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October 12, 2006

Day at the Races: What Woody Could Learn From Clint

Eastwood, the quintessential white Republican, might be the most racially progressive Caucasian filmmaker in the land


(L-R) Adam Beach, Ryan Phillippe and Jesse Bradford in Clint Eastwood's Flags of our Fathers (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Don't ask me why, but I've been thinking about the issue of racial representation in movies -- particularly about the relationship between Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood. Not exactly two directors you'd automatically mention in the same breath, but when it comes to race, they're the yin and yang of the film community.

Allen, the Jewish New Yorker of a supposedly liberal bent, makes movies that remind me of The Day the Negroes Left Earth, that Ray Bradbury short story in which all of the planet's blacks decamp to outer space. As far as Allen is concerned, New York might as well be called White Town -- minorities in Woody's World are nearly invisible. Eastwood, on the other hand, the quintessential white Republican, might be the most racially progressive Caucasian filmmaker in the land -- most of his pictures feature black characters in strong roles. They're not just part of the fabric of Eastwood's films; they're essential to its weave.

Don't believe me? Just check out each director's work. Allen has cast only two black, Hispanic or Asian actors in a significant role in any of his films (Chwietel Ojiofor and Daniel Sunjata in Melinda and Melinda). And except for the occasional minor, often stereotyped, part (like the black hooker in Deconstructing Harry), if you look really closely at some of his features, Allen doesn't even bother to feature racial minorities as background.

Eastwood, however, seems perfectly comfortable with black characters front and center, whether they're playing his partner (Unforgiven), best friend (Million Dollar Baby), lover (The Eiger Sanction), the subject of an entire film (Bird), or simply major players (Mystic River, True Crime, Absolute Power, etc.). And it doesn't stop there. In Blood Work, he cast Latinos in significant roles. Next week, he's got Flags of Our Fathers (above), with an excellent performance by Native American actor Adam Beach, and Letters From Iwo Jima, which tells the Japanese side of the battle for Iwo Jima. The man seems to be refreshingly color blind.

How to explain this dichotomy? You'd think that Allen, who grew up in the most racially and ethnically diverse city on earth (and who married an Asian woman), would have absorbed some of this multi-culturalism and used it in his films. Instead, he seems to have retreated into a world of his own making, where minorities barely exist. And please -- don't tell me that the Upper East Side, setting of many of Allen's films, is a white enclave. It is not, and has never been, devoid of racial minorities in the street, in stores, driving cabs, whatever. Allen's exclusion of this population speaks to either a latent racism or a kind of wish fulfillment in which everyone in Woody's World looks exactly like him. Whatever the reason, it undercuts any pretense he might have to be a "New York filmmaker." Sans minorities, his films are about as reflective of New York culture as Pedro Almodovar's.

Then there's Clint Eastwood, a product of the multi-racial East Bay Area of California, and -- this is important -- a major jazz aficionado. Unlike Allen, however, famous for playing Dixieland jazz and accompanying his film credits with 1920s dance tunes, Eastwood's tastes are not frozen in some pre-integration fantasia. He's conversant with musical styles post-1930, hence, Bird, that ode to bebop, 52nd Street, and drug-addicted brilliance. The point here, though, is that Clint, although certainly not a New Yorker, seems in tune with blacks as contemporaries and peers. He does not see them as strange, otherwordly creatures outside his purview as an artist. Nor does he stereotype them in pimp, hooker, gangsta roles. Considering the man was born in 1930 and is known for living in the very white town of Carmel, Calif., it's almost astonishing how grown-up his racial attitudes are (he's also married to a Latina). It may sound cliched, but hanging out in all those jazz clubs as a young man must have taught Eastwood a lot about the world of African-Americans. Like Bill Clinton, that other White-boy-who-feels-totally-comfortable-with-black-folk, Eastwood grew up with an appreciation for black culture, and for blacks as human beings.

Something Woody Allen has yet to learn.

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Comments (1)

Although I think this is a very interesting contention, I must object to your conclusion about jazz music. Allen's musical taste is by no way "pre-integration fantasia." If anything, I would say that musicians like Sidney Bechet, who Allen mentions in 'Wild Man Blues' as a major influence, did more for bring black music to a white audience that Charlie Parker. The red-hot era was essential to the musical integration of both cultures. Choosing this earlier music, rather than the more accepted post-30's jazz, shows a reverence for black culture by highlighting the pure and non white-washed.

But, perhaps, take it a bit further and say that the only blacks in Allen's film are playing the background music for those stuffy intellectuals who create problems for themselves; and now we have a power dynamic issue.

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