It is certainly unthinkable that precious few, if any, Hollywood films have yet to focus on the African American soldiers who fought and died in World War II. In a way, it is also surprising that Spike Lee has not taken up the topic until now. While it is also unfortunate that critics have generally slammed Lee’s latest film, I certainly do not expect a much deserved and long overdue subject to excuse poor filmmaking. I had been wanting to see Miracle at St. Anna for quite some time, but all those negative reviews that culminated in a damning 25% rating on rottentomatoes.com lowered my hopes. Perhaps this was a good thing because, quite frankly, I thoroughly enjoyed the film as did the four other people, including Pop Theology contributor Daniel Skidmore, who saw it with me. Surprisingly, given the poor reviews, we thought at least one of us would have disliked it. Read on for something of a two-person review.
Miracle at St. Anna tells the story of four “Buffalo Soldiers” fighting in Italy during WWII. We meet these young soldiers as they creep through a Nazi-surrounded field. One of the soldiers, Train (Omar Benson Miller), carries the head of a statue that he believes brings him good luck. He’s right as he and three other soldiers, Stamps (Derek Luke), Bishop (Michael Ealy), and Hector (Laz Alonso), miraculously survive the Nazi ambush and their racist commander’s refusal to send backup. When they escape the ambush, they encounter a strange Italian boy, Angelo (just a fantastic performance by Matteo Sciabordi). He and Train develop a close bond that, in a way, propels the movie forward. The four soldiers hole up in a small Italian village where they wait for further instructions and deal with Italian Partisans who share similar interests in a captured Nazi soldier…and the boy. While they, and the audience, wait, two of the soldiers become attracted to the same woman, Renata (Valentina Cervi), Train and Angelo grow closer, and one of the Partisans reveals that he is not who everyone thinks he is. All the while, the Nazis draw closer and closer to the small village.
This history is book-ended by a more contemporary series of events. One of the soldiers has survived and now works at a post office in New York City, where he lives alone. One day, he randomly shoots a customer at close range. When detectives investigate his apartment, they find the head of the statue, reports of which spark a frenzied reaction from a mysterious man in Italy.
Nearly every critic commented negatively on the script and film’s inability to integrate fantasy and history. Many other critics complained about its plodding pace and Lee’s inability to ultimately say anything fresh about the historical circumstances of African American soldiers in WWII. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly regretted that Lee failed to leave his mark on the film after all was said and done.
While I feel like there is much merit to some of these critiques, I could not disagree more. I found the film extremely compelling, and the 2 hours and 40 minutes felt more like one and a half hours. I was caught up in the story in anticipation of learning who the surviving soldier would be and what, if any, special powers young Angelo had. Lee reveals more of his cinematic talent as he proves his ability to effectively portray large open battle scenes along with enclosed, claustrophobic fight scenes. He cuts few corners in depicting the gruesomeness of war and Nazi atrocities. In fact, one viewer sitting directly behind me complained out loud about the violence and even walked out midway through the film.
This is certainly an unfortunate predicament, but a necessary one. Lee needed to show the gruesome effects of WWII on these brave soldiers. They deserved a Saving Private Ryan moment of their own, even if some critics complain that it was just a re-hash. To this date, if one were to chronicle history’s gravest injustices, I would argue that the treatment of African American soldiers in America during World War II would vie for top billing. Lee offers a flashback in the film that shows these four soldiers trying to purchase dessert at an ice cream shop in the South. The clerk will only serve them out back, even though they are in military dress and he has already served a group of German P.O.W.’s in one of the front booths. Lee’s depiction of these four soldiers’ sacrifices fills a gaping hole in American film history.
Pop Theology contributor Daniel Skidmore saw the film with me, and we have spent quite some time since reflecting on and talking about the film. I conclude with a some of Daniel’s thoughts on the film. To its credit, Miracle at St. Anna is a complex film on a variety of levels. While we resisted calling the film a masterpiece, we both felt that it was engaging and poignant. Daniel noted that the film presents racial dichotomies for which Lee is known but also reveals a contrast between the beautiful Italian backdrop and the horrific violence of war.
Daniel offered a few thoughts on why the film received such negative reviews:
First, I believe when dealing with race, especially when we are dealing with race and war heroes in a time that was so racist, we have a tendency to romanticize these heroes and take away all their flaws. Lee’s main characters were not perfect. In fact, two of the characters, Bishop and Train, exemplified some of the nastiest and most virulent stereotypes about African Americans, notably stupidity and uncontrolled sexuality. Perhaps this might have turned off some of the more politically correct reviewers. But, with flawed heroes, we also have the ability for redemption and catharsis to truly enter a story. These flaws are also important to the progression of the story. Train’s childlike innocence allows him to believe in miracles like the statue head and the small boy he rescued. I also believe that this mysticism, which to me seemed very subtle and well done, turned off many critics who dislike most things religious or spiritual. I also believe Bishop’s sexual nature brought to light one of the most interesting questions of this movie: how do we love in a time of war? For some of us, love is so incomprehensible in times of great tragedy that we simply reach out for lust or shut ourselves off completely. Others might cling to the things they love even tighter because that is what binds them to life and shields them from the horrors around them. So I celebrate Lee’s dichotomy in expressing both of these points through Train’s love for Angelo and Bishop’s lust for Renata.
Daniel added that he simply enjoyed the movie in and of itself, agreeing with me that the somewhat longer run time seemed to pass quickly and entertained him throughout. He also recognizes the impact of the realistic violence and the all-too-human characters, but claims that Lee struck a nice balance with them. Miracle at St. Anna discusses racism in America in powerful scenes and acting, although race is not the only subject of discussion as some viewers may have expected or wished. At its heart, Daniel claims, this movie is about HUMAN love and HUMAN folly in which we are all trapped, regardless of race. On the other hand, we also recognize and remain aware of the impact that race has on these experiences (not just being black in America, but being Italian during the end of WWII for example). The film also reminds us of the miracles that sometimes (hopefully) help us to transcend these things that keep us apart and constantly at war.
Miracle at St. Anna (160 mins.) is rated R for scenes of language, sexuality, and intense violence and is in theaters everywhere.