Clint Eastwood’s Bird: The Good, The Bad, The Apocryphal
By Matt Silver
You get a pretty good sense "Bird's" intended visual aesthetic from its lobby card. Warner Bros., 1988.
Part I: Prologue, Immediate Reaction, Forrest Whitaker, Bird's Cinematography, and a General Verdict
I approach Bird as someone who loves jazz generally and knows more than the casual fan but less than the historians who get paid to be historians. Having said that, these are my thoughts – the good, the bad, the ugly—about Clint Eastwood’s Bird (1988).
The famous filmmaker Spike Lee, whose father Bill Lee, a jazz musician, supposedly knew Charlie Parker well, has criticized Bird for overplaying Parker’s character and behavioral flaws and underplaying the warmth and sense of humor that drew people to him.
Lee may very well be right—I can’t say; I didn’t know Charlie Parker personally, nor do I know anyone who did. But my sense is that Lee, and others who have criticized Bird similarly, are overlooking the most obvious thing about this depiction: It’s a movie! A big-budget Hollywood entertainment for as broad an audience as there can ever be for something about jazz or a jazz musician. Lee, more than anyone, should recognize that Eastwood’s treatment of the subject is not a documentary; after all, Lee’s no stranger to based-on-a-true-story moviemaking. He's been good (Malcolm X) but far from perfect (Summer of Sam). Trying to balance historical accuracy and biographical integrity with commercial entertainment value is a razor’s edge for artists in every medium to walk.