of identity politics.

“Categorical representation” is the precise term for the ugly, pernicious idea that individuals are best understood as members of tribes - people of color, gays or, even more broadly, women - and that only those within such categories can truly represent and understand each other.

Mr. Eastwood recalled that when he released his critically acclaimed biopic of jazz great Charlie Parker, “Bird,” in 1988, Mr. Lee “was complaining” then, too. “Why would a white guy be doing that? I was the only guy who made it, that’s why,” Mr. Eastwood said. “He could have gone ahead and made it. Instead, he was making something else.”

Churlish though Mr. Eastwood’s reaction may have been, it was entirely understandable. How would you take to Mr. Lee’s insinuation, with the “plantation” reference, that you’re a racist Neanderthal?

It’s incumbent on anyone who worries that art, like war, is becoming politics by other means to defend Mr. Eastwood’s freedom as a filmmaker - because it’s not always going to be the forces of reason and right-thinking who do the bullying.

Mr. Lee doesn’t need to “shut his face.” However, in the ideological rough-and-tumble of identity politics, he will need to watch over his shoulder.

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