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.