Saturday, September 27, 2008

Miracle at St. Anna

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Bravery of Buffalo Soldiers Belatedly Acknowledged by Spike Lee’s WWII Saga

During World War II, the United States Armed Forces were still segregated, and the government directed embedded cameramen not to film or photograph any black soldiers on the front lines. Consequently, African-American GIs were invisible not only in official news footage, but later when it came time to write the history books and to shoot Hollywood movies.
As a Baby Boomer, I distinctly remember being virtually raised on sentimental, patriotic war flicks which invariably suggested that all of the country’s heroes had been white, misleading accounts which stood in sharp contrast to the stories simultaneously being shared with me by my father, my uncles and other honorably-discharged veterans. Regrettably, this slight against them was never corrected during most of their lifetimes.
Even relatively-recent World War II cinematic adventures, such as Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, have continued to overlook the bravery of the so-called Buffalo Soldiers. This makes Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna an important contribution simply by virtue of its being brought to the big screen at all, for it pays tribute to the service, albeit belatedly, of the long-neglected black members of “America's Greatest Generation.”
The movie was adapted by James McBride from his fact-based best-seller of the same name, a 300+ page-turner chronicling the exploits of the all-black 92nd Division stationed in Italy in 1944. This character-driven tale specifically telescopes on the plight of a quartet of enlisted men separated from their decimated unit and forced to survive by their wits in a tiny Tuscan village located behind enemy lines.
Each of the four protagonists represents a readily-recognizable archetype, starting with Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), the prototypical no-nonsense Staff Sergeant and highest ranking officer. Then there’s the preacher-turned-playboy Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), gentle giant Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) and Puerto Rican Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), a Corporal who adds a little Latin flava’.
The movie opens and closes in New York City in 1983, courtesy of a wraparound featuring sixty-something Negron going postal just three months before his planned retirement. Was there perhaps a valid reason for his seemingly inexplicable violent outburst? The bulk of the balance of the picture is devoted to an extended wartime flashback wherein the answer ostensibly lies.
While only indirectly addressing the solution to that mystery, the multi-layered plot instead concerns itself with threading in an array of complicated sidebars. One involves Private Train’s adopting a boy (Matteo Sciabordi) orphaned by a Nazi massacre. Another pits gentlemanly Sgt. Stamps against the womanizing Bishop in a love/lust triangle for the affections of the most attractive lass (Valentina Cervi) in town. The third strand raises the question of the trustworthiness of the leader (Pierfrancesco Favino) of the local cell of the anti-Fascist resistance.
Nonetheless, the power of Miracle at St. Anna repeatedly derives from its plausibly portraying the Second World War from the heretofore unseen perspective of African-American soldiers, whether they’re shown secretly spitting into the canteen of a racist white superior, wondering why they’re risking their lives for a country where they can’t even vote, or reflecting on actually feeling more free in a foreign land than they ever have at home. An overdue history lesson about the indelible stain left by Jim Crow on the conflicted minds of black men forced to wage a white man’s war when they’d really prefer to be fighting for their own civil rights.

Excellent (3.5 stars)
R for graphic war violence, profanity, ethnic slurs, nudity and sexual content.
Running time: 160 minutes
Studio: Touchstone Pictures

To see a trailer for Miracle at St. Anna, visit:

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