Spike Lee’s last feature film, Miracle at St Anna has finally got a DVD release in the UK. Revolver are releasing the DVD/Blu-ray of the film on June 27. We featured a review of the American Region 1 disc here. The film is an adaptation of a novel by James McBride about a small group of ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ – African-American soldiers in Italy in 1944. As in many recent war films, the central story is ‘book-ended’ by events in contemporary New York. The film is long (150 mins plus) but always packed with incident. It’s a Spike Lee film so it is controversial and some people don’t like it for various reasons. But this is an important story about the Second World War and particularly about the segregated American armed forces. The film deserves to be seen.
The UK official website is here.
One of the interesting aspects of this release is the simultaneous launch of the film on DVD/Blu-ray, online via LOVEFiLM, iTunes, Playstation, BlinkBox, FilmFlex, BT Vision and on TV via Sky Box Office.
The film has never had a UK release (unprecedented for a Spike Lee fiction feature, I think) so Revolver should be rewarded with some interest.
The release prompts us to ask what Spike is up to at the moment. As far as we can see he has been working primarily for television documentary (plus one stageplay recording). Nothing new is available in the UK but a Region 1 DVD was released in April of his follow-up to the epic When the Levees Broke (2006). This is the documentary If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise (2010). To keep up-to-date with Spike Lee’s output, the best source is the 40 Acres and a Mule website.
This is the only Spike Lee fiction feature that has been denied a UK release. Why? I’m not sure. Possibly because it died at the US Box Office where it failed to reach $10 million against a $45 million budget. But then you would expect Disney (Touchstone) to attempt to get something back on a DVD release in the UK at least. Perhaps one is scheduled, but it is already nearly a year since the US cinema release. IMDB seems out of date on the release schedule since Italy isn’t listed, but according to the Lumiere Database it attracted 191,000 admissions there – not great for an epic film like this. It doesn’t seem to have been released anywhere else in Western Europe (at least not in 2008).
More worrying perhaps is the general unwillingness of distributors to put out films with African-American cultural content in the UK. We are still waiting for the awards-laden The Great Debaters (US 2007), the second film directed by Denzel Washington. There is a form of institutional racism at play here, a kind of dismissal of the possibility that general audiences might find an African-American film interesting. I guess the distributors would point to the general negative reaction to Miracle at St. Anna from US viewers and reviewers, despite the minority view that this is a great film.
I don’t think it is a great film, but it is a film that I would urge anyone interested in representation issues and auteur filmmaking to watch. As is often the case, Roger Ebert gives one of the most sensible responses to the film when he suggests that all the flaws he sees in it, and possibly all the things he doesn’t really like, are evidence of Spike Lee’s vision, which he has maintained in the film in the face of potential front office objections:
“When you see one of his films, you’re seeing one of his films. And Miracle at St. Anna contains richness, anger, history, sentiment, fantasy, reality, violence and life. Maybe too much. Better than too little.”
I’ll go with that.
Outline (no spoilers)
The film is an adaptation, scripted by the author himself, of the novel with the same title by James McBride (published in 2002). The plot opens with an incident in New York in 1983 that sets up a mystery involving, among other things, a marble head that turns out to be a valuable artefact. The main narrative is set in Tuscany in December 1944 during the Allied push against the Germans. Black soldiers from the 92nd Division of the US Army, known as the ‘Buffalo Soldiers’, engage with a large German force near the Serchio River. Four men get detached from the American side and end up on the other side of the river. They rescue a young Italian boy – who bonds immediately with one of the soldiers whom he calls ‘a chocolate giant’ – and eventually find themselves in a mountain village from which the Germans have fled. Meanwhile, the local German commander is being berated by a senior officer and told that he must regroup his men and find both the local partisans who have been harrying the German forces and a German soldier who is missing and must be found. What happens in the ensuing confrontations between the four Americans, the villagers, the partisans and the Germans holds the key to the mystery in New York. The resolution does solve the mystery, but doesn’t perhaps ‘close’ all the narrative questions.
The film is 160 minutes (although the closing credits last nearly 10 minutes) and it does feel long. The rigmarole of watching Region 1 DVDs forced me to watch the film in three parts. I think that if I had seen it in one sitting it would have flowed more as a narrative. In a way, I think I was least impressed with the opening and closing (mostly) New York-set scenes. The central narrative however, I found gripping. The ‘bookending’ of Second World War stories has become a convention of recent war films and to some extent it also links this film to Lee’s previous feature, Inside Man (2006) which also posed a mystery in New York that only made sense in terms of events from the 1930s. Lee has worked before with properties from other writers or with scripts written by strong authorial voices, so I’m not sure how much of the audience’s difficulties with the film come from the original story (which is a fiction based around a real incident). I read the book after I saw the film and in a way I’m glad I did it that way round as I enjoyed getting deeper into the narrative. I don’t believe that books are always ‘better’ than films – they are simply different as narratives.
The book isn’t actually very long, but it does have an awful lot of narrative detail. Although the film script more or less sticks to the book’s central narrative, there are aspects that are cut out since they are easily described in a novel, but would be difficult to include in a film narrative lasting less than three hours. This is inevitable – the book can include more detail, but it doesn’t press the emotional triggers as well as the film for a popular audience. Partly this means we learn less about the four central characters in the film than we do in the book. There is also, I think, less possibility of exploring the various fantasy or ‘spiritual’ elements of the novel – whether ‘real’ or imagined. More intriguingly, the film simplifies some of the subtleties in the depiction of the Buffalo Soldiers – perhaps McBride thought that audiences simply wouldn’t believe what actually happened in the US Army in Italy? Just to give one example, the leader of the four soldiers is a Staff Sergeant in the film, but a 2nd Lieutenant in the novel – a small difference, but important in how the Buffalo Soldiers were organised. There is also rather more in the novel about the issues concerning white officers and Black men. In other words, the film is perhaps less challenging than the novel in confronting the racism in the US armed forces.
Here are Spike Lee and James McBride in New York discussing the issues surrounding the film – it seems to me that in McBride, Spike Lee has found a like-minded soul (but note the emphasis that McBride puts on the theme of friendship and spirituality over and above the story of the Buffalo Soldiers).
Lee says that he wanted to make the film after reading the book, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that he knew quite a lot about the 92nd Division and had already considered this kind of project. The US forces in the Second World War were still segregated (although led by white officers). This caused problems in Europe as depicted in the John Schlesinger film Yanks (UK/US/Germany 1979) in which the local British girls are attracted to the black GIs and don’t really understand the colour bar (which did exist in Britain, but not so openly). The only other films I know that deal directly with segregation in the US forces at this time are The Tuskegee Airmen, an HBO TV film from 1995 and Norman Jewison’s A Soldier’s Story (1984).
As you might expect, the four soldiers are not Hollywood types but carefully-drawn characters who are constructed in various ways to allow McBride and Lee to explore a range of issues. Pfc Train (Omar Benson Miller) is the ‘chocolate giant’ – the gentle and spiritual boy from North Carolina who has never been close to a white person before he rescues the Italian boy. Corporal Negron (Laz Alonso) is the solid and sensible radio operator from Spanish Harlem, a bilingual man who also speaks enough Italian to translate when they meet the villagers. Sergeant Bishop (Michael Ealy) and Staff Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke) are the two who have ‘got on’ in life and in the Army, but Bishop is smooth and light-skinned, a con-man preacher from Kansas with the most obvious vices. Stamps is upright and sober but perhaps repressed – he is the product of a special US Army scheme devised to ‘fast track’ potential leaders. He is shocked that he feels more ‘free’ in Italy than at home and there is a vulnerability about him. They fall out over the only young attractive woman in the village – and just about everything else. There has been some comment that Bishop is too ‘modern’ in his speech and mannerisms and I can see this, but I suspect that Lee and McBride want to be sure that his behaviour is recognisable for a contemporary audience.
There are two aspects of the film that I suspect have caused most problems with American audiences. One is a typical Spike Lee insert into the narrative – a flashback to the soldiers during training in the Southern US where they encounter racists in a town bar (which was in the novel, although slightly differently handled). It’s the kind of incident that may well have happened in ‘real life’, but Lee plays it to the hilt. The other surprise for audiences, perhaps expecting a Hollywood style war film, is that the story is just as interested in the villagers and the partisans as in the soldiers and one of the central themes is the kind of supernatural bond that develops between Train and the boy and between the central family group in the village and the group of Black soldiers. McBride and Lee strongly suggest that for the soldiers, the village is a spiritual home.
The film did remind me of the great Hollywood war films – I mean the small-scale gritty pictures made by Robert Aldrich and Sam Fuller and also Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron – no higher praise really, except that it also reminded me of Rossellini’s Paisa with the partisans and Americans fighting the Germans (and the Brits mentioned and somewhere off-screen). The combat scenes were pretty impressive and exciting and probably quite realistic in terms of the survival rate in what was a very hard-fought campaign. I’d urge anyone to see the film – and to read the book. In an ideal world, I think I’d like Spike Lee to be able to make two films – Part 1 about how the Buffalo Soldiers were formed and Part 2 about what happened to them in Tuscany. I hope he returns to material like this. I’m also tempted to read more by James McBride.
Spike Lee has often referred to his own obsession with the ‘Knicks’ basketball team in New York, so it isn’t a surprise that he decided to make a film about basketball. ‘Sports films’ constitute a familiar genre in Hollywood, but they are often concerned with American sports that relatively few people worldwide actually understand (i.e. baseball and American football). Basketball is played in most countries but not in a professional way like it is with the NBA in the US. Although we don’t really understand these American sports, Hollywood generally simplifies them enough to turn a sporting event into a familiar cinematic dramatic narrative. This usually means that the film has little credibility with sports fans since it lacks authenticity either in the storyline or the presentation of the action on screen. Fortunately He Got Game is not a Hollywood movie, so it does something else.
I suggest that it isn’t a Hollywood movie, even though it stars Denzel Washington, by the late 1990s an A List star, and was released by Touchstone, a Disney Brand. The-Numbers.com suggests that the production budget of the film was $25 million which signifies a medium budget picture. What this means to me is that this was one of those Spike Lee blags in which he persuades a studio to cough up money and then produces something different to what the studio expects – the film opened at No 1 on 1,300 screens but died fairly quickly for a $21 million US box office gross. It does, however, have a following of sorts.
Hollywood narratives are usually linear and goal-centred, so sports films tend to feature a number of games/performances culminating in winning a championship contest. He Got Game ends with a contest of sorts, but there are no conventional sports contests. Instead this is a film about the commercialisation and professionalisation of sport in the US, its place in African-American culture and specifically in the father-son relationship within the African-American family. The generic narrative is actually drawn from the prison movie. Denzel Washington plays Jake Shuttlesworth apparently in prison (Attica) for a long stretch. He practises his basketball technique in the prison yard in order to keep fit and one day he is called into the warden’s office to be made an astounding offer. He will be released on special leave for a short period in order to persuade his son, Jesus, to enrol at ‘Big State’. Jesus has been named as the No 1 high school basketball player in the country and his enrolment is being sought by all the big basketball schools. The warden is intent on pleasing the governor, who is backing Big State. When Jake agrees to the ‘mission’ (after assurance that success could shorten his sentence) we begin to learn, via series of flashbacks, why he is in prison and how Jesus came to be such a star player. The time limit is the date by which Jesus must make a decision – only a few days away. Will he make the right decision? I won’t reveal what happens, but needless to say, there must be dramatic tension, which I don’t think is released in the most conventional way.
One of the strengths of Spike Lee’s filmmaking is cinematography and visual design and another is music. The opening to He Got Game is stunning in every way. If you didn’t know already, you would quickly be convinced that Lee loves basketball and wishes to place it on a pedestal as the ultimate American game – to mythologise it as Richard Falcon in Sight and Sound suggests. (‘He Got Game’ appears to be a complimentary remark confirming that someone can really play the game.) The camerawork by Malik Hassan Sayeed, who worked on several Lee films in the 1990s, draws on documentary styles and allied to the use of Aaron Copland’s music on the soundtrack it presents a series of beautiful images of street and on court basketball across the US and in and around Coney Island. The film’s aesthetic is constructed around a seeming contradiction. Although all the basketball footage is highly stylised – the ball is often in slow motion – there is also a strong thread of cinematic realism. Coney Island is the Shuttlesworth home and the Abraham Lincoln High School is a real school – one of the best-known and most successful public schools in America. Not being a fan of classical music, I also wasn’t aware that Aaron Copland is in many ways an appropriate composer to use in scoring the film. Copland was another Brooklyn boy who ‘done good’ – an intriguing figure, Jewish, gay and a socialist according to the Wikipedia entry. On the soundtrack, the Copland pieces are mainly used for the basketball moments and contrasted with Public Enemy used for the home life of Jesus. I was also intrigued by Lee’s use of the unusual name Shuttlesworth for the central characters. Doing a bit of internet research I came up with one of the highly honoured leaders of the Civil Rights movement, Fred Shuttlesworth (born 1922). I’m sure that isn’t a coincidence. (The naming of ‘Jesus’ is explained in the narrative and has a similar resonance in terms of the treatment of Black sports stars – Lee’s original motivation to make a sports film was the story of the Black baseball player Jackie Robinson who ‘broke the colour barrier’.)
This symbolism/realism also carries through to the discourse about the commercialisation of basketball. Jesus watches himself on television and we are offered a range of TV clips featuring the various coaches who praise Jesus. Lee’s critique of TV journalism pre-figures his attacks in Bamboozled and he can’t resist pushing the jokes as far as possible, so that one of the funniest scenes in the movie sees another Spike Lee regular, John Turturro, as a coach welcoming Jesus into his enormous basketball stadium with a montage of Jesus images on the big screen monitors, many taken from Denys Arcand’s Jésus of Montréal (Canada/France 1989) – a film itself satirising media images of the crucifixion.
The problem for Lee is how to meld his paean to basketball and satire on commercial sports to a family melodrama involving a father in prison. This is where he has to use the powerful star image of Washington – which he does very well with Denzel turning in a great performance, even with an Afro that seems rather dated. I confess that I’m not an historian of hair styles and I can’t remember when this style disappeared, but I’m assuming that it signifies how ‘out of touch’ Jake is (though he seems very aware of the latest model of Air Jordans in the shoe shop – Lee has had several commissions from Nike). Washington is both zen-like, gentle and vulnerable, crumpled even, but also hard and vicious as the occasion demands. I think he also works well with Ray Allen, a ‘real’ basketball star without acting experience who plays Jesus.
There are good and bad reviews of the film. The ones that suggest Lee only deals in stereotypes really piss me off. On the contrary, Lee always picks out interesting Black families with characters who live in real places doing believable things. Jesus is not a stereotypical Hollywood Black youth. He is a basketball player (all the basketball plays are ‘real’ not simulated) and a boy who has, understandably turned against his father. His little sister is that rare thing in American cinema, a believable child torn between brother, a surrogate father and her real Dad.
The film is not without its flaws. As usual, unfortunately, Spike’s writing for women seems less developed than for the male characters and I can’t really see why the film needed its sex scenes to be presented in such detail. Presumably both Jake and Jesus had to be seen having sex with prostitutes to emphasise the father-son similarities and possible differences (i.e. in the circumstances in which they found themselves). One of the better reviews (from a fan) suggests that there are many matching shots of the son and the father doing similar things. The film is also too long at 134 minutes – but apart from trimming a few scenes, I don’t think I could see where to cut it significantly. Finally, there is the race question. From one line of dialogue and the brief appearance of Jesus’ mother in a flashback, I gathered that Spike wanted to say something about mixed marriages, but I couldn’t work out what.
The film is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it and worth watching again to savour the basketball scenes with the Copland music.
Here’s the trailer – quite good at suggesting rather than revealing the narrative, I think:
and here is part of the opening sequence:
Well, do you want to watch the rest?
It’s twenty years since the release of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (it feels a lot longer, not sure why). The BFI is celebrating the occasion with a season on the Southbank in London and we are also going to get some screenings up here in Bradford. I’m also planning a course, so it seems a good idea to revisit the work of Spike Lee, one of the most controversial directors working today. I’ve seen most, but not all, of Lee’s features so I’ve got some catching up to do and some re-viewings. I’m not qualified to judge how well he represents African-American culture, though I feel like I’ve learned a lot from his films. Although race is a major topic for him, his films are also about gender, social class, the family and a host of other issues. Most of all though he is a stylist and I think that his films are distinctive because of their visual qualities, the use of music and great casting. Lee is a genuine auteur. There are few filmmakers whose work is instantly recognisable from their company’s name. But when you see the announcement that a film is from ‘40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks‘, you know that it is a Spike Lee Joint, sho’ nuff.
I’d have to say that I haven’t yet seen a bad Spike Lee film or perhaps more accurately, I haven’t yet seen a Spike Lee film that wasn’t interesting in terms of style, content and commitment. I know that there are commentators that I respect, such as Armond White, who are very down on Spike and accuse him of blocking out other more worthwhile filmmakers because of his vigorous self-promotion and propensity to ‘say it like it is’ as loudly as possible – but even when I don’t necessarily agree with him, I think it is better that he is out there saying things than keeping schtumm.
Spike Lee was born in 1957 in Atlanta but grew up in Brooklyn, New York City. He went back to college in Atlanta at the famous Black school, Morehouse, before developing his filmmaking skills back in New York at the Tisch School a couple of years behind Jim Jarmusch. Lee’s father is a noted jazz musician and composer and his mother was a teacher. His father has worked on the music for several of Lee’s films and his family life has clearly influenced his filmmaking.
In 1986, Lee’s first ‘commercial’ feature She’s Gotta Have It, a low budget independent film, was one of the earliest successes of what became known as American Independent Cinema. Since then, Lee has been continuously working on fiction features, documentaries, TV dramas, music videos and commercials, all produced by his own company. As of August 2009, Lee had released 20 features (fiction and documentary) and another 20 TV/video/commercials etc. This is a staggering achievement given the conservative nature of the mainstream American film business and the forthright arguments put forward by producer/writer/director/actor Spike Lee. This hasn’t prevented major features like the last Spike Lee Joint, the Miracle at Santa Anna (2008) from failing to get a proper release outside North America. Personally, I find it difficult to imagine what the winning documentaries must have been like that prevented Lee’s 4 Little Girls (1997) and When the Levées Broke (2006) from claiming Oscar success. But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised given the commercial failure of Bamboozled (2000), the biting satire on the racism in American television. In the same year, Lee had a big commercial success with a documentary/concert film featuring four African-American comedians, The Original Kings of Comedy. Lee is tough and sharp when it comes to surviving in the American film industry. It would be good to discuss what we think his films have contributed to global film culture over twenty years and more.
I would put Spike Lee into my Top 10 American filmmakers of the last twenty years without hesitation.