Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Miracle Break

I've been fortunate to host several pre-screenings of films of note over the past four years. Some I hear about randomly, I may get phone call from a friend, or a studio rep may suggest a film. While in Chicago this summer at the UNITY conference I attended the pre-screening for two films, Miracle at St. Anna
and the Secret Life of Bees (not the entire film just two 10 minute clips).

I was running a little late so I only got to hear the presentation on "Miracle" which featured the author of the book of the same tittle, James McBride. The film directed by Spike Lee tells the tale of the all black U.S. Army 92nd Infantry commonly known as the "Buffalo Soldiers."

While there have been a number of World War II stories put on film few have ever shown Black soldiers participating in action. Spike who has not shied away from controversy took Director Clint Eastwood to task for his movies "Letters from Iwo Jima." Lee asked why there were no Black soldiers included in the story? Eastwood dismissed the charged and snapped at Lee "he should shut his face."
Last night I and several of my media colleagues caught "Miracle at St. Anna." In the words of Film Director, Kim Moir, "a middle finger in your face Clinton Eastwood." The two hour film continues the evolution of Spike Lee as a film-maker. He has come a long way from the days of the low budget debut of "She's Gotta Have It." While most people talk about "Do the Right Thing" my favorites are "Mo' Better Blues," "Bamboozled," and "Inside Man."

This film is five films in one, woven together through the backdrop of what it was like to be a member of an all Black regiment. I know a little something about this group. I've written about the origins of the Buffalo Soldiers, it's national monument, and it happens that my grandfather was a member of the regiment. Last year, my colleagues(MPT) and I were nominated for an EMMY for "The War: Struggle & Sacrifice." One of the interviews I helped line-up was with a family friend, Otis Lee Sr. Mr. Lee was a loyal member the of the Baltimore Disabled Veterans Association Chapter. He seem to always carry himself as the Staff Sargent (his title in the service).

He told my colleague Lou Davis about his time in the service. Including the building of the Alaska Highway (that's a story which should be on the big screen); and joining General George Patton at the Battle of Bulge. "I stepped over so many dead soldiers," he says. "Great, big, young, healthy men, all dressed up, (he grabs his shoulders), dead!" It was powerful. I don't think anyone heard World War II fighting described by a black man quite like this.

As I'm watching this Spike Lee film I believe he captures this aspect of war from a Black perspective. You know Hollywood glamorizes war. Solider gets shot, falls to the ground, no blood and definitely not the face of the deceased. Not in this movie we see the horrors of war...fear, bravery, courage, and ineptitude by white superiors.

The dialogue of English, German, Italian, and Spanish is interwoven in such a way you are not put off by the subtitles. There are a number of people to root for in the movie. A German solider who tells the young star to run, the resistance leader who comes to the conclusion his Italian friend help massacre a village, Stamps, the patrol leader, who takes his comrades behind enemy lines, and Track, the oversize G.I., who believes the head of a statue can save him and his co-horts.

The German propaganda machine is not widely known in this country, but for those in theatre it "came raining down from heaven." Black World War II GI's I've spoken to tell of the pamphlets and one sheets dropped by aircraft over the Black regiments. The film aptly depicts the "Tokyo Rose" counterpart "German Rose." A sultry sounding voice used to dissuade Black GI's from backing the U.S.

There is also a story behind the making of this film. Lee has always had financing problems for his films. Studios are always short changing him or just saying no. No, is what the filmmaker heard when he began shopping this film. McBride told me "Spike had to go to Italy to find financing."

The author said he was invited to the set in Italy for filming. "One of the many challenges the crew faced was the changing weather patterns on the mountain in Italy. Spike was told to consider using a sound stage, but held firm."

Some Spike Lee film tricks are in the movie, others are left out. Expect a sexy woman sashaying before the camera (remember Nola Darling and Rosey Perez). You'll be happy to hear Lee's signature shot is not in the movie.

This film was a nice break from the grind of covering politics. There is a political connection which may not be obvious. It is the veterans of World War II who saw the hypocrisy of fighting Nazism and fascism in Europe, while facing racism at home. They saw the promise of a better society when they moved from being cooks and orderlies to fighting soldiers. They took this bravery and created the civil rights movement laying the foundation for Black politics in America. Veterans better than any other group know what it's like to defend this country and giving the ultimate sacrifice.

Last Thoughts on Miracle at St. Anna

I'm very concern that recent war movies (mostly about Iraq) have bombed at the box office. This isn't a Tyler Perry movie either. For those of you who've asked for films with substance, this has it. Critics have a tendency to pan movies like this because they don't get the significance of telling a story we've never seen before (remember Boomerang - "Black people don't run major corporations. It's unrealistic.") Let me suggest you invite not just young people to this movie, but also veterans from any service branches. It needs to be seen.




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