Miracle at St. Anna

Spike Lee is one of the seminal talents in cinema, but his reputation is usually tainted by thoughts that he is a “paranoid Black man”–which no doubt he occasionally lives up to, himself. The shame of it is, this distracts most people from the gift that he has behind the camera. Miracle At St. Anna is his latest film, and in many ways, it’s a boiling point. Many moments in this film show how he has crossed over from audacious film making to outright self-righteousness. Yet, other moments show his grace and intelligence, and are almost inspirational.

The film begins with Hector Negron, a black Puerto Rican postal worker in 1983. One day, he randomly murders an Italian wishing to purchase stamps. He is arrested, and when the police raid his house, they find the head of a statue, which happens to be a valuable piece to “The Primavera” statue. The piece had been missing since the Nazi’s bombed the bridge during World War II. How this piece ended up in the possession of Negron is a mystery. A Purple Heart-winning corporal during that war, the press has a field day, trying to figure out his mystery, and with the help of a feisty young reporter (Joseph Gordon Levitt), he tells his story.

The story involves four black soldiers. They are members of the Buffalo Soldiers, an experimental group of African Americans drafted, and used mostly as litmus tests in the field, to test out the dangers of oncoming attackers. There is there staff sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke), his associate sergeant Bishop (Michael Ealy), private Train (Omar Benson Miller), and Hector himself (Laz Alonso). Crossing a river into enemy territory, the four are separated from the rest of their squad, who care little about their lives, and more of their position.

Train’s war stress has reached its limit, when he finds an equally shell-shocked little boy named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), who has been wounded in the fighting. Train takes to the little boy, and the little boy takes to him, convinced that he is a “Chocolate Giant” (he even attempts tasting him to prove his theory). The four bring the ill Angelo to a house of other Italians. They are family led by a bitter fascist, and there is only one woman who speaks English. Trapped in the house, they encounter dangers from many angles and ethnics, and are haunted by thoughts that they are fighting a war for a white government that cares little for them.

The film is based on a novel by James McBride, and he was called upon to pen the screenplay as well. A major flaw within the film’s storytelling technique is its inability to flesh out its true themes. Important sub-plots are not introduced until the last third of the film, and adds to the film’s dragging pace. Plot turns like this work within literature, but seem odd within films. The script takes so much time meandering that the film itself seems like an act in futility, and we are left to judge just how important what we are seeing on the screen is.

Despite all that, the film also has moments of stunning beauty. For this, I give most of the credit to Lee, whose takes a break from his usual constant barrage of over-stylized visuals, and instead takes a more patient approach. Not that the film is not visually ambitious, but its done in a much less immediate way. Some of the battle scenes, for instance, are orchestrated like a painting, with colors and images so breathtaking, its as if we are watching a master at work. Spielberg in his two films Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan used very subdued color, as if to point out the black-and-white nature of WWII. Lee, on the other hand, emphasizes it to its fullest potential.

These wondrous moments, though, come in between the meandering moments I mentioned before. The truth is, I don’t know how much of McBride’s novel translates to screen, because only half of it is truly interesting, and that half is only interesting because of what Lee makes of it. I find it strange that a film that was obviously very important to Lee, comes off so distant and unfeeling. We sympathize with the soldiers and their hardships, but we are never put in a position to truly care about them. In a story like this, that should be of sole importance.

I will give Miracle At St. Anna a very half-hearted recommendation. It is filmed so exquisitely, that it is hard for me to tell anyone not to see it. My fear is, though, that Spike Lee has become a product of his perception. Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X are some of the very best films I have ever seen, but I believe that Spike is less interested in being a great filmmaker than he is in being the great black filmmaker. He should spend less time worrying about his place history, and more time working on projects that don’t deal with themes that he has exhausted his entire career. I respect his opinions and feelings, I just don’t think they always make the best films.


Directed by Spike Lee