“War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” Edwin Starr was right, but war is even worse when it is forgotten. In The Miracle at Santa Anna Spike Lee has focussed on a less-known but vitally important corner of US military history: the involvement of black troops in the liberation of Europe. But the film isn’t just a history lesson, it has bangs, heroism, and treachery that we’d expect of a war movie.
The film starts in 1982 in New York City, an elderly black postal worker, Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), shoots dead a man who has come into the post office to buy some stamps. A rookie journalist’s interview with the old man is then used as a framing device to recall Hector’s experiences fighting in Italy during World War II.
The old man was one of the black Americans who fought in special regiments of ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ in both World Wars. Bob Marley fans will know the term buffalo soldiers from his song of the same name, although his song referred to black soldiers fighting in the Indian Wars of the 19 century. Despite Marley’s famous song, these black men rarely make it into films or TV series. The point is made prior to Hector’s shooting, when he shouts a reminder at the John Wayne World War 2 movie on the TV that black soldiers fought too.
Spike Lee may be concerned to focus on a corner of history that has been forgotten about by history and the media, but he uses all the techniques of an old fashioned Hollywood movie to get his point across. The stirring orchestral music – all horns and strings – particularly hark back to classic movies. The ferocious battle early on in Hector’s war story might not quite match Saving Private Ryan for sheer chaotic madness, but it’s graphic enough to give us a good idea of the bloody nastiness and confusion of war.
It takes a while for the characters to become established, but when they do we meet four very different men. There’s the simple giant, Private Train (Omar Benson Miller), the ladies man Sergeant Cummings (Michael Ealy), intellectual Staff Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke) and the Italian-speaking Latin American Corporal Negron himself. They find themselves stuck behind enemy lines in a small town in the mountains.
An hour into the film, I was baffled by all the plots, sub-plots, and characters slipping in and out of the story. That’s the way I like it – being presented with an confusing mess that get unscrambled through the rest of the film. Through the rest of the film I was, by and large, kept guessing.
Although the racism at the heart of US society is Spike Lee’s career long focus, The Miracle at St Anna does veer into stereotype. The Italians are painted as friendly, argumentative and superstitious. The white Americans are largely racist ignoramuses, while the more open-minded Italians find common ground with the black troops. This characterisation of race relations is painted in rather, erm, black and white terms. Still, perhaps things really were that bad back then, and the racist southern officer doesn’t stay too long on the screen to make his one-dimensionality an issue.
Action dwindles towards the final third of the film, slowing down somewhat. Being a Spike Lee production, these soldiers are not content to chat about football, women and beer, Sgt. Stamps and co chew on meatier issues. God and the problem of evil, the role of black men in a ‘white man’s war’, the nature of freedom and integration with racist white society are all engagingly debated. Eventually, the film does pick up in time-honoured war movie fashion, with a final fire fight.
Just when you thought that was it, the film returns to the 1980s story of the old Hector Negron. This resolves into a ludicrous ending, piling on more Monterey Jack than a Manhattan cheeseburger, even more annoyingly, the mystery of the initial shooting is never solved. Despite its flaws, Miracle… is interesting, exciting and can’t help but demonstrate Spike Lee’s great skills as a film-maker.