General Lee

sarris2 5 General LeeMiracle at St. Anna
160 Minutes
Written by James McBride
Directed by Spike Lee
Starring John Turturro, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Matteo Sciabordi,
John Leguizamo

Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna, from a screenplay by James McBride (in English, Italian, German and Spanish, with English subtitles), is based on Mr. McBride’s heavily researched novel. Before launching into my very mixed review of Mr. Lee’s 20th feature film in an over-20-year largely self-promoted career in the industry, I must note that Mr. Lee once insulted me on an ABC Nightline panel after I had expressed my reservations about what I perceived as the excessive artiness of some of his projects. I don’t remember the exact year, but it was about the time that Mr. Lee was successfully campaigning for the job of directing Malcolm X after a white director had already been announced for the project. Mr. Lee agitatingly insisted that only an African-American could do justice to the story of Malcolm X, and since he was doing all the agitating, why not him? Actually, at the time I tended to agree with him, and said so on the telecast, much to the discomfiture of the white moderator, who had set out to build up a case of reverse discrimination against Mr. Lee.

Anyway, The Miracle at St. Anna runs far too long at two hours and 40 minutes, even for the many interlocking stories Mr. Lee and Mr. McBride are trying to tell, beginning with a mysterious murder in a New York City Post Office many years after the end of World War II. An elderly U.S. Postal employee pulls out a gun from behind his counter, and shoots an equally elderly white customer. Detective Antonio “Tony” Ricci (John Turturro) is called in to investigate the case, but it is cub reporter Tim Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who eventually gets the story from the perp’s own lips. This requires a feature-length flashback to the history of the 92nd Infantry Division of African-American draftees, dubbed “Buffalo Soldiers” from way back to the Mexican War. The term appears also in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge (1960), with Woody Strode playing a particularly heroic Buffalo Soldier, who is falsely accused of raping and murdering a white woman. He is acquitted, of course, after the real white rapist-murderer is exposed on the witness stand.

The bulk of Mr. Lee’s narrative is concerned with the experiences of four Buffalo Soldiers, the sole survivors of a virtually annihilated battalion of the 92nd Infantry Division, stationed in Tuscany, Italy, in 1944. The division has been decimated by the artillery crossfire between the entrenched German forces on one side of a river and, on the other, the ill-timed American artillery response ordered by a misguided white American officer, who couldn’t believe that black soldiers had been the first to cross the river

The four surviving Buffalo Soldiers are 2nd Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), Cpl. Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) and Pfc. Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller). The main point of the devastating battle scenes, which are well handled by Mr. Lee and his technical crew, seems to be that the African-American soldiers are much braver than the bigoted white American officers, who are far behind the lines, can bring themselves to believe. Indeed, a white officer in one scene actually refers to the Buffalo Soldiers as Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal contributions to the war effort, adding even more of a partisan slant to the undeniable racism of the period. A particularly vicious manifestation of this racism occurs in a flashback within a flashback, when a Southern restaurant manager flashes a gun to tell the African-American soldiers that they are not wanted in his establishment. This even as he is allowing white Army military policemen to serve lunch to a booth full of Nazi prisoners of war. The now-armed Buffalo Soldiers return to get served by the same manager, but the incident leaves them with a bitter taste in their mouths.

When the four surviving black soldiers reach a small village in Tuscany, the Italian inhabitants—who have never seen black people before—warmly greet their presumed liberators from the German occupiers. The inference is drawn that there is less racial bigotry here than in the States. The same comparison is made in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), and the interracial sexuality in that film is even more prolonged and graphically explicit than it is here.

But the heart and soul of The Miracle of St. Anna begins to take shape when Private Train, the most provincial and least educated of the four surviving Buffalo Soldiers, befriends a traumatized boy (Matteo Sciabordi). It is in this impromptu relationship that the first intimations of the religious and the miraculous appear. This otherworldly theme is continued in the reenacted real-life massacre of 450 townspeople, men, women and children, for their not turning over the leader of the local anti-Fascist, anti-Nazi partisans.

There is also a very messy subplot about blood feuds within the partisan movement itself. And there are even moments of mercy and compassion from within the ranks of the Germans. Again, I must commend Mr. Lee for his ease with the languages with which he has to deal. I suppose he is to be praised also for getting this immense project off the ground with brio and panache. But too much is too much in any language, much less four. Consequently, Mr. Lee has stretched his material in so many different directions that one is left with unacceptable levels of religiosity and sentimentality in the overall context of the naked brutality we have witnessed. Actually the film never “solves” the mystery of the murder in any satisfying fashion. Instead, he seems to be saying that war is hell, but that there is love and fraternal feeling to be found on the bloodiest battlefield.

Kerry Washington’s pro-bono attorney for the accused murderer stays on the screen long enough to give a whispered tongue-lashing to the presiding judge, leading me to wonder how many courtroom series Mr. Lee has been watching on television.

It remains to be said that Mr. Lee has been less portentous and overloaded in the past. But opinions may differ on his ultimate place in film history, and my mixed verdict on this occasion may be questioned by all and sundry, Mr. Lee himself included.

asarris@observer.com