TORONTO - Early in Spike Lee’s World War II movie, “Miracle at St. Anna,” there’s a clip of John Wayne rallying the troops in the famous Hollywood D-Day pic, “The Longest Day.” There are no black actors to speak of in that film - although thousands of African-American soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944.
In fact, there are few black actors in most of Hollywood’s World War II accounts - a war in which almost one million African Americans served. So when Lee was a kid growing up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and he and his brothers watched “The Dirty Dozen,” it was a revelation.
“Jim Brown!” Lee exclaims, remembering the sight of the football hero-turned-movie star on the big screen. “My brothers and I were so happy to see a black man in a World War II film. Because even though we loved World War II films as kids, we knew - because my father’s older brothers were in World War II - that there were stories not being told.”
That’s a key reason Lee wanted to tell this one. In “Miracle at St. Anna,” four “Buffalo soldiers” - members of the all-black 92d Infantry Division, the only segregated unit that saw combat - are trapped behind enemy lines in the hills of Tuscany. Lee’s film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, stars Laz Alonso, Michael Ealy, Derek Luke and Omar Benson Miller.
In “Patton,” Lee notes, the only black actor of consequence is James Edwards, who played the legendary general’s personal valet. But in reality, black soldiers, like the ones in the U.S. Army’s 761st Tank Battalion, “saved Patton ... during the Battle of the Bulge. No one knows about this,” he says.
“And there was the Red Ball Express, which was a caravan of black drivers whose job was to keep the supply lines open so Patton could advance. They were in German territory, driving at night without lights, the unsung heroes.”
And it wasn’t just blacks, Lee adds.
“The Nisei was a Japanese-American unit that fought side by side in the later stages of the campaign in Italy against the Nazis. Japanese Americans! No one knows about them either.”
Lee, 51, wearing tortoise-shell glasses and an Obama T-shirt as he sits for interviews in a Toronto hotel, hopes that “Miracle at St. Anna” will be the first of many films to bring these stories to notice.
“In the spring, George Lucas will do his Tuskegee Airmen film; it’s called ‘Red Tails.’ He’s producing it,” Lee says. “So, hopefully, these two films, back-to-back, will get the ball rolling.”
At a press conference earlier in the day, James McBride, author of the “Miracle at St. Anna” novel - and writer of the screenplay - said he hoped the film would pay tribute to other forgotten heroes of the war.
“It needs to be said that while ‘Miracle at St. Anna’ is about the 92d Division, about the struggles of the African-American soldier, the Italian story in this ... is very important. The Italians suffered terribly during World War II, and they have been portrayed stereotypically in our media and in our movies as the little partisans with the little guns waiting for the great Americans to come and save them.
“When, in fact, the Italians did a great deal to save themselves.”
“Miracle” was shot last fall, mostly on location in Tuscany, and in the fabled Cinecitta Studios in Rome - “a studio built by Mussolini,” Lee notes with no little irony. One of the hardest scenes to watch is one depicting the Nazi massacre of hundreds of villagers in the piazza of the title town, Sant’ Anna di Stazzema.
“It was very difficult,” Lee says. “We shot that at the actual place where the massacre occurred. In this small village in Tuscany, where on Aug. 12, 1944, the Nazis - specifically the 16th division SS - slaughtered 560 innocent Italian civilians, made up mostly of elderly men and women, and children.
“And we shot at the same exact place ... and it was spooky. Everybody, cast and crew, felt the spirits, the souls, of those people that were murdered.”
Lee has had a difficult time getting financing for his projects lately. Production on “Miracle” was announced in Rome in July 2007 as a fait accompli. “But we didn’t have one euro. Not a dime. We willed this film into being ...”
In his introduction to the “Miracle at St. Anna” companion book published by Rizzoli, Lee writes about the struggles to get two of his big projects going: a drama about the 1992 Los Angeles riots and a biopic of soul titan James Brown.
Even with the success of “Inside Man,” his 2006 Denzel Washington/Clive Owen/Jodie Foster heist hit (there’s a sequel planned), funding has not been forthcoming.
“If it’s not a comic book, superhero stuff, and if you don’t have a big star attached, it’s not a good environment for these types of films to be made,” he says. Still, “L.A. Riots,” he hopes, will be next on his slate. And he’s been talking to Wesley Snipes about playing the Godfather of Soul.
From Toronto, Lee was heading home to New York and then on to France, where he was to be the subject of a career retrospective at the recent Deauville Film Festival. He winces when he thinks about “She’s Gotta Have It,” the low-budget 1986 pic that put him on the filmmaking map (“crude and naive” he says). But generally he feels pretty good about his body of work. And he was looking forward to this trip to France.
“They’ve arranged a tour for me of Normandy,” he reports, “and I’m going to be shown the grave sites of some of the African-American soldiers who died on D-Day with the invasion of Normandy.
“I’ve never been there, and I want to be there.”