Spike Lee Goes to War with Miracle at St. Anna

The feisty auteur finds racism and redemption on the battlefield

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The director on location in Tuscany for Miracle at St. Anna, his film about black soldiers in World War II

Miracle at St. Anna opens with images of John Wayne and his men in the World War II movie The Longest Day flickering on a TV screen in harsh black and white. Make that all white. An elderly African American (Laz Alonso) stares at the TV and murmurs, "Pilgrim, we fought for this country too."

Earlier this year, Spike Lee picked a fight with Clint Eastwood over the lack of black soldiers in Eastwood's Iwo Jima films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Clint opined that "a guy like that should shut his face"; Spike replied, "The man is not my father, and we're not on a plantation either." No doubt that Lee was voicing a social grievance, but he was also tub-thumping some early publicity for his own WW II film — the one with the John Wayne clip and the typically smoldering Spike Lee quip.

With 20 features since his 1986 debut She's Gotta Have It, plus music videos, excellent documentaries like 4 Little Girls and When the Levees Broke and, not least, his Nike commercials with Michael Jordan, Lee is more than just film history's leading black director. He has raised racial awareness, and hackles, while establishing a powerful brand name: Spike Lee. From the incendiary Do the Right Thing in 1989 to his box-office hit Inside Man two years ago, Lee has fashioned an ornery, instantly recognizable personality that stamps his films, his clothing line and his public statements. All seem like variations on the Mars Blackmon character he played in She's Gotta Have It: fresh, feisty, indefatigable.

In doing so, Lee, 51, has become one of three New York directors — all diminutive, all accomplished — who are so well known, and whose movies constitute such a vivid collective biography of the city in the late 20th century, that strangers seeing them on the street are likely to hail them by their first names: "Woody!" "Marty!" "Spike!"

A Producer of Genius

Allen and Scorsese have their Oscars. Lee has never been nominated for Best Director. Granted, he's not quite in their league, though he loves zippy tracking shots as much as Scorsese, and the New York Knicks as much as Allen. But Lee is a producer of genius, and not just in his self-marketing — which, don't knock it, is a boon to someone who's essentially an independent auteur. He chooses provocative projects, gets big stars when he needs them, makes vigorous, good-looking films and does it on half a Hollywood budget.

All the money is on the screen, and so are his prickliness and passion. Tender, angry, unafraid of mixing comedy and sentiment, Lee's pictures bulge with so many ideas, they're hard to contain. Sometimes he holds them together through sheer nerve, as in the loopy racial satire Bamboozled; in other films, like Do the Right Thing, the story eventually explodes in the moviegoer's face. All the audience can expect is to be lectured, hassled and entertained.

That's the case with Miracle at St. Anna, an unwieldy epic that leapfrogs four decades and two continents while trying to cram the undertold history of black soldiers in World War II into a fable of the friendship between an Italian boy and his "chocolate giant." At more than 2 1/2 hours, it's a mess, but it's got battle scenes that thrill and horrify and a brilliantly choreographed slaughter of Italian innocents; the title could have been Massacre at St. Anna.

Based on James McBride's novel and screenplay, the movie begins in 1983 with Hector Negron (Alonso), a New York City postal worker, standing behind his caged-in window at the post office. When a man approaches and asks for a stamp, Negron shoots him dead with a German Luger. Later, in Negron's apartment, police discover the head of a priceless statue. The rest of the film, a flashback to Italy in 1944, explains how Negron got the statue and why he executed the stranger.

Negron was a member of the 92nd Infantry Division, the black GIs known as Buffalo Soldiers. Their white captain sends them on a suicide mission against the Nazis, but four of them — Corporal Negron, Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) and Private Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) — make it across a river and into a remote village. There they fend off the Germans and mix with the locals, especially the fierce Renata (Valentina Cervi), the crafty Partisan Rodolfo (Sergio Albelli) and 8-year-old Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), whose life Train saves.

Too Much and Not Enough

Within each Spike Lee movie, a dozen different films are fighting to get out, and the best one doesn't always win. Miracle at St. Anna lugs its central narrative around much as Train does the statue head. And just as he rubs it for good luck, so Lee hopes the bonding of slow, sweet, huge Train and little Angelo — a kitschy mix of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Charlie Chaplin's The Kid — will propel audiences through the screeds on racism and the disasters of war.

Yet these are the strongest sections: a seductive broadcast by the Nazis' Axis Sally to the black soldiers; a vignette of the soldiers at a Louisiana restaurant run by a rancid racist; a montage of the Italians, the Germans and the Americans before battle, saying the same prayer in three languages; a shot of corpses in the river, one helmet floating from body to body; and the final shoot-out with the Nazis, where sudden death is both surprising and inevitable.

"This is a white man's war," the cynical Cummings notes. "Negroes got nothin' to do with it." Yet it becomes their war when they're in an isolated village with mostly sympathetic Italians. The men certainly can't be indifferent to the atrocities visited on their hosts. One such scene (based on fact, like much of the novel and the movie) leaves the viewer in numbed bereavement. As Negron puts it, "They killed so many, they ran out of bullets. They burnt so many, they ran out of fuel."

By the end of St. Anna, Lee and McBride have laid on so many miracles, the moviegoer runs out of patience. The film goes for broke and in the process breaks. It's too much and not enough. One could find a perfectly good movie, of normal length, by watching St. Anna on DVD and skipping the awful chapters to focus on the terrific ones.

But that's a familiar test, or trap, in a Lee film. He loves to twist a picture out of shape, daring the audience to keep up with the abrupt shift of moods, the wagging finger of the director. And if you start arguing with Miracle at St. Anna, that's O.K. with him. Spike Lee has always loved a good fight.