Spike Lee, "Miracle" Worker

The director talks by telephone about his new film "Miracle At St. Anna", set during World War Two

Spike Lee with Rosie Perez in March 2008 at an event honoring Mr. Lee in Beverly Hills, California.  The director's new film "Miracle At St. Anna" he says, "definitely is more than a war film".  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore/

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

September 16, 2008

One might dare say that filmmaker and social commentator Spike Lee has managed to stay around both inside and outside of the Hollywood film business for so long is something of a miracle.  The Atlanta-born director would be inclined to disagree however, for he would surely say that his complete dedication and tenacity to succeed against all odds have got him to this point in his life and career -- and he'd be right.  One look at "She's Gotta Have It" (which he shot guerilla-style on the streets of his beloved Brooklyn for just over $100,000), "Malcolm X" (which was on the verge of annexation by Warner Brothers) and "When The Levees Broke" (the acclaimed Hurricane Katrina documentary) revealed that Mr. Lee as a filmmaker has thrived and persevered through the most adverse of circumstances.

And the same is true for his latest film, "Miracle At St. Anna", which Mr. Lee during a telephone conference call yesterday declared "by far has more discussion of religion, faith, hope, than anything I've done in the past."

The film opens in the U.S. and Canada on September 26 and is distributed by Disney studio arm Touchstone Pictures. 

One of the most telling things about the film's credits is the "On My Own" moniker which appears, for "Miracle At St. Anna" was truly a film that Mr. Lee shouldered entirely on his own -- at least in the sense of being without the financial support of Hollywood (Tinseltown had let Mr. Lee down on "L.A. Riots" and the proposed James Brown biopic.  Mr. Lee however, did have the help of Italian film producers Roberto Cicutto and Luigi Musini, and, perhaps most importantly, James McBride, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book The Color Of Water

Mr. McBride wrote the "Miracle" book, the 300-page-turning tome that he adapted into Mr. Lee's epic World War Two drama.  Mr. McBride based his book on the real-life stories his war-veteran uncle told him when the childhood McBride was young enough to sit on his uncle's knee in the mid-1970's.   Stories about the Buffalo Soldiers, an African-American army regiment of the U.S. military that had to fight the Nazis, the Fascists of Italy and the Jim Crow-ism of the American South all at the same time while on the battlefield during the Second World War, form the basis of the book, which was a New York Times #1 bestseller on its arrival in 2003.  The Buffalo Soldiers of the Negro 92nd Division arrived in Italy in 1943, at a time when the segregated U.S. military was still five years away from being integrated by President Harry Truman.

The director explained the impetus for "Miracle At St. Anna" and his collaboration with Mr. McBride, which he said was "a great working experience", though they had a few disagreements -- hardly unusual in collaborative situations.

"James understood that a novel's one thing and a screenplay is another, but we were very respectful to the original source -- the novel, that's what drew me to -- that's why I wanted to make this movie," Mr. Lee said.  "I felt this guy can write and there was no way in the world that he shouldn't have a chance to adapt his novel into the screenplay."

"Miracle" is Mr. Lee's biggest production thus far, as well as the first of his films to be shot almost entirely overseas (with the exception of a couple of scenes shot in New York City.)  The film was shot mainly in the Italian village of Tuscany, with some work in the Bahamas.  "Tuscany is one of the most beautiful places on earth . . . and you got to get the equipment (and cameras) up those mountains and those hills," the director said of the film's physical challenges.  "You know, Italy's a very old, old country.  You know, people forget that the United States is young compared to the rest of the world.  Very young.  And we were shooting in some locations where the actual incidents took place . . . we shot at St. Anna where the actual massacre (by the Nazis of Italian villagers occured), on August 12, 1944.  So I think it adds something to the cast and the crew when they know they're standing in the same exact places with the stuff that they're re-creating."

The director talked about the massacre sequences, citing how difficult they were.  For two days he said, the crew shot in the city of St. Anna, re-enacting the slaughter of 560 people, including babies. 

"That was not fun at all.  That was very, very hard to do."

Mr. Lee's new film stars Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Pierfrancesco Favino and Valentina Cervi, with Matteo Sciabordi.  Smaller roles are played by John Turturro, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Leguizamo, Alexandra Maria Lara and Kerry Washington.  Originally, the role of Stamps (played by Mr. Luke) was to be played by Wesley Snipes, and Bishop (Mr. Ealy) was to be played by Terrence Howard.  Neither of those panned out because of other commitments and well-publicized proceedings.  Nonetheless, the director said he was very pleased with the way things worked out. 

Matteo Sciabordi (left) and Laz Alonso in Spike Lee's "Miracle At St. Anna", which opens in the U.S. and Canada on September 26.  (Photo: David Lee/Touchstone Pictures via Buffalo Soldiers/On My Own)

Mr. Lee whose 40 Acres And A Mule Filmworks production company is now in its third decade of existence, has cultivated a litany of diverse characters throughout his feature films -- blacks, whites, Asians, gays, Sikhs -- and he has been particularly adept at chronicling Italian-Americans ("Do The Right Thing", "Jungle Fever", "Summer Of Sam").  The texture of Italian communities are captured again in "Miracle Of St. Anna".  The director addressed the question about how his childhood upbringing in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn has influenced his film portrayals of Italian-Americans, though he began cautiously.  "There are some Italian-Americans who say that my images of them are stereotypical.  I don't think that," said the 51-year-old alum of Morehouse College and New York University Film School. 

"I would say definitely me going to Brooklyn, New York, being the first family to move into the neighborhood of Cobble Hill, which was at that time primarily an Italian neighborhood.  Cobble Hill was right by the Brooklyn docks, and most, almost all the people who worked the docks were Italian, you know, when the waterfront was alive and thriving at that time in Brooklyn (the 1970's).  You know the funny thing is, we got called 'nigger' a couple of times the first days of moving in, but once they saw that there weren't a bunch of black families moving in behind us -- "

He laughs out loud at this point.

" -- we were the only ones.  They were like, 'Oh, they're alright!'  And then there were never anymore bad incidents after that.  So I would say definitely -- but to be honest though, there's a very -- it's not as much evident as it was back in the past -- but . . . there was a very tenuous love-hate relationship, specifically in New York City, between the African-American and the Italian-American communities."

Spike Lee spoke about the languages spoken in "Miracle".  German, Spanish and Italian.  And to hear the director say it, it seemed that one of the biggest miracles of "Miracle" was to get young Matteo Sciabordi from Italy to understand the English language Mr. Lee was speaking.  "One of my assistant directors, her name is Diane Jones, and she was very, very instrumental.  She also worked closely with the kid (Matteo), who I can say right now -- the kid was an unsung hero of this film because that was a wild card.  If we did not get the right performance from the kid, you know, all bets were off.  And she worked -- Matteo could not speak one word of English.  But we got what we needed to get from him and I think he gave a wonderful performance.  It was a challenge -- I have never -- but the alternative would have been hell.  For me -- I can't see another movie with Nazis speaking English.  I can't do it.  We wanted everyone to speak their native tongue."   

Mr. Lee also acknowledged the diversity among the four black men featured in the story. 

"I think that they're great actors (Mr. Luke, Mr. Ealy, Mr. Alonso and Mr. Miller).  Also, credit must be given to James McBride for those four roles because those roles were so distinct . . . they were really distinct types of black men of different backgrounds, different educations . . . ". 

The director expressed great interest in filming in Tuscany again and was grateful for the experience of working with all of the actors involved.  Speaking of which, Omar Benson Miller in particular has been gaining some early kudos for his role as Sam Train (from The New York Times).  "Miracle At St. Anna" could be one of the films that becomes a contender for Oscars come early next year.

In the meantime, Oscars or no Oscars, Spike Lee continues to make films by any means necessary.  It's been 22 years and counting for Mr. Lee, and in the words of McFadden and Whitehead, there ain't no stopping him now.

"Miracle At St. Anna" opens in the U.S. and Canada on September 26.  The film is released by Touchstone Pictures.

Trailer: "Miracle At St. Anna"

Related: Popcorn Reel feature story -- Spike Lee in Beverly Hills -- story written April 1, 2008

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.


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