Spike Lee: Miracle at St. Anna (2008) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Spike Lee: Miracle at St. Anna (2008)

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A man steps up to the bank teller, and what starts as a normal exchange ends with the man dead on the floor, shot by the teller.  A young reporter wants to know what happened, why would this man die seemingly in cold blood?  As the reported digs into the surface story, we go into the past to WWII to learn why the man died at the teller's hands.  Spike Lee directs Miracle at St. Anna from a screenplay written by James McBride.

We're watching youI recently finished an excellent book called The Devil Finds Work by James Baldwin.  The introduction is a lengthy story about how Baldwin saw an all-black rendition of Macbeth.  He was awestruck, not necessarily by the quality of the performances, but by the fact that this was the first time in his life he got to see people who looked like him onstage.  It was the first time he was confronted with the emotions and actions of his people without having to be filtered through a white lens.

Throughout Miracle at St. Anna I thought about this passage much more than I did any parallels to the novel of the same name.  This is to the credit of the screenwriter, and author of the titular novel, James McBride.  He retooled his novel to Spike Lee's visual sensibility, taking the fractured narrative of different timelines and vibrant memories and turning it into an outright indictment of the way our culture has shoved the contributions of minorities out of the way.  This is an undocumented history brought to life by artists who want to show the descendants of those who fought bravely that their stories won't be forgotten, even if a few have to be indulged.  The first time I watched Miracle at St. Anna I was a bit surprised at how bored I was.  This time the first and final acts gripped me in a way which brought me to tears in that last rendezvous at the beach.

There's still the problem of the second act, which is so meandering and dry that I understand if audiences mentally checked out and didn't rouse themselves for the finale.  I liked the broad idea, creating a comparison between the lower classes of our enemies and how they are used as poorly as the black soldiers on the American's side, but the relationships which we spend the most time with don't help that idea along much.  For example, did this narrative really need a pair of exposed breasts as a prelude to more nudity and sex in the middle of a war zone?  Would it have been improved if just a few of the scenes involving Train and Angelo?

I have a sneaking suspicion you appreciated this less than me, and I'm happy to be proven wrong, but these are a few of the questions I want to discuss in the hopes of cleaning off the muck from the better parts of the film.‏The sleeping giantI'm not sure where exactly we'll agree on this other than the general sense that there's value in what Baldwin and Spike are trying to do with the story, despite a lot of extra baggage that pulls it down at times. I actually had the reverse reaction in terms of structure: I thought the first hour was so bad I was laughing out loud at times, then developed some real interest once the soldiers reach the Italian town, then went back to involuntary laughter in the last, totally absurd, scene. That's not to say I disagree that the middle section is loaded with unnecessary detours and overindulgence—just that some of the larger ideas about what it means to fight and suffer for a country that doesn't want you were better developed from that point in.

Part of the sticking point for me here is going to be that despite how interesting or necessary the ideas are, this movie is a mess. The performances veer from terrible—mostly in the early 45 minutes, where the characters seem almost like parodies of war movie archetypes—to nuanced and pained depictions of repressed hurt and anger by the end. Ancillary characters are brought into the story and given significant screen time only to serve as a quick plot device later. (The German officer who objects to the Nazis' violations of the Geneva Convention is a good example of a character who's really interesting in theory and could work well in a written version of the story, but comes off as a heavy-handed device more than a person the way he's presented in the film.)

The strongest scenes for me are the ones that address the military's attitude toward black soldiers head on. One of the early sequences that does work really well features a German woman seductively projecting across the battlefield through a PA system, promising the soldiers racial equality in Germany and (correctly) pointing out that Americans back home won't put any value on their sacrifice if they die. A flashback shows the soldiers being denied service at a lunch counter where German POWs are sitting and eating undisturbed, followed by a powerful sequence where they are confronted with Italian propaganda posters employing all variety of racial stereotypes to equate the threat of Allied forces with black Americans.

If we were just trying to review Spike's movies, this would be an easy one—as a part of a deeper, more comprehensive critical look, it's trickier. There's impactful stuff here, and the mission of tearing down the whitewashed nature of most war films (and writing, and any other popular representations) is important. It's like you said—there's just a lot of other “muck” that unfortunately gets in the way and threatens to interrupt and diffuse the powerful moments. I think our main disagreement may be on just how many of those powerful moments there are.‏‎Mein propagandaNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThis is definitely worth some further conversation then because you liked the second part with the village, but the strongest scenes you pointed out occur in the first part of the movie.  The German POW diner scene serves as a bridge between their wandering and trying to find a safe haven in the town.  But once in the town it's a lot of meandering conversation, those terrible love scenes, and the good-natured but ultimately confounding relationship between Train and the boy.

Miracle at St. Anna, when it works well, reminds me a lot of Red Tails.  Neither film is a total success, but Red Tails fares better by embracing propaganda start-to-finish instead of Miracle at St. Anna which pauses to get lost in more heavy-handed seriousness for a bit.  When Miracle at St. Anna works it's when Spike is incorporating a mythic, or fairy tale, vibe in with the war images.  The moment when Train is choking out the other soldier and Spike switches to a close up of the suffocating man's face against the mountain is a good example of that.  It's a mythic conflict which will have ramifications for the entire town but is sparked from this tiny moment.

The moment you mentioned of the Nazi woman taunting the soldiers as they trudge through the water is another excellent example.  Both scenes have this feel of being told this story in retrospect, which it is, with the soldiers acknowledging what they had to do for their country.  In a way, Miracle at St. Anna along with Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained share similar goals.  They're all alternate histories, though Inglorious Basterds was somewhat hypocritical in the way it told the story from the perspective of the typical WWII heroes, Django Unchained has an undercurrent of sadness about the stories we didn't get to tell because of the racism in our history.  Miracle at St. Anna is doing the same, though with fairy tales and war film versus Django Unchained's mix of slavery and exploitation film.

Can you see that in Miracle at St. Anna?  Maybe a response using those other films as a gauge would help me understand your perspective as well.‏

Tiny Kyle CommentaryThe more mythical elements weren't something I'd have gravitated to naturally, but I do see what you're saying, and that actually pushes my attention back to the scenes that frame the story at the beginning and end of the movie. Part of what Spike wants to do is show how the most commonly accepted narratives about WWII actually are the alternate history, obscuring and deleting the “real” history in which these (and many other) black soldiers had a formative role.

Stemming from this is a secondary theme regarding the ways we carry the past with us. One of the more mythic/fairy tale-influenced moments involves revealing who Angelo is really addressing when he talks to “Arturo” throughout the film—he's carrying a past trauma of his own, just as Negron carries his own pain forward, localized in the the piece of sculpture he still has in his New York apartment. It's a good metaphor for how America continues to carry forward (and try to repress) the complex pain of systemic racism throughout its history.

In this way Miracle at St. Anna actually reminded me of another Spike Lee movie—Inside Man. That movie also concerned itself with the way people exercise control over history in order to manipulate the present, however briefly. While this one focuses explicitly on the tragic effects of repressing and editing history, it's an interesting through-line, one that could even connect with Bamboozled considering it's the images of WWII seen on TV (in a John Wayne movie) that initiates the crime which prompts Negron's flashback. While the Tarantino films you mentioned provide alternate histories of sorts, Spike wants to make us understand that there are alternate histories being represented and crafted all around us.‏We are homeNewer Andrew cutout commentaryI like that you brought this back to Inside Man, because Miracle at St. Anna and Inside Man are the only two big studio films he really ever got to do (Malcolm X was a labor of love that just so happened to be funded by a studio).  They also share some of the same weaknesses, the poor gender politics of Inside Man which gave us those terrible breast size jokes were translated here into a sex scene.  You can practically read the producers notes right there on the screen when the breasts show up in Miracle at St. Anna as a way to "punch up" the village segments.  This wouldn't be nearly as bad if the woman who has to get topless was written in an interesting fashion, but compared to the harrowing love scene in Fury this just reeks of entitled sexism.

Even with what I'm willing to defend I can't put Miracle at St. Anna on too high of a list of must-see Spike Lee films.  The battles are interestingly done, the moments of power are stirring, and I love the idea of making myth-as-fact in this war film.  But that middle section, and Spike's continued bad gender politics, are just too much to place it high.  It's interesting to look at the bits of Spike which shine through the studio sheen, but from this point on I'm sure he's happy to be rid of big productions.  Passing Strange, next week's film, will be a testament to that.‏

Tiny Kyle CommentaryYeah I too am ready to get back to the smaller films where Spike can do whatever he wants—he's the kind of director where the missteps are interesting when they're his, and seem almost exaggerated when they're prompted by others.

I'm also interested if this idea of a kind of corrective history has any connection to his documentary work. When the Levees Broke was so significant in part because of how clearly it presented and preserved the stories of those who experienced Katrina, whose voices weren't represented (or weren't represented accurately) in most media coverage of the tragedy. Spike has always been concerned with challenging commonly accepted representations of contemporary America, so a story like Miracle at St. Anna that provides an opportunity to look at how representations of the past can lead to future pain, and even violence, seems fitting—even if neither of us would place it too highly in his filmography.

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Next, Passing Strange.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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