Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009

Spike Lee’s War

By David Luhrssen
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Spike Lee was fighting World War II long before Miracle at St. Anna, out now on DVD. His campaign began with a salvo at Clint Eastwood for excluding black faces from Flags of Our Fathers, accusing him of perpetuating the assumption that blacks contributed little to America’s victory. It was not the movie Eastwood wanted to make and the sniping between the two directors probably served to harden Lee’s resolve.

Miracle at St. Anna is about African-American bravery on the front lines of the Italian theater. It’s also a platoon picture about conflict within the ranks and the enveloping fog of war. The war movie at the heart of Miracle at St. Anna is folded inside a murder mystery, a why-dun-it with the snappy rhythm of film noir.

With only a few missteps, Lee demonstrates his command of the cinematic medium in many genres. The opening scene, introducing us to Miracle’s protagonist, Hector (Laz Alonso), is bravado filmmaking in editing and cinematography. The camera zooms down a dingy Harlem hallway, pausing at an apartment door. Cut inside: Hector bitterly watches the John Wayne war movie The Longest Day on TV. Behind his head hangs a World War II propaganda poster exhorting African-Americans to fight “because we’re on God’s side.” Hector is actually Puerto Rican, but his dark complexion consigned him to the 92nd Infantry Division, a black unit under white officers.

“We fought for this country, too,” Hector utters angrily, making Lee’s point. Fortunately, the director’s artistry is broader than his punditry. As in his best previous films, the fullness of life overtakes the temptation toward message mongering, making Lee’s lesson in race relations resonate louder and longer.

By day Hector works behind the counter of a post office, stoically buttoning up his feelings. One day his eyes narrow slightly in recognition of the man purchasing stamps. Calmly, Hector reaches for the World War II souvenir he keeps under his jacket, his Lugar, and shoots the customer dead.

The reason for his murderous outburst becomes clear after the lengthy flashback that occupies most of the film and follows Hector’s squad as it becomes stranded behind German lines in Tuscany—the result of racist officers at headquarters willing to squander the lives of the “waiters and shoeshine boys” of the 92nd Division. Like the all-white squads of classic Hollywood World War II movies, Hector’s detail is a microcosm. Staff Sgt. Stamps (Derek Luke) believes the promise of America will finally be fulfilled for his people if they prove valorous in combat. Bishop (Michael Ealy) hates all white men and thinks rapprochement between the races is impossible. Train (Omar Benson Miller) is a big-hearted giant filled with the rapturous spirit of black Southern Protestantism. Hector, a Roman Catholic wearing a rosary under his fatigues, keeps his own counsel. He acts as go-between with the Italian villagers, whose families are divided between Fascists who hate the Nazis and partisans dealing with the Germans on the side and everyday folk keeping their heads down.

Along the way Train adopts an Italian orphan boy who appears touched by grace and claims the head from a Renaissance statue, treating it as an amulet of good luck. An aura of magic realism, prevalent in some recent Italian films on the war years, is visible in spots. In other scenes the gritty, to-the-throat dynamism of American director Sam Fuller is more evident. War is never a pretty sight and brings out the worst and the best. The African-American characters aren’t all paragons and the Germans include everyone from men of conscience to demons in the guise of men. Lee artfully keeps the film’s divergent tones and genres from clashing. Lee composes from various Hollywood conventions—from eager cub reporters to wisecracking detectives—as if they were recurring themes in folklore, ready to be plugged into any story. Despite a few moments of contrived drama, Lee draws richness from the story’s source in James McBride’s novel, transforming it into emotionally moving, thought-provoking cinema.

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