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The courage of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division in 1944 Italy is the focus of Spike Lee’s latest film, which also reflects positive Catholic themes.
BY STEVEN D. GREYDANUS
probably made few friends in Hollywood over his spat with hometown favorite
Clint Eastwood regarding the absence of black soldiers in Eastwood’s twin World
War II epics, Flags of Our Fathers and
Letters From Iwo Jima.
Still, Lee has a valid point about
the absence of black Americans in the Hollywood iconography of World War II.
If filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard was
right, that the only way to critique a movie is to make another movie, Miracle at St. Anna is Lee’s critique of an
entire genre. It’s a point Lee makes from the first scene, where we see a black
veteran watching an old John Wayne movie on television.
The juxtaposition itself is enough
to make the point, though Lee can’t resist hammering it home. “Pilgrim,” the
vet mumbles with quiet irony, and then adds unnecessarily, “We fought that war
It’s a slightly heavy-handed misstep
in a film that runs confidently over a mountain of material, stepping right
more often than it steps wrong. As a contribution and challenge to the World
War II genre, Miracle at St. Anna
compares well to most Hollywood efforts. As is often the case, Lee seems to
relish biting off more than he can chew, and the ambition and scope of this
effort is worth the bits that don’t quite fit.
Like Saving Private Ryan, the story is bookended by
a pair of harrowing firefights and wrapped in a latter-day framing story, with
an aging veteran looking back on the nightmare of his youth. The first
firefight is a familiar battle-line sequence fought over a river crossing; the
other is a more unusual sequence, in the narrow cobbled streets and alleys of a
village in Tuscany.
What primarily differentiates Miracle at St. Anna is its focus on troops
from the all-black 92nd Infantry Division, the Buffalo Soldiers Division.
Following the novel of the same name by James McBride, who adapted his own
story for the screen, Miracle
is set in the Tuscany countryside when the Buffalos were among the Allied forces
pushing back the Nazis and liberating the Italians in 1944.
Unlike Ryan and many American World War II movies, Miracle focuses not just on the American
soldiers and their enemies, but also on the civilian populace of the region,
with whom four American troops live for several days after being cut off from
their division behind enemy lines. Among these are partisan members of the
Italian resistance, led by an underground hero called “the Great Butterfly”
(Pierfrancesco Favino) as well as civilians, old men and women and children. In
one key sequence, a dramatization of a historical massacre of 560 civilians at
the titular village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, there is also an anonymous
Italian priest, archetypally saintly in extremis,
shepherding his flock to the end.
As with many team stories, the main
characters fall into a familiar pattern of mind, spirit and flesh — of ego,
super-ego and id.
Ranking officer Staff Sgt. Aubrey
Stamps (Derek Luke) is the steady, commanding voice of reason. Thoughtful, devoutly
Catholic Cpl. Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) embodies conscience and spirituality.
Arrogant, egocentric Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) represents
challenging, unruly carnality; he’s skeptical of Aubrey’s idealism, and he
repeatedly puts the moves on the village beauty (Valentina Cervi) with a
crudeness that repels Aubrey, who is also attracted to her but respects her.
Then there’s lumbering,
simple-minded Pfc. Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), who, in a story with a white
protagonist, would surely be a “magic negro” (Lee popularized this term for a
character in fiction, who by special powers / insight helps a white character
out of trouble), but here he can only be called a “holy fool.” His slow wit and
superstitious notions mask a quasi-mystical purity and prophetic conviction.
Train is the one who finds a wounded
Italian boy named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi) under a pile of rubble in a
shelled-out ruin and insists on taking him with the division. Angelo calls
Train “Chocolate Giant,” and the two childlike souls share a bond that grows as
the film progresses.
Race, of course, is a major theme.
As the Buffalo Soldiers advance, they are “welcomed” by anti-morale propaganda
broadcasts from “Axis Sally,” a sultry-voiced American traitor who cheerily
assures them that the Germans have “no quarrel with the Negro,” ridicules them
for fighting for a nation that doesn’t want them, under white commanders who
don’t value them.
“Sally” even promises them food and
every comfort if they lay down their weapons, though in fact, the defending
Nazi forces barely have food (or ammunition) for their own needs. Aubrey evenly
reminds his men what they’re up against: a racist regime that regards them as
subhuman — “monkeys, apes, baboons.”
Later, Aubrey angrily quarrels with
Bishop over black advances and the importance of fighting for America — though
he has to admit that it is in Italy, a foreign country, that he feels free to
be simply a man and not a Negro for the first time.
Alas, “Sally” isn’t wrong about
everything. It’s true that some, if not all, of the white commanders don’t
value the troops of the 92nd.
Through the callous indifference of
one racist officer, Aubrey and his men wind up under mortar fire from their own
side. But as he usually does, Lee avoids one-sided stereotyping. Not only are
there decent and not-so-decent characters on both sides of the race line, there
is also moral variation among the Nazis and the Italians.
In one memorable touch, a blustering
old Italian patriarch — a benighted Archie Bunker-type, perhaps — still proudly
identifies himself as a fascist and praises Il Duce
Benito Mussolini for making Italy a world power, only blaming him for getting into bed with Hitler.
Along with the long-overdue
attention to the black veterans of the 92nd, Miracle at
St. Anna makes welcome, positive use of Catholic themes and images
in a genre that too often recently has made the Church appear only as a
St. Anna may not be a perfect film, but it’s a more than honorable
and rewarding achievement.
Steven G. Greydanus is editor and
chief critic at DecentFilms.com.
Content advisory: Graphic wartime violence including a massacre of
civilians; much obscene language and a few profanities; brief partial nudity
and sexual content, including a brief bedroom scene. Mature viewing.