Spike Lee directs the most violent film of his career, a sweeping World War II epic that centers on the actions of four Buffalo soldiers who become stranded in Italy.
Buffalo soldiers were the name given to African-American men who served in the infantry during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Obviously, there were black soldiers who served before then. The best, and one of the only, depicted was in Glory (1989), regarding the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts, the first black regiment to fight in the Civil War in the summer of 1863.
That 1989 cinematic masterpiece established Denzel Washington as the preeminent black actor of his time, also earning him his first Oscar. Washington had by then become Spike Lee's favorite leading man and friend. Lee cast Washington in four of his films following that.
MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA comments on the experience of black soldiers in WWII, but it is nowhere near as glorious, or even that miraculous.
Earlier this year, during the Cannes Film Festival, Lee criticized Clint Eastwood for the lack of African-Americans in his previous WWII movie. Lee conversely amps up the portrayal of black soldiers in this film, but, in the end, Lee doesn't give us anything to hang our hats on.
Lee briefly introduces us to the George Company of the 92nd Infantry Division who fought in Italy in 1944, the only African-American unit to see combat in Europe during WWII, but, in an instant, Lee takes them away from us. Admittedly, the initial battle scene is powerful, strong in its immediate brutality, which leaves a river filled with body parts and blood.
At start, Lee reminds us of the numerous black soldiers who died in service of this country and who should be noted, if not honored in an expansive film like this that gives them tribute. Problem is that this isn't the expansive film for them.
Lee should have taken a lesson from Edward Zwick and stayed ever-present and dead-focused on the black soldiers. Instead, Lee wanders off into the wilds of Italy to tell a revenge story involving an attack in front of a church, a German betrayal, and a little boy who witnesses it all. What this has to do with the black soldiers is lost on me.
It seems as if Lee were trying to make two films at once, the story of the four black soldiers stranded in a small Italian town and the story of the events at St. Anna di Stazzema. Unfortunately, Lee loses sight of the initial story, flashing us back once to Louisiana to show us moments of racism, and pausing for asides like when Sgt. Aubrey Stamps, played by Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher and Friday Night Lights), muses about how race relations seem more pax in this foreign land then in their home land.
But, Lee really needed to give us more than that. Zwick's Glory was only two hours long. Lee's is nearly three, and yet I felt like I learned so little about these men. As a result, I ended up feeling nothing for them, even as they were shot to death at the end. Each character is broadly stroked, and not given much to invest.
And, the reason is because Lee steers us away to illuminate this Italian-German skirmish, which respectfully was more like a gang-style execution. It would have been a task for Lee to explain the inner politics of Italy to those unaware. For example, under Mussolini, Italy was the first nation to join Germany in its Axis force, but, in the fall of 1943, after Mussolini was overthrown, Italy joined the Allies, but Germans still fought the Americans and others for control of the country.
Lee expects us to merely understand the brutal killing of women, the elderly, and babies, and that's it, and we do. Lee supplants his main characters and us into this environment and doesn't really relate them. There's no real connection between the black soldiers and the Italians, except for a bond between one of the black soldiers and an Italian little boy that felt really forced, and that goes nowhere. As such, the ending is devoid of the heartfelt emotion that Lee begs for.
It may be stupid, because it may be metaphorical, but I surely never got what the miracle was. We're led to believe that the head of some marble statue has magical powers, which we learn not, but Spike! What is this supposed miracle? What were we to learn here?
Two Stars out of Five
Rated R for strong war violence and nudity
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 40 mins.