Truly a miracle or just mediocre?
Image courtesy of IMPAwards.com
Director: Spike Lee
Notable Cast: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Valentina Cervi, Matteo Sciabordi, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Spike Lee is not someone who can easily deflect controversy. At the Cannes Film Festival in May he had some not-too-kind words about Clint Eastwood and his two World War II dramas, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. His gripe: the exclusion of African-Americans in both films. I’d like to think the comment was tongue in cheek, but it could be pure ignorance on his part, especially when lumping Letters into the conversation.
The comments are a metaphor of sorts, similar to the albatross that is killed by the mariner in Coleridge’s famous poem, and seem to overshadow the fact that his newest film, Miracle at St. Anna, is a WWII drama about a division of Buffalo Soldiers—the 92nd Infantry.
The film has a decree in its opening minutes where one character, a black man, makes a comment while watching a World War II film starring John Wayne: “We fought in that war too, pilgrim.” With that single line of dialogue the synapses in my brain fired and I thought to myself, oh, so it’s going to be one of those movies—the war film that embraces race over combat.
And in truth my thoughts were fully realized after 160 minutes. It’s a current trend in Hollywood to make a war film that’s anti-something. Lee chose to make his a melodrama with stereotypical characterizations pertaining to race. Miracle at St. Anna could have easily championed the bravery of the Buffalo Soldiers, but instead Lee can’t get beyond the bigotry.
In 1944, four members of the 92nd Infantry Division found themselves behind enemy lines in Italy with a German regiment drawing close. Far from their division, Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), Hector Negron (Laz Alonzo) and simple-minded Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) find salvation in a small Tuscan village inhabited by residents willing to offer them food and shelter. It is there that Train builds a relationship with the traumatized Italian boy he rescued along the way to the village and where Stamps and Cummings butt heads over race and patriotism in Uncle Sam’s Army.
Through the use of flashbacks, Lee incorporates one particular scene that was only added to script because of his suggestion. The scene is a lightning rod of racial prejudice as Stamps and his fellow soldiers see a group of Nazi POWs eating ice cream treats at an Ice Shoppe, only to discover that the owner, who happens to be white southerner, won’t serve Negros. The event presented next only helps to reinforce the racial prejudice that resonates whenever somebody is held up at gunpoint.
With such racial disharmony, the long, drawn out story is so disorganized that it lacks any real consistency. To the point that we almost forget that this is a film about war at all. The war-action set pieces act as bookends—I guess so we can better understand the plight of the African-American soldier, as if such an experience has never been brought to the silver screen before. One only has to look back to 1989 and Glory, which told the story about one of the first formal black regiments of the U.S. Army. (A little FYI: that same year Spike Lee made Do the Right Thing, which some consider his best cinematic work.)
Instead, Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna mires in mediocrity. James McBride’s novel of the same name might be a stellar work of literature, but he didn’t do himself any favors by adapting his own work so Lee could take up the fight for the African American solider during “The Greatest Generation.” Also not in his favor are multiple subplots and a weird framing device that establishes Negron as a composed murderer after killing a postal customer in 1983, leading to the discovery of an important Italian artifact that only acts as a MacGuffin to spur the story along in flashbacks.
All that promise Lee showed with Inside Man, and how he could make a commercial film within the studio system, seems to have been lost with St. Anna. Lee is a good filmmaker, but this constant harping on race and the black man’s place in the army wears thin and leaves us with a fruitless experience.
FINAL RATING (ON A SCALE OF 1-5 BUCKETS):
Tags: Clint Eastwood, Derek Luke, Glory, Michael Ealy, Reviews, Spike Lee