Monday, September 29, 2008

Zora on Film: Miracle at St. Anna as Cinematic Affirmative Action

(from left to right, the cute white kid who becomes our hope for the future, the over-sized black buffoon with a heart of gold ála The Green Mile, the light-skinned guy who can't be trusted, the dark-skinned and uptight intellectual, and the hyper-religious Afro-Latino with his requisite Santeria beads.)

After a long hiatus, Spike Lee has finally given us a new production -- Miracle at St. Anna. As respectable Negroes, I know that you have all been eagerly anticipating its release. I, myself, stood in the rain on Friday afternoon expecting to have to fight for a good seat. Surprisingly, I was only one of six patrons in the entire theater. After nearly three excruciating hours, I understood why.

Let me offer a few phrases that can sum up my feelings about Spike's rendition of Miracle at St. Anna:
Five Films Rolled Into One
I'm Glad I Didn't Bring My White Friends to See This
Cinematic Affirmative Action
Flags of Our Fathers Meets Hogan's Heroes
Saving Private Ryan Meets Tropic Thunder
Clint Eastwood was RIGHT
Call Me a Handkerchief Head
If a White Man Made This, Spike Would Start a Riot
We're Not "Bamboozled" When Spike Makes It
I Could Have Done More, But Hollywood is Racist
You Don't Get My Movie Because You're a House Negro
My Unique Perspective as the Black Filmmaker that Hollywood Loves to Hate

Can you sense where I'm going with this?

Spike Lee built his film on a compelling story developed in 2003 by James McBride who drew on the history of the overwhelmingly African American 92nd Infantry Division in the Italian campaign from mid-1944 to April 1945. Not content to rest on the merits of the story alone, Spike insists on adding his own recognizable branding -- in this instance, poor editing, overwhelming music scores, and cartoonish characters. On top of this, it is as if he was afraid that he would never again find funding to make another movie. This latest "joint" wraps a drama, an epic, a war movie, a melodrama, and a fantasy film all into one with a little comic relief on the side. Simply put, Miracle at Anna was not Spike's best effort by a long shot.

I have to say that what bothered me the most about this film was it's predictable, one-dimensional characters. The White American characters are, of course, largely racist crackers. We all know what form they take. The Italian female lead was hyper-sensual and all too ready to raise her skirt for some cioccolata americano.

Surprisingly, however, the negro characters were just as flat. "Train" was a character who could have easily been exchanged for Michael Clark Duncan's character in The Green Mile; he's the seven-foot, country negro who couldn't hurt a fly. Perhaps because of his "simple" nature, he becomes a vessel for God to act through (Chauncey refers to such commonly portrayed figures as "magical negroes"). As gentle as this character seems, we all know that his anger can be awakened in the face of injustice.

"Bishop" is the light-skinned pimp with no race pride. Terrence Howard has often served in this role. Bishop cares about nothing more than getting ahead and getting some pussy, preferably white. Before getting drafted, he was a preacher -- original, no? Ultimately, his selfishness endangers his fellow soldiers.

"Stamps" is the opposite of "Bishop." He is ebony-hued and noble, a true race man. He is the ambassador for negroes abroad and carries this burden with an uptight dignity. Sydney Poitier would have been great for this role. Stamps also yearns for the Italian damsel, but alas he shows her too much respect and it turns her off.

Finally, Spike offers us "Negron" (the name was obviously chosen to remind us of his negritude in case folks got confused with his Puerto Rican accent). Negron keeps to himself, as if he doesn't want to get mixed up in our black American foolishness. His means of survival is a crucifix attached to a length of Santeria beads. Do any of you remember Pedro Cerrano in Major League? Negron is the only one of the four who makes it back home. Hmmmmm.

Ironically, the most complicated characters were in the form of Nazi soldiers. The two that Spike chose to highlight were deeply conflicted and clearly didn't want to be a part of the Nazi project. They were humane and compelling. I was more interested in seeing how their characters might develop than I was in any of the four primary characters. What was Spike trying to say here?

If a white filmmaker had offered us four leading roles that were this flat and stereotypical, Spike Lee would have used him/her as fodder for his case that white people can't tell black stories. He would have led BedStuy in a boycott of the film. Why then is it excusable for him to offer up such crap? Are we to consume it simply because he is African-American? Not this respectable Negress. I am so past the point of not holding my folks accountable simply because they need to be "encouraged" and "supported." We can't progress with this mindset.

Spike Lee is mature enough and powerful enough as a filmmaker that he has to be held accountable. He is capable of good, even great, work. You've seen it with Do the Right Thing, with Malcolm X, and with his documentaries. Sadly, you won't see it with Miracle at St. Anna.


Anonymous said...

Long time reader...
First time commenter...

I'm still going to see this but you confirmed my suspicions that The Cricket was gonna have to have his over the top THERE'S RACISM AND JUST IN CASE YOU DIDN'T GET IT - THERE'S RACISM elements in this film.

I think an inherent flaw in Spike is that racism has evolved farther than just blatant second class citizenry, yet he stays with this rudimentary nigger approaches, often devaluing a more complex and intricate racial context that exists in the story/stories he's trying to tell.

Keep doing your thing people. I start my day with you cats and I love it.

Respect due,
40 Diesel.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. Spike often gets a pass because he's one-of-a-kind, even though his female characters are almost always hypersexual or harridans. And as excited as I was to see him making a war movie, I was a bit worried that he'd turn the characters into caricatures of real people.

I'll probably still go see it (sigh) but I think it's important to call out black people when they're doing the same things they'd decry white folks for doing.

Zora said...

Yes, I think that Spike is able to deflect criticism by referring to people either as racists or as house negroes. He seems to get away with it a lot, but as a result he is not maturing in the way that one would expect. I, too, keep going to his movies -- I keep hoping...

At what point, however, do we say that we refuse to support crap? When for instance is someone going to offer a meaningful critique of Tyler Perry, of bad hip-hop, of ghetto lit ... Other ethnic groups regularly protest negative reflections of themselves -- Jews, Italians ... Why aren't we doing that as a community?

gordon gartrelle said...


Scores of black critics bash Tyler Perry, ghetto lit, and "negative" rap.

But 2 things drive respectable negroes like yourself crazy:

1.) that respectable negroes have no clout among the black people who love lowest common denominator black culture.

and 2.) that most respectable negroes are so afraid of being called bougie elitists, they refuse to critique the poor taste and consumption habits of the black masses, uneducated black folks, poor black folks. It's the "hater" defense.

You know my position on this stuff: shitty black pop culture isn't the cause of anyone's problems, and it is irresponsible for respectable negroes to waste their energy trying to censor and boycott it.

Anonymous said...

I know a movie isn't good when its made as a response to an insult, and the insultee wants to show he has a bigger dick

Anonymous said...

"At what point, however, do we say that we refuse to support crap? ... Other ethnic groups regularly protest negative reflections of themselves..."

Negative reflections are one thing - holding yr own people accountable for crap work is another, maybe harder, thing, under the circumstances. Conflating the two is sloppy thinking. Or, I guess, just sloppy writing.

But I otherwise agree with 40 Diesel.