Spike Lee is one of the most exciting directors for me to watch right now. Like Martin Scorsese, Lee continues to put out great films of a highly personal nature while continuing to explore different genres. A master of his craft, he has continued to push himself and his collaborators creatively with his last several projects including Inside Man, When The Levees Broke and Miracle at St. Anna. For anyone going into this film expecting a black Saving Private Ryan or for Spike to suddenly emulate the storytelling style of Eastwood, they are in for quite a surprise. Miracle at St. Anna is very much a Spike Lee joint with Spike using his own signatures but sadly, not the famous moving dolly shot.
Miracle at St. Anna showcases Spike in top form. Everything from the performances to the visuals and the score fit to tell the story of four black soldiers in World War II in an Italian villa surrounded by Nazis. Derek Luke gives a stand out performance as the staff sergeant Stamps. I was puzzled by the fact that Spike originally offered the role to Wesley Snipes because not only was Luke terrific, but I felt it was much better for the story to have a young soldier leading the other young soldiers. Furthermore, the international cast is outstanding and Spike subtitles almost two thirds of the movies in Italian and German making it feel more authentic. The battles that bookend the film’s war segment are also shot realistically but not so overblown that Spike might think he could outdo Spielberg or Eastwood.
And therein lies one of the major misunderstandings about the film. It is not epic, but it is more of a character piece in a wartime setting. Where the movie might have become generic in the hands of another director, Spike makes the movie the same way he made all his other movies for better or worse. Critics have dismissed the ‘paranormal’ element of the film as taking away from what might be a nod to Italian neo-realism. As if any educated person stepping into a movie with the word ‘miracle’ in the title would be puzzled by some supernatural theme, I completely understood what was really happening behind the eyes of the small Italian boy that the soldiers rescue. Furthermore, for being called a ‘reverse racist’ Spike, while he belabors the racial issue rather unexpectedly he takes great pains to show the German soldiers as he does the American soldiers. Not in the manner of race relations but in the madness of war and with growing distrust and empathy towards his enemies, Spike at times goes shot for shot for both the Allies and the Nazis.
With a few clever “40 Acres and a Mule Company Players” cameos at the bookends, Spike plays with both the expected and the unexpected. From the man who directed the Public Enemy video in which the song goes “Motherfuck him (Elvis) and John Wayne!” to open with the first face onscreen as John Wayne in a World War II movie got a chuckle out of me and I found myself nodding my head when Spike went back in time to show the racism the soldiers faced back home when in a ice cream shop with German POWs. In this way, however, Spike accomplishes what Spielberg did in Ryan by making the audience emotionally invested in the soldiers by time the final battle plays out. Spike has made a serious war movies dealing with a range of real issues to soldiers and civilians that will probably not get recognized with any awards but is definitely worth a few hours of your time.