Oscar-nominated writer/director Spike Lee is known for films that touch upon the African-American experience or the New York experience. So it makes sense that his latest film centers on the only African-American division that saw infantry combat in Europe during World War II. While America needed as many troops as possible to fight in the war most African-Americans serving in the military â€œwere assigned to segregated construction or supply units or placed in units that performed unpleasant duties such as graves registration. The governmentâ€™s view was that blacks were not motivated enough or aggressive enough to fight.â€(1)
Miracle at St. Anna is based on the novel of the same name written by James McBride (who also wrote the screenplay). The film opens in 1983 a few days shy of Hector Negronâ€™s retirement from the Postal Service. When a sudden encounter with a random customer sends Hector to act in a murderous manner the film is supposed to revolve around the reasoning for committing the crime he did, especially considering his life as a law abiding citizen with a Purple Heart from WW II. During an interview with a young reporter Hector murmurs that he knows who the â€œSleeping Manâ€ is and thus the audience is thrust into the grime and muck of 1944 Italy with a few dozen African-American military men and one Caucasian as they scope out their grounds. After an intense battle that is as shocking as most when it comes to illustrating the horror of war on film we are left with the ricochet of semi-automatics and grenades ringing through our ears, along with the hauntingly appropriate woodwind filled score, as we see scattered bodies (and body parts) of men in the water and on land.
Those that remain from this battle make up the central figures of St. Anna. They are the at times unsure but headstrong leader of the group 2nd Staff Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke, Antwone Fisher), the pretty boy from the North Sgt. Bishop (Michael Ealy, Barbershop), the dense but affable â€œChocolate Giantâ€ Private Samuel Train (Omar Benson Miller, Things We Lost in the Fire), along with the level-headed and handily tri-lingual Corporal Hector Negron (Laz Alonso, Stomp the Yard).
Train carries his lucky charmâ€“â€“the head from a statue he found from an area that was destroyed by the German army. After saving an Italian boy and a run-in with an enemy soldier Train deduces that the statue is aiding him to be invisible, in addition, he feels his newfound friend in young Angelo has â€œthe sightâ€ from God and that with these two charms his group will be protected (or saved) by miracles. With a broken radio, a young boy, no back up, and being surrounded by enemy fire on their plate the quartet head to a small town in Italy where they befriend the remaining populace and attempt to figure out their next move. As time goes on the movie reveals betrayal (life threatening and emotional), race relations, and that sometimes people are not wholly evil or good when it comes to war.
Thereâ€™s a lot of back and forth and it is evident that with so much material packed in some elements were lost on film. Reviews of the novel note the powerful characters and their reasoning or thinking when it comes to being in the thick of it during war time and how as minorities their military uniform garners no respect. The film captures these elements in snippets with an idiotic Caucasian commander who essentially leads members of his infantry into danger and a scene at an ice slop house in the South. Yet itâ€™s unfortunate that when Sgt. Stamp mentions to Hector that he feels more at home in a foreign country than he does his own it doesnâ€™t hit as hard as it should. The dichotomy of this hardship and emotional collection is lost on us by that time because weâ€™ve seen this group so immersed with the Italian village. Beyond a brief conversation between Train and Bishop we donâ€™t learn more about whatâ€™s waiting (or not) for these soldiers back home or what is motivating them to keep going.
Another missing element is the effect of being in constant danger and serving their country has on these men. Yes, we see that for some urges are there (flirtation with an attractive Italian woman creates further friction between Sgt.â€™s Stamp and Bishop) but for Negron we never understand or get to know what he wants or what heâ€™s learning from his experience. The element of Stamp being the law abiding â€œgoodâ€ Negro and Bishop being the loose cannon that follows his own wants is interesting. However, by inserting a woman to heighten their dislike for one another dampens the real reasoning for them to come to blows. And while we know itâ€™s not all about her, we also know a big portion of it is. The simpleton that Train is made out to be seems happy to have a close confidant in little Angelo, but what else makes this man tick? Even if he isnâ€™t the brightest one his belief in God keeps him grounded, but how much so?
As an auteur Spike Lee has a signature style (floating character and camera action) that is absent here and rightly so. He focuses his energy into telling a story. The action scenes are intense and set to provoke a true realism and documentary style of the unfortunate fates of innocent civilians during WWII as well as the practice of believing and fighting for whatâ€™s right on the side of the American Army. Thereâ€™s also a side story of Italian Partisans fighting to protect their people and land from German invasion who will come to aid the American quartet. Miracle at St. Anna is decent film and should be seen by a larger audience. At times it can be a bit overly sentimental, particularly the reunion at the ending and the words that resonate into the credits. The glossing over of Hectorâ€™s trial also seems a bit odd so that we lose a bit more of his humanity in his old age since we didnâ€™t get to know him on a deeper level in Italy beyond his keen instinct. But the cluttering of so many elements to make this film as relevant as it could be needed to insert more into the main four characters rather than giving them archetypes to fall into such as the Leader, the Rebel, the Sweet Dummy, and the Sidekick.
1. â€œAfrican American 92nd Infantry Division Fought in Italy During World War IIâ€ by Robert Hodges, Jr.
WORDS: Jennifer Baker-Henry