Written by Eduardo Graca, New York
There goes Spike Lee again. His eyes are wide open, his face is down and his head almost erases his neck as he answers the question one more time that has followed him since he made derogatory comments about a certain Clint Eastwood and the lack of African-American soldiers in the war movies Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. Is there a real feud between the two directors? In any way is his own experience of delving into World War II biased on his harsh criticism of a colleague, something so rare in Hollywood? “That’s not true at all. There is no war of visions between Clint and me. The statements I’ve said about those two Eastwood films were made in May and we had finished shooting Miracle At St.Anna in January. Please, one thing has nothing to do with the other”, he says.
Lee keeps his voice low and maintains a very specific rhythm during the interview –made at Disney headquarters in Times Square – which reminded this writer of the most memorable character of his new movie, Private First Class Sam Train, played by Omar Benson Miller. Nicknamed ‘the chocolate giant’ by the other sensation of Miracle, the newcomer Italian Matteo Sciabordi, Benson Miller has a huge heart, an immense gut and sometimes a very slow mind. The naiveté of both characters captures the attention of the viewer with such intensity that during the 2 hours and 40 minutes of this long Miracle you pay more attention to their implausible – yet touching – friendship than to the story of the brave minority soldiers who are members of the almost all-black 92nd Division Buffalo Soldiers.
Not that the movie is short on details about the difficult and many times humiliating position of African-Americans soldiers who felt ‘more at home in Italy than in America’. Asked if the buffalo that appears in the posters of the movie is the original one, Lee doesn’t blink: “Of course it is! We did our research very well. Buffalo soldier was a nickname that the Native Americans gave to the black members who fought the Mexican War due to their dark skin and hair that reminded them of the buffalo”.
The Buffalo Soldiers were the foundation of author James McBride’s novel Miracle at St.Anna, published in 2003. After reading the book, Lee called McBride and became “a student of the World War II.”. In the pre-production process of the movie he met several of the surviving soldiers that were interviewed by McBride. His story is centered on three African-American soldiers and one Hispanic soldier (played by Benson Miller, Derek Luke, Michael Ealy and Laz Alonso) and their interaction with a group of Italians – including some fascists – during their liberation from the Nazis. McBride is the screenplay writer and he always saw his story as a piece “about human beings who are reacting in times of extraordinary stress, trying to retain their humanity,” not exactly as a “war story.”
Maybe this is one of the reasons why Miracle at St.Anna is, in the end, a very different movie than, oh, here we go again, Letters of Iwo Jima. Leaving aside the budget disparities, Lee seems more interested in the transformation of these young black men in a distant land and less focused on the theater of war. The first third of the movie offers one of the most racially motivated attacks ever filmed: a German actress talks by radio with the Buffalo soldiers, telling them (reminding them?) that America doesn’t really care about blacks, that they will always be slaves of the white – and real – Americans.
This message has more strength then ever when the country is 40 days away from the first presidential election with an African-American at the top of the opposition ticket. Lee, a lively presence at the Democratic convention, celebrates the coincidence. “This country has progressed. Barack Obama is the biggest evidence of that. I never ever thought I was going to see an African-American in my lifetime on the verge of being the 43rd president of the U.S.A. And I think, oh yes, it is gonna happen”, he says, offering a large smile with the same slow rhythm that characterizes the interview – and, some will say, his Miracle.
With delicious cameos of John Turturro, John Leguizamo and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Miracle of St.Anna opens today in Los Angeles and New York.