Spike Lee’s new film, “Miracle at St. Anna,” is a tale of forgotten soldiers in WWII. The men are African Americans who have long been neglected in stories of the war in everything from history books to war films.
Based on James McBride’s novel, “Miracle at St. Anna” may have a fictional plot, but its background is a reality that has been buried too long.
The film begins in 1984 when an elderly black man named Hector Negron is watching John Wayne’s WWII film, “The Longest Day.” He mumbles to the screen, “Pilgrim, we fought for this country too.” Later he is seen working at a post office. When a foreign man comes up to him asking for a 20-cent stamp, Negron pulls out a handgun and shoots him in cold blood. After being arrested, detectives search his Harlem apartment and find the head of an Italian statue that had been lost since WWII.
The rest of the movie is a flashback to Negron’s experience in the 92nd Division called the Buffalo Soldiers. Excluding the white officers, this division was solely comprised of African Americans. The government referred to their group as an “experiment.”
While in Tuscany, Italy in 1944, the 92nd Division’s white officer cross fires on his own men after doubting the honesty of their position. Only four men survive. The men include Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), the Puerto Rican; Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), the simplistic dreamer; Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), the “do the right thing” persona; and Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), the slickster who often clashes with Stamps’ moral ways. These four men make it to a small Italian village, and have to stay put after realizing Germans surround them.
The four men meet several different characters along their journey. There is Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), the 8-year-old Italian boy who clings to Train, whom he calls the “chocolate giant.” Renata (Valentina Cervi) is the Italian heartthrob who steals the hearts of both Stamps and Cummings. And there is Peppi (Pierfrancesco Favino), the anti-Nazi group leader from the Italian village.
But for a film that has so much potential, its actual outcome disappoints. Lee went way overboard in his attempt to grab the audience’s emotions. “Miracle at St. Anna” reeks of symbolism to the point of nausea. There are only so many times that you can use close-up shots of swastikas and angry Germans to conclude they are bad guys.
The violent scenes, which are no doubt profuse, are both unrealistic and overdramatic. Many of the scenes don’t make sense, but are obviously incorporated for the emotional appeal. This fails to enhance the film, and creates a growing sense of disbelief as the events play out.
The overlapping plots between the Italians, the Germans and the 92nd Division become muddled and arbitrary. With the addition of Negron’s shooting mystery taking place in 1984, as well as the many Italian subplots, Lee’s work could have been divided into three or four films, not one.
The most interesting aspect that should have been the sole focus of the film is the conflicting roles of the black men fighting for America. For a country that considered blacks “second class citizens,” the men of the 92nd Division not only battled America’s enemies, but they also battled America’s prejudice. While in Italy, one of the soldiers said, “I feel more free in a foreign country than I do in my own.”
The men often have opposing viewpoints about their position in the military. Stamps holds the position that having black men serve is progress for African American rights in the U.S. Cummings, on the other hand, argues the only reason they are there is because the U.S. is running out of white men to fight. That’s not progress, it’s just sick.
One of the most powerful scenes in the film occurs in the U.S. while some of the 92nd Division’s men are in training. They walk into a diner to get some food.
There is a group of German POWs at the diner sitting in a booth relaxing and eating some ice cream. The black men look over at them in disbelief that Nazis are allowed into the diner. After the men of the 92nd Division ask for their food, the manager says they can go around the back of the diner to get it. The concept that the U.S. would cater to the Nazi enemies before their black allies is a big slap in the face.
“Miracle at St. Anna” has the right material, but is unfortunately a letdown overall. Despite the botched aspects of the film, the story of the black men fighting in WWII is paramount. When interviewed for this film, Lee said, “We continue putting out these lies again and again, and young people growing up have no idea that this stuff even happened.” This film is a tribute to the men who fought for our country but never received credit.
Staff writer Marjorie Hamburger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.