Spike Lee's 'Miracle at St. Anna'
NADINE MATTHEWS | 4/12/2011, 4:35 p.m.
"I'm doing this for the future." In Spike Lee's new film, "Miracle at St. Anna," Derek Luke's character, Aubrey Stamps, utters these words to a fellow soldier. Stamps is trying to make sense of his decision to fight in World War II for America, even though he is treated as a second-class citizen, at best, when he is home. It is the fall of 1944,and he is in Italy with the rest of the Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division. The 92nd Infantry Division is all Black--except for the commanders. For the veterans of World War II who, like Aubrey Stamps, are Black, the future is now. Said director Spike Lee in a recent interview, "Even today, in many ways [these veterans] have reason to be bitter, but they're happy because they never thought a Barack Obama would happen." Lee was introduced to a lot of the veterans and their families by James McBride, celebrated author of the memoir "Color of Water," as well as the novel on which the movie is based. It is McBride's novel of the same name that was adapted into the screenplay. McBride did the adaptation himself at the request of Lee. Asked whether or not he was intimidated by the prospect of writing in this new genre, McBride said, "I just felt like if [Spike] trusted me enough with the story, I'd give it a shot." The story, based on true events, revolves around four soldiers from the 92nd who get caught behind enemy lines and must work with the villagers to prepare for the advancing Nazi troops. The soldiers also rescue a little boy who seems to have been orphaned. Though he knows no English, he quickly bonds with "Train," the character played by Omar Benson Miller. It is understandable that the little boy bonds with Train, who, for all his height and girth, is like a man-child--a perpetual innocent. Train knows no Italian but the two manage to work out a system where they are able to communicate with each other. The Boy, played by Matteo Sciabordi, sees Train as a fantasy come to life (he apparently has never seen a Black person before) and calls him "Chocolato Gigante," or the Chocolate Giant. Sciabordi is, in some ways, Train's opposite. He is ethereally handsome, yet haunting and seems to have been on earth much longer than the 10 or so years of age that he seems to be. Whereas Train is a man-child, The Boy is an old soul.
The other two soldiers are Bishop, played by Michael Ealy and Hector, played by Laz Alonso. Bishop is a natural leader, but is very self-serving. Hector is the multilingual soldier who serves as an interpreter. One of the best things about the story is the differences between these four characters. McBride said that even on what amounts to a shoestring budget for a movie of this type--$45 million--Lee spared no expense on working on keeping theses four characters as distinct as possible. One of the more common pitfalls of a lot of films is in failing to make ach character distinct from all others. Here, Lee and McBride manage to avoid that on a grand scale. Each character has his very own, very distinct voice. In fact, in setting out to write the novel, McBride said the differences between the soldiers thrown together by war was one the things that fascinated him the most. Perhaps the major difference was in class. He said, "Forty percent of the division was illiterate...but when you talk about the other 60 percent, among that 60 percent were the top intellectual minds in Black America. You had guys who could speak two or three languages, you had doctors, biologists, and many of these men were commanded by white captains who had less education and less military know-how than they did so it created enormous problems." Like a dream lover, the film has the best of all worlds rolled into one. It is beautiful to look at. Lee chose to shoot on location in Rome, Tuscany, New York and the Bahamas. Each locale feels striking in color, tone and texture and ends up feeling like a whole other character. The film is smart. Surprisingly suspenseful, it begins with a huge question mark and keeps asking more and more throughout. Why did this nice guy do such a heinous thing? Who is the real enemy? The list goes on and on. The film is warm and funny. Lee and McBride managed to train a microscope on the way in which relationships develop between people who are not supposed to care about each other who end up feeling a passion, platonic as well as romantic, deep enough that they would die or kill for one another. Finally,the film is just plain interesting, like someone you want to talk to forever. "Miracle at St. Anna" opens Friday, September 26.