Spike Lee Goes to War
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According to the standard hubbub that greets each new Spike Lee movie, the director makes controversies for a living instead of films. To be sure, Mr. Lee, one of the most fearless voices in contemporary American cinema, is quotably outspoken. But when he talked recently about “Miracle at St. Anna,” his forthcoming film about a group of black soldiers hiding in an Italian village during World War II, the first topic wasn’t wars of words but war movies.
“I’ve always wanted to do one, I just never had the story,” Mr. Lee said recently in the Midtown offices of Disney, which will release the film nationwide next Friday. “I grew up liking those films as a little boy: ‘The Train’ with Burt Lancaster, ‘Von Ryan’s Express’ with Frank Sinatra, ‘The Dirty Dozen’ with Jim Brown.”
For his first such project, Mr. Lee knew the right story when he saw it: “Miracle at St. Anna,” the novel by the best-selling author James McBride. The film, adapted by Mr. McBride in his first screenplay, centers on four soldiers in the all-black 92nd Division — stand-up Sargeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), shifty Sargeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), ambivalent radioman Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), and the simpleminded Private Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) — who find themselves holed up in a labyrinthine Tuscan village behind Axis lines. Stranded after a bloody riverside battle, they stay with an Italian family and must wrangle partisans and contend with the Germans in nerve-wracking skirmishes.
After the director’s significant work this decade with documentaries — including the heartrending “When the Levees Broke” and “Jim Brown: All American” — Mr. Lee’s new picture is a fittingly hybrid choice of material. The book was originally inspired by Mr. McBride’s memories of an uncle who served in the war, and also incorporates a specific historical incident, the 1944 massacre of hundreds of Tuscan villagers by the SS. In the context of war movies, the primary divergence from the ones that most Americans grew up watching is clear.
“Just to include the fact that there were black soldiers — that’s breaking the biggest convention,” Mr. Lee said. The director memorably expressed similar sentiments, of course, at the Cannes Festival this spring in a widely reported exchange with Clint Eastwood regarding the representation of blacks in movies about World War II. Yet rather than a mere re-accounting, Mr. McBride’s novel provided the special benefit of being grounded in the experiences of actual Buffalo Soldiers who served in Italy. Mr. Lee also met with some of the veterans whom Mr. McBride had interviewed for his book.
“They’re elder statesmen now. They went through a lot,” Mr. Lee said, launching into an impromptu lesson about the situation they faced. “The United States armed forces were segregated up through World War II. It wasn’t till 1948 that Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces. It was with the great insistence of Eleanor Roosevelt, pestering her husband FDR every night, that he finally relented to let the black soldiers fight — probably just to get some peace in the White House.”
“Miracle at St. Anna” does adopt elements from the tradition of war on film, such as easily identifiable soldier “types,” a pitiless commander, and even a cute child scarred by wartime (Pvt. Train, a gentle giant, befriends a traumatized Italian boy, played by 9-year-old Matteo Sciabordi, after saving him from a fallen barn beam). Mr. Lee also shot his share of grim combat scenes, but he acknowledges what’s become the benchmark for the cinematic representation of warfare.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to top what Steven Spielberg did in the first 45 minutes of ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ the landing of Normandy,” Mr. Lee, who worked with go-to cinematographers Matthew Libatique and Ernest Dickerson (as well as the military advisor for “Saving Private Ryan”), said. “The battles that [the Buffalo Soldiers] fought did not tip the scale of the war but nonetheless battles were fought, people were killed.”
The film was shot on location in the Apennine Mountains, including an 800-year-old village of stone alleyways and arches called Colognora. (“The only thing we had to do is take the satellite dishes off the roofs. And that was a hard thing to do because the people wanted their TV.”) But Mr. Lee, a famously ardent New Yorker, did not have to forego his hometown entirely. Framing the wartime story abroad is a seemingly inexplicable murder by a city postal worker in 1983, an event that helps pivot Mr. McBride’s screenplay around the mysteries of honor and one veteran’s often unshared burden.
“Spike’s first words [about the script] were directed to that murder mystery, and we spent a lot of time talking about it,” Mr. McBride said recently. “In that regard, it’s not a black movie, per se, but a movie about friendship and betrayal and redemption.”
With “Miracle” on its way to theaters, audiences can soon judge the nature of Mr. Lee’s foray into war movies for themselves. But whatever the critical reception (responses at the Toronto Film Festival premiere were mixed), Mr. Lee has again demonstrated his invaluable willingness to sally forth and tackle subjects when others won’t.