[Film listing on IMDB.com]

“We were there, too,” Corporal Hector Negron grunts at the television screen. This statement of truth defines the center of Lee’s epic new film.

Miracle at St. Anna opens in a Brooklyn apartment, with an elderly Negron watching a John Wayne WWII-film. It is 1983, Christmas time, but Negron’s mood is far from festive. Negron’s terse statement captures the resentment of a soldier who fought bravely for the United States, earning a purple heart, only to have the record of his service omitted in popular history. By telling the story of Negron and his African-American comrades, four members of the Buffalo Soldiers, the 92nd Infantry of the U.S. Army, Spike Lee rejects an adversarial exchange of one ethnocentric war-film tradition for another. Rather, he and author/screenwriter James McBride have created a multicultural war narrative that explores the malleability of humanity, culture, and morality in wartime.

The film’s strong cast enables these heady goals. Omar Benson Miller, Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, and Laz Alonso play the roles of four African-American soldiers caught between lines of Nazis forces retreating from Southern Italy. They wind up hiding out in an Italian village not far from Sant’Anna di Stazzema, where Nazis soldiers massacred an entire village of innocent Italian men, women and children (a scene Lee treats, as he does many of the other battle scenes in the film, plaintively).

While conventional war films are often shot and scored like action movies, Lee uses deft photography by Mathew Libatique (who previously worked with Lee on Inside Man) and a poignant score by Terrance Blanchard that is at once tragic and honorific, avoiding the manic and unmoved tone of war films that simply treat death as just part of the action. The story of the Buffalo Soldiers is as tragic as it is victorious and, through Lee’s sensitivity to the historical moment, the movie is tinged with these feelings.

The circular and complex narrative of Miracle at St. Anna, which employs flashbacks and even flashbacks within flashbacks, is rendered effective by the quality of the actors’ performances, the textured historical drama, and a plot device introduced at the beginning of the film: “the Primavera” statue-head discovered in Hector Negron’s closet. While this is one of the rare Lee films in which he does not pay homage to Alfred Hitchcock by appearing in the film, he pays his Hitchcockian respects via his use of the statue head-which we find out originates from the 16th-century Italian bridge the Ponte Santa Trinita-as a sort of reverse MacGuffin, a name Hitchcock popularized for a device that motivates a story, but is of otherwise little importance to the plot. Lee introduces the audience to the head in the initial 1984 setting before flashing back to August 1944, shortly after Nazis soldiers destroyed the bridge during their retreat from the Gothic Line in Southern Italy.

This is where the film picks up the war storyline: with Buffalo Soldier Private First Class Sam Train (Miller) carrying the statue head attached to his pack as his ethnically-diverse but segregated unit of the U.S. Army advances upon the retreating Nazis forces. The statue head will not leave Train’s side until the climax of the film, and it continually drives the plot forward, becoming a crucial aspect of Train’s character and the way he relates to the other characters in the film, particularly a young Italian boy, Angelo, a traumatized survivor of the Sant’Anna di Stezzama massacre whose youthful imagination seems to protect him. (He has an “imaginary” friend, Arturo, and calls Train his “Gigante Chocolat.”)

The film’s many layers endeavor to show the dynamism of the human spirit when tested in the crucible of war. The major facets of one’s relationship to country-nationalism, ideology, and, in the case of the Buffalo Soldiers, race -define the psychological terrain for these characters. When a Nazi officer, seen earlier in the film reading banned Italian poetry, saves Negron’s life, it is obvious that his loyalty to Nazi Germany is not enough for him to forgo his humanity. This officer is definitely the exception; many other Nazis are portrayed as having never thought twice about murdering innocent men, women and children.

For the Buffalo Soldiers, though they share different motivations for enlisting, it is clear that the bonds they form through shared experience transcend their differences. Together, they struggle with ambivalence about fighting for a country that denies their full citizenship. At one point, while the four soldiers are trying to fix a radio to call for help, Stamp and his boys are attending a social event with the Italian villagers in the local church. As Negron is keeping watch, Stamp approaches him, wondering aloud why he has never felt so free before he came to Italy. Why is he fighting for the United States, why does he call a country home, where he feels like a “nigger”? Miracle at St. Anna simultaneously asks these questions and stands on the front lines in the continuing fight against that feeling. One need not look beyond the film to answer Stamp’s questions: the Buffalo soldiers aren’t fighting for what America is, but for what it has the potential to become-a nation where the historical mainstream isn’t ethnocentrism.

Some critics have charged that Miracle at St. Anna seems somehow conflicted, overly complex, and heady in its historical ambitions. Their criticism does not take into account that the film is one of the first multicultural films about a multicultural war, or that it took sixty years before Spike Lee had the nerve to make it. All told, that might be too much for some viewers (and critics) to digest in a night at the movies.

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MAX LIPSET is a freelance writer and student of history, politics, philosophy, the art of taking space and all things hiphop. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College in 2007 and now works as a personal trainer in Los Angeles, California.