Spike Lee (She Hate Me, Inside Man) presents his first epic film since 1992’s Malcolm X. Miracle at St. Anna is an ambitious undertaking; a project that I think was near and dear to Lee’s heart. It is the story of an infantry of Buffalo Soldiers fighting the Nazis in Italy during WWII. The three leads are Derek Luke (Catch a Fire) as Stamps, Laz Alonso (This Christmas) as Hector, and Michael Ealy (Barbershop) as Bishop.
The movie opens in NYC in 1983(?), in the apartment of Hector Negron, a man of about 80 years. We see him go to work at the post office, quietly carrying out his duties. When a male customer approaches him to buy stamps, he withdraws a gun and inexplicably shoots the man at point-blank range, killing him instantly. As a young reporter tries to uncover Negron’s motive, as well as the mystery behind an ancient artifact discovered in his home, the story of St. Anna unfolds in flashback. We next find Hector in Italy, approximately forty years earlier. He, along with the rest of his infantry tries to advance across a river under heavy fire. When they are pinned down and attempt to radio their coordinates and the enemy’s position to their superior, their requests are ignored. This is only one incident in a series of racially-tinged affronts levied against the soldiers by White civilians and military alike. Eventually they encounter an abandoned shelter where one of them finds a young Italian boy, disoriented and mumbling to an imaginary friend in his native tongue. What follows is an intriguing, disturbing, and inspiring depiction of the soldiers’ brave struggle against an American foe, and in many ways, against America herself. Lee tends to be heavy-handed in his portrayal of race-related issues, but I have to trust that his ostensibly fictional account belies painful accuracies as well. His well-publicized feud with director Clint Eastwood over the latter’s lack of African-American representation in the WWII-based Letters From Iwo Jima probably served as motivation to explore the injustices endured by Black soldiers as they battled the Nazis abroad but were unappreciated at home.
Miracle at St. Anna was daring – grand in its budget, location, and duration. Despite its most intriguing opening, it got off to a slow and somewhat muddled start. There are extensive subtitles as well as the presentation of many plot points that are tied up much later. When we finally discover the “miracle” at St. Anna, we may have forgotten that we were supposed to be awaiting a big event. However, this was one of the most memorable scenes of the movie, and answered a lot of questions, if you are patient enough to wait for it. The performances were very good, and it’s hard to pick a favorite, though Laz Alonso makes a compelling case. This is a difficult movie to review, because it is such a detailed, layered film about both revenge and redemption. To call it a “war movie” makes it feel small and reduces it to the confines of a particular genre. It is a war movie, but is much more. Beware that it’s long as hell, and there are some excruciating scenes not for the faint of heart. It is definitely one to see, and a nice addition to Lee’s already impressive catalogue.