by Rick Grant
Recently Spike Lee criticized Clint Eastwood for not hiring black actors for his WWII
epic Flags of Our Fathers. Lee’s criticism was unwarranted because Eastwood’s film was about the struggles of the six soldiers who fought their way up a volcano under heavy fire to raise the flag on Iwo Jima and there were no black soldiers in that group. After Lee’s released his war epic, Miracle At St. Anna, he was humbled by how difficult it was to shoot. In Lee’s WWII epic, he was way outside his field of expertise and he could have used Eastwood’s advice orchestrating this complex big budget war movie.
Nonetheless, despite its glaring flaws, Miracle at St. Anna is an exciting and intriguing film about a squad of Buffalo Soldiers who get trapped in a Tuscan, Italian village during the Allies push through Europe after D-Day. Based on James McBride’s novel and his screenplay, the story jumps around in time from 1983 back to 1944 in the thick of the Buffalo Soldiers’ battles in Italy.
At the time, the Buffalo Soldiers were a regiment of all black combat troops. It was an experiment by the Army to see if Blacks could distinguish themselves in combat. They lived and fought together but they were commanded by white officers, who were mostly racists and wanted the experiment to fail. So, in Lee’s film, when the soldiers fight their way across a river, right on top of a German position, they call in artillery but the white officer doesn’t believe they have crossed the river. So he calls in the wrong coordinates, killing many of his own men.
The movie opens with an old black man, Bishop Cummings, watching a John Wayne movie. When it ends he says in disgust, “we fought there too.” Cut to Bishop at his Post Office job selling stamps. A man comes to the window and rudely demands stamps, which triggers a bad memory in the Bishop’s head and he snaps, pulls out a pistol from his drawer and shoots the man in the chest. Much later in the story the viewer has to put together certain clues to find out why the man killed a complete stranger at his job.
A young reporter tags along with the detectives investigating the murder. In Bishop’s apartment, the reporter finds a stone bust, which turns out to be a precious antique worth millions. So, the reporter goes to visit Bishop in jail and asks him about the Stone bust. As Bishop begins to tell the reporter his story, the scenario flashes back to the Buffalo Soldiers battling the Germans across the river. The soldiers are being cut to pieces by the German’s heavy firepower. Only a dozen men make it across the river and they are pinned down.
As the regiment takes heavy casualties, four men get cutoff from their regiment. Their radio is broken and they are surrounded by Germans. The men are Sergeant Bishop,(Michael Ealy) Corporal Hector Negron, (Laz Alonso) Private First Class Sam Train, (Omar Benson Miller) and 2nd Staff Sergeant Abrey Stamps (Derek Luke).
As the men hike inland, they come across an old barn. Inside is a boy, Angelo (Matteo Scibordi). An artillery shell lands in the barn just as Train is going in to check it out. The boy is buried by debris. Train pulls him free and develops a close relationship with the boy who insists on tagging along with the squad as they enter a village.
The men find themselves in a strange land in which the Italian people’s loyalties are divided between the Fascist government and the partisan underground. The central characters are a diverse group with varying degrees of education and military experience. Sam Train is a big goofy guy who seems to be marginally retarded. Stamps holds a shaky command over his men, and the townspeople are distrustful of them because they had never seen black people before. Train seeks the townspeople’s help for the boy, Angelo who is sick with a fever.
In this surreal background, Stamps has to make difficult decisions and keep his men under control. Strangely, McBride’s characterization of the black soldiers seems stereotypical but it was probably accurate to the time frame. The reason: The oppression of black people in America in that time ran so deep, it was almost impossible for blacks to rise above their class. But they fought bravely and died along side their white band of brothers.
As the Germans overrun the town, the miracles happen, which relate back to 1983 when Bishop goes on trial for murder. While in the town at a dance, Stamps says poignantly, “For the first time I feel free in a place where white people have no prejudice.” Some black soldiers’ experiences in Europe during the war inspired them to move to France and Italy after the war was over.
Indeed, the film could have been better edited to make it tighter, but it’s well worth viewing. The battle scenes are shocking like the D-Day invasion scenes in Saving Private Ryan. The film pays homage to the Buffalo Soldiers’ much maligned contribution to the war. It wasn’t until well after the Civil Rights Movement, that the Buffalo Soldiers were honored for their bravery and sacrifice.
Miracle at St. Anna
by Rick Grant