"The Horror... The Horror..."
by Chris Stevenson
(A reprint of my review of "Miracle At St. Anna" first published on 12/08)
I know who the sleeping man is, its Spike Lee and if you go see his latest effort Miracle at St. Anna you too may be sleeping. Don't get me wrong, it is entirely possible to appreciate this if you pitch St Anna to your wife or girlfriend just as it is; a foreign film. There's a great chance she will like it.
If you go to see this movie under the impression that Lee has been pushing you, that its about black WWll soldiers along the same line of "The Tuskeegee Airmen" or "A Soldier's Story," or even the Civil War epic "Glory," then Spike just stole your money. If you're sitting at some cineplex thinking your going to root for the brothers putting Hitler's forces to shame, then you arrived at the wrong movie.
St. Anna comes in the wake of Lee acting out his latest bout of short-man syndrome by aiming his verbal Howitzer at another prominent Hollywood figure. Last summer he blasted Clint Eastwood for not using blacks in either of his WWll films (Eastwood even devotes one of them to the enemy back then; the Japanese). Of course Hollywood in general has shown themselves to be unable to deal with black GI's in films about "The Big One." The same invisible edict applies to the Civil War and the many wars between Europe and African nations that the Africans won starting from Ethiopia's (then called Abyssinia) victory over Italy in 1896 and going all the way back to ancient times. Yes Lee does manage to hit the men's room and sneak some brothers in throughout the flick. One old man goes postal on a white man waiting in the line of his local branch, shooting him with a pistol. Not exactly the invasion of Normandy but you gotta start somewhere.
What Spike didn't tell you is that he is just as caught up in Hollywood's black WWll denial as Eastwood or Tom Hanks is, but at least they do it out of choice, what's Lee's excuse? Spike has long been an A-list director, his indy small film days are over, no longer does he have to rely on relative unknowns. Why then does he use them here? Among the four black GI's he shows the most-Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonzo and Omar Benson Miller-not one of them takes over the film, not one grabs your attention and keeps it. There is no black leading man here, two play very simple-minded characters, one plays a black Hispanic who makes a good straight man (actually a younger version of the pistol-packin' postal clerk) and their leader (Derek Luke of Antoine Fisher) lacks passion.
Ok Larenz Tate, Allen Payne, and Bookeem Woodbine are now too old to play those roles, but Ludacris would have been perfect for so many reasons, among them box office draw and he would have carried the picture. Instead the plot and layers of sub-plot was ludicrous. Lee-an expert on Italians due no-doubt to growing up in the NY Boroughs ("Do the Right Thing," "Jungle Fever")-offers his version of the passionate, unpredictable home-made bread and wine swilling old country Mediterranean European. St. Anna shows them conversing mostly in Italian with subtitles flashed at the bottom of the screen at sped-redding pace (the Germans get the same treatment).
The story revolves around a head of a statue (Ponte Santa Trinita), a little Italian boy, an old legend relating to a nearby mountain (the Sleeping Man), some Nazi's and turncoat Italian sympathizers, one gratuitous flirtatious young girl (booty) and four survivors of an ambush who wind up trapped in a small village.
I don't know if this is a true story, but "Rolling Stone" says its based on a story about the Buffalo Soldiers. It's not as if there is a shortage of amazing stories to tell about black WWll troops. There's one that Samuel L. Jackson discussed in an interview with Charles Barkley in his latest book; about some black soldiers in the first world war and how they saved a girl from being raped by some Germans and they also protected the German town they were in. At some point they found gold that the Germans hid, smuggled it back into America and then invested in businesses and real estate. According to Jackson HBO (who were busy airing ghetto shows like OZ and The Corner) and other white production companies ran away from Jackson and his proposal as if he was a shoe bomber. Lee could have done that script, its true, relevant, and a story that needs to be told. Amazing true stories about the black fighter pilots (bomber escorts and bombers), tank divisions and ground troops each have enough material for dozens of TV series or movie scripts. What these unsung heroes achieved is a double victory because of they're beating not only the Confederate South or the forces of Hitler, but often times their white American racist officers and fellow combatants and therein lies Hollywood's problem with telling these stories. So now we have many black directors like Lee that can finally make these films from our perspective, but most aren't willing to do it. I expected much more from Lee because he is the modern forerunner of the wave of black filmmakers, but St. Anna is not as focused as advertised.
On the plus side Lee does offer some footage of black soldiers in battle. With scant exception Hollywood has been very resistant to show this in flicks dealing with pre-Vietnam stories; strategically confining black soldier's stories to boot camps or barracks (Men of Honor, A Soldier's Story, Port Chicago Mutiny, etc.). For decades wealthy white producers have created an illusion that the Civil War, WWl and WWll was won only by white American soldiers; a stark impossibility for 2 of those conflicts. What am I getting at? White Hollywood is still as sensitive about exposing groups of blacks (soldiers or otherwise) plotting, outsmarting and killing whites to the general viewing audience as they were during the era of silent films. The question little examined is did black military heroics make many white men feel less about themselves or were they afraid the battle scenes would inspire black youths to feel confident about confronting whites? What have moving pictures become but the power of suggestion?
Lee's St. Anna is interwoven with too many peripheral subplots to make us fully appreciate the contributions of black WWll veterans like my father, I didn't read the novel but I'm betting he tried to cram as much as he could into it. Perhaps at some point he himself doesn't have that much faith in the brothers' sacrifice back then or he listened to too much advice from an array of sources who really didn't have the story's best interest at heart. He knocks Eastwood for Letters From Iwo Jima and then promptly makes Letters from Tuscany. In the immortal closing words from Marlon Brando's Col. Kurtz (Apocalypse Now): "The Horror, The Horror."
Chris Stevenson is a regular columnist for blackcommentator, Political Affairs Magazine, and a syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter, and Facebook, you don't have to join any of them. Watch his video commentary Policy & Prejudice and The Network for clbTV & Follow his Blogtalkradio interviews on 36OOseconds. Respond to him on the link below.