Monday, September 29, 2008

Spike makes New Classic Joint

Last evening I had the pleasure of checking out Spike Lee's new film, Miracle at St. Anna. Like most, I was eager to see how my man Spike would capture the stories of African American soldiers in World War II (WWII). All types of questions swirled around in my mind about scope and span of such a project. As a historian, I was even more anxious to see how Spike would tackle such a complicated subject--the "Double V Campaign" meaning victory aboard against Hitler and victory at home against Jim Crow policy that was the rallying cry for African Americans during WWII. To date the only movie that I thought even attempted to capture this topic with any sophistication was A Soldier's Story (1984) directed by Norman Jewison.

I purposely never watched any trailer for Lee's new film, nor sought to find out which notable actors were involved in the project, if there were any at all. Additionally, I didn't know until after I got home from the theater that the movie was adapted from the novel of the same name by celebrated writer (and musician) James McBride. I did not even see Spike on Oprah last week either (not that I would have watched). I wanted to go into the theater with a tabula rassa other than my historical knowledge of the period and African Americans place in it.

In a New York Times interview, Lee said that he had always wanted to make a WWII epic and with the backing of Walt-Disney (yes, you read right, I couldn't believe it either) he certainly had the budget to do so. I wondered if Lee would find actors to give the story the life that Howard Rollins, Jr., Adolf Caesar, Denzel Washington, and comedians Robert Townsend and David Alan Grier did almost twenty-five years prior in the film adaptation of Charles Fuller's Pulitzer-Prize winning play. I wondered if Spike Lee's love of his signature 360-degree camera angles would get in the way of telling a story that would engross and capture the viewer, like a reader of fine poetry. Could Terrance Blanchard create a score for this film that would not get in the way of the actors performances like a delicate pianist accompanying a soloist? Blanchard had done so in Lee's HBO documentary on Hurricane Katrina, entitled, When the Levees Broke: A Requim in Four Acts (2006), but still I wondered what I would see and hear.

I thought that 2000's Bamboozled was Lee's crowning achievement dealing with race and the sociopathic nature of America, her history of hate, and how entrenched and damaging racialized stereotypes are. His biopic of Malcolm X (which I'm still waiting for Denzel to get an Oscar for) was Lee's towering success at not just a historical film or particular historial figure, but some of the best damn acting on screen. I really began to think, "Spike how are you going to top yourself?"

To my amazement and satisfaction he did just that. Before I started writing this post I searched over twenty blogs and checked out a number of reviews, which were quite scathing and dismissive of the film. However, I expected that. When Malcolm X (1992) was released, I remembered how it was glanced over as well. Most said the movie was too long and yet it did not prevent blackfolk from leaving church early (like my family did) to see it when it was released. Understand though that this epic is about 160 minutes in length, but I did not realize it until Iooked at my watch when I was watching the ending credits.

There were a few reviewers that saw what I amazing achievement for not only Spike Lee, but movies generally. Lee was able to tell a number of intertwined stories simultaneously that did not just hark solely on the issue of race, which most tend to expect from Lee. Nor was it solely about the cruelty of war. The Miracle at St. Anna illustrates the complexities of the human condition whether it is the senseless murder of innocents by German forces, or the beauty of the compassion for an orphaned Italian boy by an African American soldier from the rural American South who had "never been so close to a white person."

Spike Lee castes his camera's lens on all aspects of war and life in general. With the help of several great actors, such as Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso and the unforgettable work of Omar Benson Miller and Matteo Sciabordi, Miracle at St. Anna reminds one of the beautiful fragility of life, the courage to hope and dream, and to simply live when times say that dreaming and living are impossible. Historically speaking, Lee picks up where A Soldier's Story left off...his adaptation of McBride's novel brings voice to the voiceless and attention to those that have been so long ignored.

That being said, PLEASE GO SEE FOR YOURSELF and support Bro. Spike!

(Spike Lee and writer James McBride at film debut)


the uppity negro said...

First and foremost, I'd be very interested to hear a more in depth take on "When the Levees Broke" given that sideways comment you said about Terence Blanchard--but okay, to each his own.

I had heard reviews that were comparing this movie to, of course, "Do The Right Thing" and then "Inside Man" which I thought was also a good movie as well, but still it wasn't a quintecential Spike Lee joint. I just think it's interesting how people pick and choose what they compare; "Inside Man" was appealing to the anti-Nazi sensibilities of viewers, but movies like "Bamboozled" (and I still, for the life of me can't see how Damon Wayans went on to do the buffoonery that was "My Wife and Kids" and clearly Tommy Davidson had to have had a nervous breakdown after the movie as he looked back over his "In Living Color" and on career) or even "Get On The Bus" and "He Got Game."

It's on my "to see" list, but classes and work come first.

Anonymous said...

Interesting review... I haven't seen the movie yet, although I've seen the trailor 3 or 4 times.

I'm curious to hear your thoughts about the Spike Lee vs. Clint Eastwood WWII buildup... the argument that's been playing out since Lee criticized Eastwood for his war/race depictions...

I will probably see the movie (its the historian in me) but sometimes, I wonder if Spike Lee the man overshadows his own work. So for example, sometimes we (and Spike) get so caught up in the fact that this is a "Spike Lee Joint" that the actual film gets put to the side... and things aren't helped by Spike Lee inserting himself into every narrative of every movie (does he show up in this one)?

But regardless, the man is talented and deserved to be judged by the (great) quality of his work.

negrointellectual said...

I've gotten several emails (and phone calls) about this post that were quite critical of my writing. I'll try to address the current responses here.

To "Uppity Negro", you seemed most bothered by your understanding of how I characterized Terrance Blanchard and Spike Lee. My comment about Blanchard was not meant to be one sided. Maybe my thick use of analogy "got in the way" of my review. Let me be clear. Spike and Blanchard do a brilliant job, in my view, of fitting a score to a be honest, Lee and Blanchard play an intricate balancing act where the music feeds off the film and vice versa. No where is this further demonstrated in Blanchard's score for Malcolm X and of course When the Levee's Broke. Again, there was no "one sided comment" intended (or written). It is unfortunate how things get lost in translation.

Hopefully too, that addresses the need for further analysis into the Levees generally. I realize you feel very strongly about that documentary as do I, but I should hope in the future we can agree to disagree about some things (if we haven't already).

For the "anonymous" respondent I don't think that Lee's feud with Eastwood really was a factor in this film, at least not when I watched it. Though I tend to agree with Lee's commentary, I need to see Eastwood's picture to really comment extensively, but largely the argument, as I understand it, is that race never figures prominently in any of the so called WWII epics that are part of the classic cinema. The romanticizing of America's "Last Great War" pushes to the side the deep seated racial conflicts that were happening domestically at the time.

Eastwood's Letter's from Iwo Jima, as I'm sure you know, was a continuation of ignoring African American involvement in the war effort. Now did he get involved in criticizing Eastwood like 50 Cent dissing MC's to make his meteoric rise in the top of the rap game (where is "Fiddy" now anyway)? I tend to think not. At this point in his career I don't think Spike has to "create" beef with anyone to generate hype for a film, but I could be wrong.

However, I do agree with you that Spike's films tend to wrestle with his own personality at times, not that it is intentional. I think recently his body of work centers on the film. Spike is an outspoken brother and I appreciate him for what he does whether I agree with him or not. I don't get hung up on it (I'm still trying to figure out She Hate Me and Girl 6).

Lastly, Spike did a masterful job in addressing the race issue. He layers it from the African Americans fighting for a nation that sees them as less than human to the complicated and intricate inter-race conflict reminiscent of Adolf Caesar and Denzel Washington in Soldier's Story (which will be another blog post by itself).

In Miracle at St. Anna, Lee demonstrates just how different the African American experience can be but also how it found collective voice as well during the conflict.

There is a scene where the soldiers remember an incident that happened stateside before their deployment where German soldiers (POW's) were treated better than they were. As they reflect on the "ice slops" incident they tear down Nazi propaganda in Italy that depicted black US G.I.'s like apes (you'll feel like your seeing part of Bamboozled here).

Well, that is all I have for now. I would like to thank everyone for their time in writing and posting and look forward to future intellectual fellowship and discourse.

Peace and respect,


the uppity negro said...

Usually I agree with you, I just wanted to hear your take on Levees from what appeared to be a sideways comment--but as we both know there's really no context in text.

If you haven't heard, here's a link to a story about the fact that surviving members from Sant'Anna di Stazzema who are calling it revisionist history.

Aside from the fact that the victors always write the history, it's not hard for black folk to understand betrayal of a movement by one person. It's not a glorious part of history to say that Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser were ratted out by fellow slaves, but it's considered fact.

negrointellectual said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
negrointellectual said...

In any resistance movement there have and will always be those who compromise progress either out of fear or greed, or both.

One need to look no further than the betrayal of Caesar by Brutus or the all too familiar biblical story of Judas (which is contested by some contemporary theologians).

However, in today's society we are "betrayed" daily by the government and those employed or elected to serve the "people". Moreover, a far worse showing of moral bankruptcy is in the pews and pulpits of many churches.

There are a great number of us that are bonded not by righteousness or the pursuit of justice, but hindered by the shackles of fear and greed.


I'll be posting on this topic soon.

Anonymous said...

oh all you intellectual masterbaters out there make my head hurt! It is a good film. Period. Go spend your Black dollars to support a Black man so he can continue to make more Black stories.

Seems pretty simple to me!


Diana said...

lol @ cherayla's comment.

SolShine7 said...

I still haven't seen this movie even though I like most of Spike's movies. and "The Color of Water" is one of my favorite books. I'll have to buy it on DVD, I'm just not that into war movies.

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