When “Flags of Our Fathers” came out, director Spike Lee took Clint Eastwood to task for not portraying any black soldiers in his movie. At the time, Lee was in Cannes promoting his own WWII movie entitled “Miracle at St. Anna’s”. Lee had made the counter to movies like “Flags” which he feels overlook the African-American military contributions in WWII. It is based on the novel by James McBride (who wrote the screenplay). McBride sets his tale in Italy in 1944 and centers it around four members of the 92nd Division. The unit, known as the “Buffalo Soldiers”, was an all-black unit in the segregated Army.
The movie opens in Harlem in 1983 with the murder of a man in a post office by a veteran. The cops find a famous Italian statue in the shooter’s apartment. In jail, Negron Laz Alonzo) cryptically tells a reporter “I know where the sleeping man lies.” Flash back to Italy in 1944. Negron’s unit, the 92nd Division, is attempting to breach the Gothic Line. An assault across the Serchio River ends limb-severing disastrously when their racist commander orders an artillery barrage that takes them under fire. Four survivors are caught behind enemy lines. They stereotypically mixed group consists of the average Juan (Negron), the playa (Cummings), the stolid Uncle Tom (Stamps), and the spiritual giant (Train). They hook up with a little boy who has an imaginary friend named Arturo. Train (Omar Benson Miller) takes the boy under his rather large wing and things he has religious powers.
|Angelo, Train, Cummings. Stamp, Negron|
The quintet ends up in an Italian village where they are taken in by a family which includes the hot Renatta (Valentina Cervi). Stick around guys, it will be worth the gratuitous wait. Cummings (Michael Early) and Stamps (Derek Luke) immediately begin pawing the ground. Surprisingly, Renatta ends up bedding the obnoxious Cummings. The G.I.s roam around the village seemingly unconcerned with Germans or collaborators and unconcerned with their orders to bring back a prisoner for interrogation. A bigger concern is the fact that blacks are being mistreated back in America. They recall an incident in a Louisiana malt shop where the racist owner caters to German POWs, but not blacks. It is ironic that they are treated better in Italy than back home!
We find out about the second half of the title of the movie (we never do find out what the miracle was) when the movie has a graphic reenactment of the massacre of civilians by the S.S. The murders are retaliation for the village of St. Anna supporting partisans. The scene is horrific, but does not go far enough in accurately depicting the actual incident where 560 women, children, and old men were machine gunned and grenaded. No one survived. In the movie, about fifty are killed and Angelo escapes with the help of a German deserter. His brother Arturo is one of the victims. One of the partisans is a traitor who aided the German atrocity. By the way, some Italians protested Lee’s decision to blame the partisans for bringing on the massacre when the official explanation is the evil Nazis did not need a reason.
A partisan group led by the famous "Butterfly" arrives in town with a German prisoner. It’s the guy who saved Angelo! This seemingly solves their prisoner-to-interrogate problem until one of the partisans kills him and then the Butterfly. He’s the traitor and guess who Negron recognizes in line for stamps at his post office years later? Full circle, anyone?
The plot thickens as our gang of future civil rights activists are caught between their arriving racist commander and the Germans assaulting the village. Rather than defect to the more black-friendly Nazis, our guys battle it out in the streets in a scene filled with action and desperately wanting to be the equivalent of the “Saving Private Ryan” beach scene. Everyone is killed except Negron who is saved by a good Nazi who gives him a gun. Before he dies, Train is identified as “the sleeping man”. The miracle of the title refers to whether you can figure out what the hell that means.
Flash forward to the present where the out on bail Negron meets a wealthy patron on a beach. Guess who it is? Oh, and do not wonder what the incredibly guilty-of-murder Negron is doing out of jail. I guess he was freed because he was mistreated as a black soldier. Justice.
There is naturally a debate about which is the better film – “Flags of Our Fathers” or “Miracle at St. Anna”. Anyone who chooses Spike Lee’s film is either black or wants to get into Heaven. Although Eastwood’s film is flawed, it is clearly superior historically and cinematically. For God’s sake, Lee has “Axis Sally” broadcasting live from the battlefield, asking the blacks why they are fighting for their racist oppressors. There is no such laughable moment in Eastwood’s flic.
It is not surprising that Lee has an agenda in this undertaking. Commendaby, that agenda is film-worthy. There is no arguing that black soldiers have been short-changed in WWII movies. Lee makes his intentions obvious early as Negron watches “The Longest Day” (an Eastwoodesque film with no black actors) and says “Pilgrim, we fought for this country, too.” (Note to Lee, when you are making your first war epic, don’t start by reminding the audience of a truly great war film.) In typical Lee fashion, he beats the audience over the head with this theme. The scene in the Louisiana malt shop and the bigoted commander are examples, but they are accurate. The surprising theme is the religiousity of the film. This is overt and soggy.
The movie is overly long and poorly written. Much of the dialogue is ridiculous, especially the words comin’ out the mouf of Cummings. The movie lacks realism. Renatta choosing Cummings over Stamps is illogical. The idyllic nature of the village is another example. The ending is twisty in a stupid way. Parts of the movie, starting with the title, make little sense and God help us if it takes the director’s cut to clear them up. The violence is over the top and reflects the desire by an inferior action director to match Speilberg’s groundbreaking “Saving Private Ryan”.
One must give Lee credit for choosing to highlight the role of African-American soldiers. However, the movie is not really about the trials and contributions of the 92nd Division. It does piggy-back on the racism that unit definitely faced, but little of the combat trials of the unit are alluded to. In reality, the “Buffalo Soldiers” had a less than sterling record in Italy. A truly risk-taking director would have examined the dynamics in their treatment and performance. Hopefully, the upcoming “Red Tails” will do a better job.