Miracle at St. Anna
directed by Spike Lee
written by James McBride
based on the book by James McBride
starring Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Pierfrancesco Favino, Valentina Cervi, Matteo Sciabordi, John Turturro, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, D.B. Sweeney, John Leguizamo
Inspiring, exquisitely constructed and just a bit too long this film captures a poorly-covered aspect of military history. It opens with a terrible deed committed at a post office. A kid reporter named Tim Boyle (Gordon-Levitt) is put on the case after the head of a statue is found in the apartment of the man who did the crime. The film explains from that point how he came to be in possession of it. It’s part of a bridge that the Nazi’s blew up and has been eagerly sought ever since. An all black squadron is fighting on Italian soil while the lovely, lilting voice of Axis Sally (Alexandra Maria Lara) rings out telling these men that if they surrendered they would have it easy in Germany. She goes on to say that the white men back home are most likely raping their women and daughters. The four main soldiers that the film follows are 2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Luke)--aggressive, intense and focused–; Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Ealy)–sex-drunk, passionate, and a bit unfocused--; Corporal Hector Negron (Alonzo)–sturdy, exacting and in calm–; and Private First Class Sam Train (Miller)–mammoth, hyper religious, and superstitious. Train rescues a young boy named Angelo (Sciabordi) after a bombing and the pair quickly become inseparable. The soldiers soon find themselves in an Italian village where they hole up with Nazi’s surrounding them.
This film captures a piece of history that may or may not be altogether historically accurate. It’s clear that Spike Lee has an agenda in this film which is to show the inherent racism in the political system. Freely, insulting words fall from the lips of officers who consider the operation with the black soldiers to be an “experiment”. It is also to show the heroism with which the black militants fought and died. It’s as if to prove that the blacks that were left out of Clint Eastwood’s films did indeed exist and deserve recognition for their bravery. So, once it is established that the blacks fought with valor the film starts to meander slightly. It takes too long to get where it needs to go and there are scenes that do nothing to enhance the necessity of the plot. Still, at its core this is a strong investigation into a brave new world that deeply impacted the success of the war.
The Nazi’s in this film lack the style and grace of many cinematic versions. They are portrayed mainly as beasts who must be destroyed at all costs. There are a few here and there who demonstrate human values such as kindness and honor but these are cinematically singled out as exceptions to the overall rule. There is a pivotal scene involving one of these Nazis near the end that proves to be decisive to bringing the war sequences to a close. The battle scenes are electric and energetic and it truly feel as if one were in the middle of the fracas. They are frenetic and volatile, consumed with rage and fear.
There is a scene where before deployment the unit is attempting to buy something to drink at a malt shop in Virginia. Unfortunately, the owner is one of those stereotypical ardent racists who clearly expresses his desire for his shop to remain white’s only. It’s supposed to come off as a terrible scene of deep sorrow and white guilt but the racist is so over-the-top he has no direct impact whatsoever. This isn’t to suggest that there weren’t many white folks who shared his sentiments–there were tens of millions–but that the scene is so pedestrian and typical and the man so painfully obtuse. Perhaps it has something to do with the simple fact that it’s no longer possible to accept this kind of attitude even in films that portray that specific era. We have seen it all before and it has become mere satire at this point. It’s supposed to be an example of racism in America during the war along the lines of “look how terrible it was...our heroes weren’t even allowed to walk into a malt shop.” Of course Spike Lee cannot let it stand at that. He has his soldiers come back later with guns so that the shop owner quakes politely in his boots and sheepishly fills their order. It’s a clear vengeance tactic that Lee uses to exploit the clearly defined racial lines that were primary in America around that time. We get it clearly what Lee wants us to believe about this unfortunate chapter in our history but it comes across as funny. Whatever impact he wanted it to have on us white folks is lost due to the ubiquitousness of the image.
The relationship between Train and Angelo drives the film forward. It is awkward because they don’t speak the same language although they do learn how to communicate through a series of taps. It is quite lovely to see a soldier who Angelo dubs “the chocolate giant” so deliberately focus his attention on the well being of a child. In many people’s minds the term would be considered horrifically racist but out of the mouth of an Italian child who has no experience with black people, it comes off as endearing, if not sweet. Angelo is a child whose life has been ripped apart by the war and he breaks down when asked about his parents. He has a direct relationship with the mystical world and he sees things that nobody else can see. He is thought to have magical powers that allow him to fix transmission radios, for example. He and Train bond so decisively because Train is very much like a child himself. He is also a staunch Christian who believes in the word of God.
Religious belief is strongly represented in this film as there are several occasions when God is propositioned to help the meek and lowly solve various dilemmas in their life or to give them courage in fighting a battle. Hopes and fears are brought to bear on these scenes of desperation, desire, and intense need of a lifeline to help sort out difficult questions and imperatives. There is a scene where three distinct groups are shown to be emitting what is basically the same prayer. There is urgency in these moments and they cement the film in a strong religious tradition that Lee presents unapologetically.
The head of the statue becomes a symbol of lasting good that is nevertheless brought back to the states and promptly stored away in the back of a closet. It is feared lost for sixty odd years and when it turns up it causes an international furor. The discovery galvanizes citizens worldwide and the head’s return to Italy is received with great fanfare.
Overall, this film touches on issues of racism, honor, purity of form, and clear cut ability to change one’s immediate environment. The characters are all believabe, structured, and conceivable. They exist in a place where they have given up of themselves to unite in a cause that they hardly see as their own. Yet they are patriots–and this is the point–, black men who rose against the tyranny of expectations and brought the bread home when they weren’t blasted into infinity for their fortitude and rightness. Yes, indeed, the black man too could despite the terror at home become something larger than themselves. They could react and drive home the point of American superiority in the guise of an imperfect war.