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Miracle at St. Anna: Spike Lee’s Deft Juggling Act of Religion, Race, and War

While other people have found Spike Lee’s Buffalo Soldier war epic, Miracle at St. Anna, to be joyless, overly ambitious, angry, or downright nonsensical, I found it to be passionate, patriotic, hopeful, critical, and a sprawling jumble of religion, race, war, and human nature. I felt after soaking it all in that my inkling in the previous article that other critics had missed the boat was not far off the mark at all. Perhaps the religious miracles stretched the boundaries of realism to the breaking point, or perhaps the commentaries on race relations rubbed some the wrong way. There were scenes in this film that were more engrossing and haunting than anything from 2008 thus far, which made me wonder if others who hated this film were out in line buying Milk Duds and missed them.

There’s so much to love about this film. Laz Alonso’s performance, one of my favorite of the year, understated yet easily carrying the film. Terence Blanchard’s score, appropriately sweeping and epic. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography, as he continues to show he is one of the most diverse and awe-inspiring cinematographers working today. The bravery of these real men, who were willing to die for a country that despised them, because they felt it could better the position of future African-American generations. Of course Spike is a bit heavy with the racial elements of the film—what do you expect when the situation was so heavy on the shoulders of the real Buffalo Soldiers? Not a single ounce of this film didn’t ring true to me.

And of course, the “miracles.” I can understand how the element of coincidence in this film can lead it to be easily dismissed by more cynical types. However, the film wears the religious angle on its sleeve. They put the word “Miracle” in the title, I don’t know how else Spike could have warned you that you should check your cynicism about fate at the door.

Perhaps this is why I saw so few trailers, so few commercials, and so little publicity for this film. The backers must have seen a two hour and forty minute war film that deals heavily with religion and race, and decided they should just dump it. After all, Spike never gets nominated for Oscars, and there are no big name actors in the film… who will miss it? In the end, a movie-going America is worse off when a film like this is unceremoniously checked in and out of theaters swiftly to reduce the cost, because it discourages filmmakers from making ambitious passion projects. Spike Lee will now be forced to make Inside Man 2 before he makes his next narrative film, which is a shame, not because I didn’t like Inside Man, but because Spike Lee has consistently made fascinating passionate cinema, and if he cannot get funding for his projects but a Dane Cook comedy can get greenlit without a script, then I weep for the future of the studio system.

One more thing: a common criticism of Spike Lee’s films have been that he “doesn’t know how to end a film.” Yet when I think of movies like She’s Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, and The 25th Hour, I think of some of the most enrapturing endings in the last two decades of cinema. The end to this film is the closest Lee has come to a conventional cinematic ending, but I found it to be warm and hopeful that good things can happen to those who put themselves in a position of self-sacrifice for the betterment of others. He’s proven he can end conventionally or vaguely, metaphorically or literally. What more does Spike Lee have to prove before people dispel of this allegedly consistent problem with his endings?

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~ by russellhainline on October 16, 2008.

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