Reviews

Miracle at St. Anna

Spike Lee's answer to the many WWII movies that have left out the experiences of black soldiers, Miracle at St. Anna is ambitious and ardent.


Miracle at St. Anna

Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Laz Alonso, Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Omar Benson Miller, Matteo Sciabordi, Valentina Cervi, Pierfrancesco Favino, John Turturro, John Leguizamo
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Touchstone Films
First date: 2008
US Release Date: 2008-09-26 (General release)
Website

Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) first appears in Miracle at St. Anna watching a World War II movie, The Longest Day. A World War II veteran seated in his cramped Harlem apartment, a Joe Louis poster on the wall behind him, Hector stares hard at John Wayne on his TV. The Duke leads his men into battle, resolute and insightful, announcing, "It's a hell of a war." Hector shakes his head, muttering to himself, "It wasn't like that."

And so, Hector's own movie offers another version of what it was "like." Spike Lee's answer to the many WWII movies that have left out the experiences of black soldiers, Miracle at St. Anna is ambitious and ardent, sprawling and uneven. The "hell of a war" is here revealed as a profound instance of American hypocrisies, as Puerto Rican Hector and his fellow Buffalo Soldiers struggle to make sense of their service, faith, and frustrations.

Hector's flashback to Tuscany is triggered by a chance encounter with an Italian fascist he met during the war. Looking out from the post office window that frames his routine working day, Hector is initially stunned when he spots this gnarled-faced customer, asking for stamps. He then reaches beneath his window, pulls out a German luger, and shoots.

The next few moments, filled with screaming customers and bloody mess, recall briefly the orchestrated chaos of Lee's previous film, the popular Inside Man (so too does a late appearance by Peter Hammond, again played by Peter Frechette, now transformed from a bank manager into a lawyer). This allusion sets a context, namely, Lee's New York, where multiple histories and communities come together (and grants a precious few minutes to John Turturro as a weathered homicide detective), then gives way almost immediately to the new film's extended (two and a half hours) flashback to Tuscany, 1944.

Hector's war story includes acts of courage and fear, ingenuity and chance. Like other American war stories, it features explosions, mangled corpses, and dismembered limbs, as well as male bonding, pretty village girls, and a mysterious, waify child, here named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi). Unlike those more familiar war stories, this one also includes explicit references to the racism that shaped the war. Again and again, Hector and other members of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division contend with abuse from their own white commanders (represented here most vigorously by Captain Nokes, played by The Shield's Walton Goggins), as well as solicitations from the lusciously red-lipped "Axis Sally" (Alexandra Maria Lara). An Aryan version of Tokyo Rose (as one soldier helpfully explains), Sally is trucked out onto the battlefield, where she warns the black soldiers that while they're at war, "The white man is raping your wives and daughters."

The Buffalo Soldiers exchange looks and worries that what they're hearing might be true. "Save yourselves, Negro brothers," Sally sweet-talks, listing the treats now available at the nearest Nazi station, including fried chicken, greens, and candied yams. "I have two big white biscuits here for you." While the white captain worries Sally will "start a race war," the black soldiers understand that no white solicitor can be trusted, Kraut or Yank. And so they push forward, through mud and into the trap set by the Germans, whose plan to distract their invaders is working perfectly.

The ensuing assault results in close-ups of bloody body parts and vacant corpse faces, as well as the scattering of surviving troops. Hector and three others -- Staff Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke), Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), and Pfc. Train (Omar Benson Miller) -- end up in the Tuscan hills, along with the injured Angelo, discovered by Train in a home that's been bombed. When the king-sized private lifts a beam off the child's chest, he's deemed a "Chocolate Giant," and here the film looks toward the "miracle" that grounds its hopefulness, despite its examination of historical abuses and disappointments.

The friendship that develops between Train and the boy is increasingly trite ("This world ain't worth a pinch of snuff," counsels Train, by way of imagining a better place), as the men's decision to save Angelo lead them to a village that is the designated next target of approaching Nazis. Here they meet predictable types -- the wise and wizened old man, suspicious older women, and a voluptuous beauty Renata (Valentina Cervi) -- in order that the Americans can indulge in debate over their purpose. Where Stamps sees their work as a means of "proving" themselves, thus improving legal and other frameworks back home, Bishop is skeptical, insisting on a seize-the-day sort of survivalism amid perpetual injustice and trickery by those in power.

When their racist captain learns the foursome has survived, he orders them to "capture a Kraut" for questioning. This mission never quite takes off, but it does impose an artificial structure on the men's stay in the village, as they interrogate local fighters, including the noble Peppi (Pierfrancesco Favino) and the less righteous Italo (Giovanni Zigliotto), the man Hector recognizes in New York). As convoluted and protracted as the Buffalo Soldiers' plot becomes, it provides context for a series of political arguments. Flashbacks show the men confronting racism back in the States (a Southern diner where they're refused service), contrasted with what Stamps sees in the village ("I love Italy," he gushes, "I ain't a nigger here, I never felt so free in my life").

Like some of Lee's other films, this one is over-full of ideas and scenarios, as of if he worries he'll not get another chance at the subject. Still, it makes pointed use of war movie clichés, as they're turned inside out to show that previous mythic memories -- such as those embodied by John Wayne -- need reexamination, that other stories must be told.

6


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Music

Hip-Hop's Raashan Ahmad Talks About His Place in 'The Sun'

On his latest work,The Sun, rapper Raashan Ahmad brings his irrepressible charisma to this set of Afrobeat-influenced hip-hop.

Music

Between the Buried and Me's Baby Pictures Star in 'The Silent Circus'

The Silent Circus shows Between the Buried and Me developing towards the progressive metal titans they would eventually become.

Music

The Chad Taylor Trio Get Funky and Fiery on 'The Daily Biological'

A nimble jazz power trio of drums, tenor sax, and piano, the Chad Taylor Trio is free and fun, funky and fiery on The Daily Biological.

Music

Vistas' 'Everything Changes in the End' Is Catchy and Fun Guitar Rock

Vistas' debut, Everything Changes in the End, features bright rock music that pulls influences from power-pop and indie rock.

Film

In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?

Music

Maestro Gamin and Aeks' Latest EP Delivers LA Hip-Hop Cool (premiere + interview)

MaestroAeks' Sapodigo is a collection of blunted hip-hop tunes, sometimes nudging a fulsome boom-bap and other times trading on laid-back, mellow grooves.

Music

Soul Blues' Sugaray Rayford Delivers a "Homemade Disaster" (premiere + Q&A)

What was going to be a year of touring and building Sugaray Rayford's fanbase has turned into a year of staying home and reaching out to fans from his Arizona home.

Music

Titan to Tachyons' Experimental Heaviness on Full Display via "Earth, And Squidless" (premiere)

Featuring current members of Imperial Triumphant, Titan to Tachyons break incredible new ground in the realm of heavy music.

Music

Jerry Leger Teams with Moby Grape's Don Stevenson for "Halfway 'Til Gone" (premiere)

Reminiscent of Lee Hazlewood and the Everly Brothers, Jerry Leger's "Halfway 'Til Gone" is available on all streaming platforms on 6 August.

Music

The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

Books

John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.

Music

Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.

Music

Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.