Throughout World War II, the U.S. military was officially segregated. In a war where the Allies were supposedly fighting for freedom, platoons of black soldiers killed and died for a country that still treated them like men of an inferior race.
Spike Lee underscores the irony in an early scene of Miracle at St. Anna, where one of the all-black platoons wades through a swamp in northern Italy, taunted by a German woman over truck-mounted loudspeakers: “Welcome, 92nd Division…We’ve been waiting for you. Do you know our German Wehrmacht has been here digging bunkers for six months? Your white commanders won’t tell you that, of course – they don’t care if you die. But the German people have nothing against the Negro.”
The eerily seductive voice continues for several minutes as the soldiers slowly advance. It’s not hard to predict their imminent slaughter by Germans waiting in ambush, which adds to the upsetting effect of the broadcaster’s most provocative words: “Why die for a nation that doesn’t want you? A nation that treats you like a slave!” But as the lurid speech drags on, the set-up starts to seem contrived. Lee could have shown American racism in action, but instead he gives us Nazi propaganda, as if endorsing its simplistic account of U.S. race relations. The technique is provocative, but ultimately shallow, and the film never explores racial issues beyond this superficial level.
Part of the problem is the setting, a Tuscan village north of the front where four survivors of the platoon escape after the initial firefight. The GIs spend the rest of the movie in this idyllic enclave, flirting with local women and occasionally musing on the slow pace of social change back home. But the civil rights discussions seem forced, since they don’t emerge naturally from the circumstances. In Do the Right Thing, Lee’s most celebrated film, political drama arose from everyday arguments in a black Brooklyn neigbourhood with an Italian-owned pizzeria. In Miracle, the blacks and Italians don’t even speak the same language, and their interactions are amicable, but dull.
Padding out the film’s running time is a lengthy subplot involving anti-Nazi partisans living in mountains near the village. Their actions somehow incite the S.S. to massacre 560 civilians in the eponymous village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, although the connection isn’t clearly explained. And while the depiction of the massacre is certainly unsettling – petrified hostages gather in front of a barn, a choleric S.S. officer shoots the priest in the temple, then the camera sweeps across the rows of crumpling bodies in sync with the sweeping machine gun – the violence feels gratuitous, since it barely relates to the rest of the film. As with the Nazi propaganda scene, Lee substitues shock value for coherence.
Lee should have focused on one side of his film – either the experience of black soldiers in the U.S. army or that of Italians during the German occupation – because both narrative strands suffer from their perfunctory treatment. It’s not just a question of historical completeness, characters in platoon movies need a compelling story because the appeal of such films lies in seeing ordinary people confronting extraordinary challenges. In Miracle, however, the soldiers spend most of the film cut off from the war, so they rarely have to take action. One of them befriends an orphan, one fixes a radio, and one has sex with an Italian girl, but the emotional interest of these
individual incidents is a casualty of the film’s unfocussed narrative.
These shortcomings are a shame, since some aspects of Lee’s approach to the war genre are refreshing. He never portrays killing as noble, even when individual soldiers are brave. He doesn’t stylize the battle scenes, or give each character a distinctive, carefully-staged death, but instead emphasizes the chaos and waste of the fighting. And he addresses a genuine imbalance in Hollywood portrayals of the war. His is one of very few films to depict the experience of black soldiers in the war – if only it offered more insight into their personal and political struggles. A month from now, a lot will depend on whether Americans can overcome centuries of racial prejudice, and every bit of historical understanding helps.
Miracle At St. Anna is now playing at the Scotiabank Theatre (977 Ste. Catherine O).