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Miracle at St. Anna: Spike Lee's Mandate

23 Feb 2008

TIFF picSpike Lee

Spike Lee’s World War II epic, Miracle at St. Anna, now in theatres, is an attempt to counter the traditional Hollywood iconography of historical war movies. Drawing from James McBride’s 2003 novel of the same name, Spike Lee follows the tale of four soldiers from the all-black 92nd Division (Buffalo Soldiers) as they find themselves trapped behind enemy lines in a small Tuscan village in 1944.

From the very beginning of the movie, Lee makes his statement of intent by inserting a clip showing the archetypal hero figure of John Wayne from the 1962 war film The Longest Day. The year is 1983; and we find Hector Negron (played by Laz Alonso), the fictional veteran of the 92nd Division whose story is chronicled in the film, looking at John Wayne in a TV screen and saying: “Pilgrim, we fought for this country too.” In Spike Lee’s words: “It is not a mistake that this film begins with John Wayne in The Longest Day. This is the Hollywood bullshit mythology that excludes plenty of people.”

In this quest, Spike Lee departs in some ways from the James McBride’s novel in order to also emphasize the reality that, despite being considered second class citizens, black soldiers still fought for their country. Over a million young black men joined the army after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and the United States declared war on Germany and Japan. They believed in democracy and hoped that things would change after the war ended.  “They fought because they believed that someday America would live up to its promise” Lee says.

In a particular scene not taken from the novel, there is a flashback sequence where the four soldiers [Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) and Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke)] are back in a Louisiana military training camp before being sent to the war. When they go to a restaurant on the base, they are refused service unless they go by the back. All the while, Germans POWs are sitting inside enjoying first class service.

So as the black soldiers were being trained to kill Nazis, on the same bases where they were stationed, thousands of German POWs were being shipped in from Europe and enjoying better living conditions than they were.

It does seem odd, however, that the flashback scene in Louisiana miraculously involves the very same four soldiers who end up surviving the perilous crossing of the Serchio River in Tuscany, under massive German fire, once they finally see battle in Europe.

Despite some of those imperfections which may come from trying to tackle too many sub-topics in an already lengthy 3-hour long film, Miracle at St Anna must be commended for bringing to light a much needed corrective perspective of the World War II narrative.

This is true not only with regards to fostering a better appreciation of black soldiers’ contributions to the war effort, but also with respect to being mindful of the Italians’ own combative involvement in ushering their own liberation. Speaking about the importance of also telling the Italian story in his novel and the film, James McBride says: “The Italians suffered terribly during World War II and they have been portrayed stereotypically in our media and in our movies as the little partisans with the little guns waiting for the Americans to come and save them; when in fact the Italians did a great deal to save themselves.”

In fact, 95% of the film’s crew was Italian and pivotal battle scenes were shot at their actual historical location. Spike Lee also went to Europe to obtain funding for the film.

An interesting dialogue involving Derek Luke’s character, Sergeant Stamp, reveals how he felt greater freedom and acceptance as a full human being in Italy than he did back home in the USA. Author James McBride echoes that feeling when he recounts the story of his uncle, who fought in the war as part of the Italian Campaign: “My uncle Henry used to get [drunk] he liked the thunder juice and occasionally he would get deep into his cups and raise his glass of J&B and say “Those Italians they loved us. We were kings over there. They loved the coloured man.””

It is indeed tragic that those Buffalo Soldiers, who followed in the legacy of other black soldiers who fought in the Civil War, the Spanish-American war and World War I, came back to a country still not ready to live up to its promise.

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