The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, October 17, 2008

Miracle At St. Anna

If Mozart had been born in the Kalahari, he'd have been known as the best drummer in his entire family.



Saw "Miracle at St. Anna," Spike Lee's new joint, yesterday. There's a masterpiece lurking inside that mess somewhere, but it wasn't on the screen. Spike is a real artist, with mastery over the basic and advanced filmic language, used to express his own view of the world. He is dancing to his own beat, and for those of us on the outside, it's a mixed bag.

In "St. Anna," an elderly postal employee blows away a customer. Investigating police find a million-dollar statue head in his apartment, missing from Florence since WW2. A reporter tries to discover why and what. You know the drill.

Most of the movie is a flashback demonstrating the lives of the "Buffalo Soldiers," an experimental combat brigade made up of blacks, and commanded by whites. The entire film starts with images of John Wayne from "A Bridge Too Far," Spike's announcement that he's about to get into Hollywood's face for excluding blacks from heroic war movie roles.


(And remember, those of you who will insist that it's "just Hollywood"--

1) According to most accounts, a majority of the talent working in Hollywood is Liberal Democrat

2) The percentage of Democrats who have negative views of black people is 33%

3) The percentage of white Americans with such negative views is 40%.

THEREFORE, Hollywood is MORE likely to create positive images than America is likely to want to consume them.


The trouble is that Spike is carrying heavy damage, for all his brilliance. This really shows up in the arena of sexuality, most especially black-white relationships. It is so strange to watch John Leguizamo with his black girlfriend in the beginning of this film. Or Ed Norton with Rosario Dawson in "25th Hour"--sexy, naturalistic, lovely scenes. I can't remember the last time Spike gave us something like that with two black people. And a black man with a white woman: Sex is shown as uncomfortable, erotic without romance, and often tied to violence if not death. He is REALLY messed up on this count, and watching how even a BLACK director gets programmed culturally is part of what makes me reject the "Hollywood is more racist than the rest of America" argument.

(And don't ring in the "Americans voting for Obama" argument. It ain't a popularity contest. An election is more like hiring a plumber. You don't much care about the race of the guy unstopping the toilet: you just want the shit off the floor. Doesn't mean you want him dating your daughter)


Anyway, Spike seems to have a profoundly depressive streak. "St. Anna" often feels like a succession of static shots, punctuated by his trade-mark full-screen face shots. He SEETHS with pain and resentment. And will someone keep this brilliant director away from writing scripts? I had very little sense of location and perspective, the writing was often pedantic, and tension was a sometime thing. Oddly, a couple of the performances were even fuzzy--and Spike is a WONDERFUL actor's director. I think he just cared too much.

He wants to make up for a century of films that exclude those of dark hue, or confine them to secondary and degrading roles. And I think that the fire burning inside him has produced some of the most exciting cinema of my lifetime--he has a unique and precious vision.

But as a commercial film-maker, his passion interferes with the narrative, and his pain disrupts the natural flow of human emotions ("in 'Bamboozled' he missed such an obvious relationship between the tap-dancer and the executive that I couldn't believe what I was seeing. In the HISTORY of Spike Lee films, I'm not sure there has ever been a relationship between a black man and woman I would covet. One I would want my own children to have. Maybe I'm missing something. Maybe in the background somewhere, but not in the foreground with a "Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy gets Girl" variety. And that is CENTRAL to the survival of a species, and is CENTRAL to the literature of every culture on this planet. The lack of this precious imagery is no accident, although I'm pretty sure it's unconscious).


And...there have certainly been other war films in which almost everyone you care about dies. "Saving Private Ryan," for instance. But

1) The concept of patriotism as natural and healthy is never questioned. In "Anna," the question of fighting for a country that does not consider you fully human is raised.

2) Men die for Ryan, but he not only survives, but thrives: we see his children and grandchildren. The single survivor of "Anna" lives alone, with no apparent children: his genetic line dies with him.

3) There has been, by my count, one other major film dealing with black soldiers in wartime. As opposed to THOUSANDS dealing with white soldiers. "Glory." And they all died in that one.


What you've got here is the most successful black filmmaker in history, and apparently he is tone-deaf to certain delicacies of the human condition. My best guess is that he is extraordinarily sensitive, hides that under bravado, but deep inside the anger and fear has burned away some of his wiring. Just the way I see it.

Murky, metaphysical, maddening, brilliant and confusing, I wanted terribly to love "St. Anna." And was frustrated that I could not. It's scope and ambition are "A" level. But the overall execution is "B-"


Anyone see where the Republican group did a picture of Food Stamps with a picture of Obama with Watermelon and Fried Chicken?

Of course, there was no racist intent. Of course. Nor at calls for his death at rallies, or jokes about it on Fox. Nope, nothing wrong here (as the Sharp Cereal Professor used to say.)


And McCain was great at the comedy event yesterday. His timing and delivery were excellent, better than Obama's, although I liked Obama's material a little better. The Hollywood version of this story is that McCain awakens from his slumber, realizes he's been over-handled and misserved by his advisors. For the next two weeks he gives us the McCain we saw eight years ago, and gives Barack the race of his life.

And then, of course, loses gracefully. by a hair.


Michelle said...

Having been on food stamps, I can state that you can't buy watermelon or fried chicken with them.

This type of thing pissing me off. So either she's racist or stupid. I'm thinking both.

Miracle: I plan to see it on netflix.

Anonymous said...

-- "If Mozart had been born in the Kalahari, he'd have been known as the best drummer in his entire family." --

As a passionate Mozart fan I find that statement intriguing and a bit puzzling.

I also read a comment somewhere that, "If Mozart had been born in the 20th century he would have been a rock star." That's probably true so I'm glad he was born in the 18th century.

Reluctant Lawyer said...

As to Miracle: I'll rent it when it comes out (not out of a lack of desire to see it, but with two small kids, it takes a lot for me to get to the movies.) I loved the book, so I'm a bit squeamish about seeing Spike Lee's treatment of the novel.

Minor correction: The unit involved was the 92nd Infantry Division, not a brigade (huge difference).

Interesting comments about Lee and his depictions of relationships, particularly considering his negative statements in the past regarding interracial couples.

Steven Barnes said...

I love Mozart as well. And agree that it was probably better for humanity that he was born when he was. My point is that without the support of an entire culture, as well as technology sufficient for full expression of skills and a means of reproducing and preserving the efforts of a lifetime, even a potential as transcendent as Mozart's would have gone unnoticed by the world. Just an expression of my obsession with the importance of culture and society in nurturing talents and abilities. In NO way a slam at Mozart--who, in my mind, is up there on the highest levels of human achievement.

Anonymous said...

Another important thing about Mozart to keep in mind is that his father was also a successful musician, as well as a _successful teacher_ of music who saw that his son had talent devoted a lot of time and effort towards making that talent bloom as much as possible. It's not just that he was born at the right place and right time, but also that he had a family dedicated towards helping him grow his natural talents. The dude had pretty much every single advantage you could want in creating a successful artist, and he still ended up dead in a common grave by 35.

Pagan Topologist said...

Michelle, I thought watermelon was a good, wholesome fresh fruit. I am astounded that you cannot buy it with food stamps. I understand fried chicken, as a prepared food which is more costly for the actual value. Do you know the rationale?

Vince Moore said...

Regarding the lack of sex in Spike Lee's current movies, perhaps we have a case of a black director trained by Hollywood's disinterest in displaying that aspect of black lives. His first three films had plenty of sex in them, both healthy and unhealthy. And then, it goes away or turns dark, a la Girl 6. Perhaps he's learned the lesson that showing black sex shuts down getting a movie done. Given his usual choice of difficult subject matter, he had to choose between dealing with the ideas he's interested in or making smaller movies that might not get distributed at all.

Unknown said...

I'd call the relationship between Malcolm X and his wife in the Malcolm X film positive, as far as it goes (even if the Nation of Islam comes off sexist), though somehow the more dysfunctional early relationship with the white woman felt more vivid.

Anonymous said...

-- "My point is that without the support of an entire culture..." --

Ah, I get it, and I agree completely. I sometimes wonder how many potential "Mozarts" are right now sitting in front of a TV in The Projects or in a trailer park.

Shady_Grady said...

Nice review on "Miracle at St. Anna".
This really hit home for me about Spike in this film especially:

"He SEETHS with pain and resentment."

I'm not sure where Spike was trying to go with the interaction between the widow(?) and the soldiers but it felt like he couldn't get out what to say.

It didn't quite work for me as a war movie though I liked Derek Luke in his role. Michael Ealy.. not so much.

Steven Barnes said...

Malcolm X's relationship with his wife was fine. I wouldn't want my own son to emulate that life path--Malcolm got assassinated. So if someone is unconsciously asking the question: "where are the goodies? Can I go this path and get them..? Survival, check. Sex...ouch! I'm dead!" Trying to chart a path from survival to sex to power to love (the foundations of further growth) is difficult WITH role models. But where is the path for a young man who wants to be powerful and sexual...and survive? Because I promise you, if there is no path to this within honest culture, young males will chose the outlaw path. This stuff is unconscious, and insidious. And far, far bigger than Hollywood.

Unknown said...

Actually, off the top of my head, the only movie I can think of that had a black man and a black woman in a relationship that I'd like my nephews and nieces (don't have any kids) to have, and who had a happy ending, was Independence Day. (Not counting characters who said they were happily married, but you never got to see them together on screen.)

Unknown said...

And, you're right, no Spike Lee movies that I've seen count. Malcolm X dies, some men in Get On the Bus say they have happy relationships, but you don't get to see that on screen, the parents in Crooklyn are not in a marriage I'd want, and pretty much all the relationships in Do The Right Thing are dysfunctional. And those are all the Spike Lee movies I've seen.

Ashe Hunt said...

Haven't seen "Miracle at St. Anna" yet so I cannot comment on your assessment of it now. I do agree with most of your comments about Spike's body of work. However there is one film of his where a black couple end up happily married with child and ends on a more positive note than where it began. That is "Mo' Better Blues". Though the path that Denzel's character, Bleek, embarked upon throughout the film was tumultuous and he had a rather serious wake-up call, he DID wake up. He got himself together and got back with one of the two women he had been dealing with throughout the film. And she was actually the darker woman which I thought was positive and significant to see on the screen. Granted he was seeing two women at the same time in the main body of the film and I'm sure that's not a path you would want your son to explore, Bleek was very HONEST about his relationships with both of the women he was dealing with. Which showed a certain level of maturity most men who like to deal with multiple women don't have. And I found the love scenes to be done rather well and healthy and positive. Yes, he messes up but he recovers and it ends positively. Hero's Journey stuff.

Josh Jasper said...

I saw the food stamp thing. This was the same type of conservative Californian that had the "Waterboard Obama" web page.

There's The guy who put an Obama sticker on a monkey while in like at a McCain rally

If you've got a few minutes and can listen as well as watch, here's some video of the entire crowd that the man with the monkey doll was in

The racism from the (100% white, as far as I can tel) crowd is overwhelming. "Go back to Kenya", "Where's Obama? He's in Africa".

They're shouting at some Obama supporters across the road, but still, seeing an Obama supporter is not reason for anyone to act racist.

Josh Jasper said...


Over in Indiana, PA and Northern Cambria, PA, volunteers fielded complaints of a massive wave of ugly robocalls both paid for by John McCain's campaign and those paid for by third parties. The third party call was interactive, and purported to be from Barack Obama himself. The call starts out reasonably, and then "Obama" asks what the listener thinks is the most important issue. Whatever the response, "Obama" then launches into a profane and crazed tirade using "n***er" and other shock language.

Faking calls from a real political candidate is not just a bad idea, it's against the law.

But on a positive note:

Strongly directed from the candidate himself, Obama's campaign organizers are taking nothing for granted, and the relentless organizing beat goes on. To accommodate the more spread out nature of the turf in west-central PA, over in the more rural upper half of Cambria County, Obama's aggressive campaign has organized its volunteers to improvise with phonebank and canvass staging locations out of apartments and offices after-hours.

"Our first night about a month ago," said volunteer Jim Sabella, "about four of us huddled around a one-bulb lamp to make calls." The apartment the volunteers used for the phonebank hadn't even had the electricity turned back on yet, and so they had to improvise. "We patched it through from the neighbors with an extension cord and just decided, we will do whatever it takes. Enough is enough, and we can't take another four years like the last eight." Now well-lit, the phone bank hosts several volunteers nearly every night of the week.

Steve Perry said...

Lynn --

How about Danny Glover and Darlene Love, in the Lethal Weapon movies? Not a lot of action in the bedroom, but they seemed a happy married couple when they weren't being threatened by villains.

Steven Barnes said...

I believe I'll accept Denzel in "Mo Better Blues". Been a long time, hasn't it? I certainly enjoy seeing Danny Glover and his wife, but we're still, and in fact I DO see some good black relationships out there. Few are sexual, and fewer have the complete arc: "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" (or the reverse, if from a woman's POV). That arc teaches how to find, woo, and hold a partner. If you can break that thread, the species and/or culture dies.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I was thinking of the Lethal Weapon movies, too. And Inside Man had the main character in a serious, long-term romantic relationship. In both cases, though, as Steve said, the romance wasn't the main thrust of the story at all.

Unknown said...

You know, thinking about it, I'm surprised that there aren't more decent war flicks about Black units. I prepared a syllabus based on Black military experiences in the US, and there are some amazing stories there. Even if you start with the Civil War, you've got a plethora of brilliant, filmable, epic stories. Just the high points - the Harlem Hellfighters in WWI, Tuskegee Airmen in WWII, the 761st Tank Battalion in WWII - Kareen Abdul Jabar co-wrote a book about them - the 555th in Korea. The epic fight for black officers dating back to the Spanish American War, the 9th and 10th Cavalry (those would be the Buffalo Soldiers), the Houston riots and mutiny in 1917 - these are all fantastic stories, and no one has filmed them.

Unknown said...

The Tuskegee Airmen got a good made for TV movie. I think they'd have fine for the big screen as well.

I haven't seen the Lethal Weapon movies, or Mo' Better Blues; maybe I should.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I know what you are saying, the president is not a personal figure in our lives... however he is a damn sight more than a plumber we have called in to fix our problems. I still upon occasion happen on an old couple with a picture of J.F.K. hanging on the wall. His assassination broke our hearts. With the situation on wall st. If Obama takes the presidency hes going to have some real power to reform (if he chooses). It takes a level of trust to allow a young man to date your daughter. It takes a level of faith to say "help us, lead us" in a time of crisis. We live in a different, more jaded age compared to the sixties. If Obama wins five seconds later he will be the scapegoat for well everything going wrong with our country, but maybe just maybe ill be an old timer with a picture of Obama hanging on my wall. P.S. Originally loved Mccain disappointed with him and his choice of running mate so now obamas my choice.


Shady_Grady said...

Here's an interesting article about Race and Hollywood and money by Brooks Barnes. It goes over a lot of the same points that have been raised here. It also raises questions about if Obama's election would change things...

Race and Hollywood

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