Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
Director: Spike Lee
Time: 140 minutes. Color.
Grinding an axe while telling a story can leave a story pretty chopped up. More often than not, that’s what happens with Spike Lee’s films. Narrative fine points like character and nuance can get overpowered by his objective’s urgency. In Miracle at St. Anna, Lee sets out to correct decades of omitting or marginalizing African American soldiers in World War II’s cinematic narrative—a mission made public when he called out Clint Eastwood for not including black warriors in Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. The catcalls made a meal for the tabloids for a day or two, but the heckling generated so much more heat than light that not even Lee feels like talking about it anymore, if recent interviews can be believed.
Which doesn’t mean Hollywood hasn’t been egregiously tardy about placing black American warriors front and center in theatrical features. But in Miracle, Lee pile-drives his talking points, distorting the movie’s shape and momentum. Take the very beginning, when he should be easing into his knotty narrative. A principal character, 60-something postal worker Hector Negron (Laz Alonzo), gazes morosely at a flickering television screen showing John Wayne in The Longest Day. “We fought for this country too, Pilgrim,” Hector mutters at the set. You know it’s really Lee growling at…well, at whom, exactly? Not the audience, because if they show up they’re probably already sympathetic, right? So is it Eastwood? The dead Duke? Hollywood? White folk? Whatever. It’s just hard to reconcile this image with what happens when Hector pulls out a German Luger and shoots a customer at close, deadly range.
The reason for the shooting unfolds in a lengthy flashback to wartime Italy that becomes a typical Hollywood platoon flick with a racial twist. Negron and three other members of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division are trapped in a Tuscan village behind enemy lines. The quartet’s leader, a characteristically stoic sergeant (Derek Luke), finds himself at odds with a swaggering, gold-toothed hipster (Michael Ealy), while the proverbial selfless lug (Omar Benson Miller) befriends an Italian boy (Matteo Sciarbordi) traumatized by Nazi atrocities.
Adapted from the 2003 novel by James McBride, Miracle is inspired by actual events. In August 1944, buffalo soldiers came to the aid of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, where the SS massacred villagers in retaliation for partisan attacks. The story’s compound of whodunit, social commentary, and blood-and-guts combat stirs up more raw emotional matter than it can easily carry. But a filmmaker like Samuel Fuller could probably have made it work. With as much declamatory fervor and prickly aggression as Lee, Fuller made such lean, tough war classics as The Big Red One (1980) and The Steel Helmet (1951), and he would likely have sharpened Miracle’s story line to a fine edge while protecting its soulful core. (For the record, Eastwood should absorb some of Fuller’s lessons, too.)
As usual, Lee captures visually forceful images, especially in the battle scenes. After 20 years of moviemaking, he still possesses that rare gift, a formidable eye. Unfortunately, he also still usually drops the narrative ball when he tries to say Something Significant, making Miracle less than it should have been.
Originally published in the January 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.