Spike Lee’s last feature film, Miracle at St. Anna (2008), fits perfectly into his catalogue in whilst also challenging his unarguable capabilities as a director, in his deciding to create a fictionalised account of black GIs fighting the Axis Powers in Italy in the Second World War.T he narrative is initiated when the surviving GI, Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) “sticks a German luger in a guy’s chest, 3 months before retirement” right in the middle of his workplace in an apparently random attack.
Miracle at St. Anna proceeds to recount the WWII story around the four central protagonists of soldiers Negron, Stamps (Derek Luke), Train (Omar Benson Miller) and Cummings (Michael Ealy), who we meet after an entire squadron comes under attack from the Germans lying in wait in a horrifying sequence on a river, the ineptness of the blacks’ superiors marked by a commander accidentally shelling his own troops.
The one thing that Lee’s individual capability for producing this story does not go hand-in-hand with however is subtly. In creating this fiction film with its immediately recognisable, and to some extent historical background Lee projects his own grievances on a narrative that is intended to be both grounding and belief-defying. A scene that anticipates the tone of the rest of the film is particularly articulated in our first introduction to the protagonist (although the film is indefinitely more of an ensemble) in his small bedsit. One of the first images we see in is of the “Great White Hope” John Wayne playing on the TV, with the elderly Negron muttering “We were there too”, the first hint to the uninitiated of the message Lee is pursuing, whilst often faltering with some far too pushy, often patronising dialogue.
It could be said that Lee takes too much enjoyment in producing his own WWII vision (without disparaging the legacy of the brave black troops that fought for a country that didn’t particularly want them). That said, because this motive is allowed to take centre stage, the character of Hector Negron, who bookends the flashback sequences as the postal office worker under trial, making us initially assume his central narrative journey, is ultimately sidelined, and empathy is not really created.
The film certainly has its positives, especially with its echoes of Rossellini’s seminal Paisan (1946) in the central relationship between Angelo and his adoptive parent “Il cioccolato gigante” Private Samuel Train, and one of the film’s highlights is the impossibility of relationships in the time when the individual desire cannot be considered. The neorealism period is furthered invoked in Lee’s correct choice for both naturalised language- every nationality speaks its own language, with only a few characters speaking over the boundary, a refreshing reminder of why American war films like Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie (2008) failed.
The first act of Miracle at St. Anna may warble and creak along with some severely questionable dialogue, which highlights Lee’s apparent aversion for a deft, subtle touch, but the war-time sequences are sufficiently and dramatically created in a world of films in which they are frequent and the ending, although could be regarded as sentimental crap can, for the right viewer, be wholeheartedly feel-good.