Spike Lee's new film, “Miracle at St. Anna” is a gripping World War II epic that chronicles the story of four African-American soldiers who are members of the U.S. Army as part of the all-black 92nd Division Buffalo Soldiers stationed in Tuscany, Italy, during World War II. They experience the tragedy and triumph of the war as they find themselves trapped behind enemy lines and separated from their unit after one of them risks his life to save an Italian boy.
Directed by Spike Lee from a screenplay written by James McBride, the author of the acclaimed novel of the same name, the film is produced by Lee, Roberto Cicutto and Luigi Musini. Executive producers are Marco Valerio Pugini and Jon Kilik. The director of photography is Matthew Libatique and the production designer is Tonino Zera. Barry Alexander Brown is editor and Carlo Poggioli serves as costume designer. Internationally renowned jazz trumpeter, bandleader and composer Terence Blanchard created the score. “Miracle at St. Anna” is presented by Touchstone Pictures in association with On My Own Produzioni Cinematografiche and Rai Cinema.
“Its a World War II film, a brutal mystery that deals with historic events and the stark reality of war,” says Lee. “But its also a lyrical, mystical story of compassion and love.”
DEREK LUKE (“Antwone Fisher,” “Pieces of April”) stars as Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps, MICHAEL EALY (“Barbershop,” “Their Eyes Were Watching God”) is Sergeant Bishop Cummings, LAZ ALONSO (“Stomp the Yard,” “Jarhead”) plays Corporal Hector Negron, and OMAR BENSON MILLER (“The Express,” “8 Mile,” “Transformers”) portrays Sam Train, the 'chocolate giant' with a big heart who befriends an Italian boy played by newcomer MATTEO SCIABORDI. Also among the cast are JOHN TURTURRO (“The Good Shepherd,” “Barton Fink”), JOHN LEGUIZAMO (“The Happening,” “Moulin Rouge!”).
Author James McBride turned childhood stories and years of research into a novel and Script. The story behind “Miracle at St. Anna” is rooted in a Brooklyn, New York brownstone some four decades ago, thanks to the uncle of a young boy who would grow up to be acclaimed writer James McBride. Uncle Henry shared first-hand accounts of WWII, Italian battles and the relationships formed overseas, but young James didn't yet recognize the value of the stories.
“My uncle used to talk about how great the Italians were,” says McBride. “He used to tell war stories which at the time us kids ignored.” It would be years and long after the death of Henry when McBride would recall some of the details his uncle revealed. “He used to talk about how the Italians loved the soldiers there, the black soldiers. So I investigated it and discovered that there was an entire division of blacks in Italy as combat infantry. That's how I found out about the 92nd Division.”
The 92nd Infantry Division consisted of 15,000 African-American men, dubbed Buffalo Soldiers, who served in Italy during World War II from August 1944 to November 1945.
They weren't the first African Americans to fight for the U.S., in fact, the term Buffalo Soldier dates back to the Mexican War. “Buffalo Soldier was a nickname that the Native Americans gave to the black members of the 9th and 10th Cavalries because of their dark skin and hair that was akin to their beloved buffalo,” says McBride.
The 92nd became the foundation of McBride's novel “Miracle at St. Anna,” which was published in 2003. It earned an instant fan in Spike Lee. “I called James and told him I would like to make this into a film,” says the director. “I became a student of World War II, in particular a student of the 92nd Infantry Division, the Buffalo Soldiers.
“James introduced me to several of the surviving Buffalo Soldiers whom he met and interviewed for the novel,” Spike Lee continues. “They saw things that you would not want anybody to see, the horrors of war, moments that they still think about, still dream about, still wake up in a sweat about.”
Lee decided that McBride was the best person to write the screenplay for the film. “James is the sole author of the script,” says Lee. “I think he did a great job, but he had great material to work with: the novel he wrote.”
Not Just a War Story
McBride says it took years to pull the story together. “A story like this doesnt tell itself,” he says. “'Miracle at St. Anna' was never written as a war story, it was written as a story about human beings who are reacting in times of extraordinary stress, trying to retain their humanity.”
Producer Luigi Musini adds, “It's about friendship and about getting to know each other behind fears and prejudices. It's about helping each other. It's about the extraordinary encounter of different people, blacks and whites, old people and children, Italians and Americans and Germans, all in the midst of a war.”
“In order to do that kind of story,” concludes McBride, “you have to really be familiar with that world.” The author did more than become familiar with the world, he immersed himself in it.
“I studied Italian at The New School in New York City. I moved to Italy with my family for six months. I interviewed dozens of Italians Partisans and Fascists. I interviewed dozens of
African-American soldiers who fought in the war, most who have since passed away. I must have read at least 20 books. I went to the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I studied the whole business of what the 92nd did in Italy during the war, to try to get an idea of what really transpired.”
With a solid understanding of the history, McBride was able to create the story, weaving in real-life elements hed learned: actual Buffalo Soldiers may have influenced a character trait
along the way and their stories helped shape battle scenes and allowed McBride to depict how
these soldiers were often treated. While the story is fictional, says McBride, there is truth at its core.
Murder of Innocent Man
“The film opens with what seems like the murder of an innocent man at the post office,” says McBride. The rest of the story helps explain why it happens, who the players are and what event, which turns out to be a true atrocity in Italian history, leads to this present-day murder at a New York City post office. “A reporter decides to investigate and discovers a priceless Italian artifact in the suspect's apartment,” says McBride. “The artifact leads to a long-forgotten division that fought in World War II.”
The story goes across the ocean and back in time as a group of soldiers from the 92nd Division attempt to cross the Serchio River in Tuscany, Italy, in September of 1944. In many ways, says Lee, this is where the real story begins. “Four men get caught behind enemy lines and they befriend a traumatized young Italian boy,” says Lee. “They find themselves in a remote Tuscan village, with people who've never seen a black person before. It's about how they all overcome these barriers, cultural, language, and try to form an allegiance for the oncoming Nazi attack.”
Producer Roberto Cicutto adds, “It is about relationships between people who would have never met in ordinary life and who understand and help each other against the horror of the war.”
Says McBride, “I think these kinds of stories can be told in a way that doesn't really point a finger at any particular person or society but just show how difficult life was, not only for the Buffalo Soldiers who were fighting in Italy,
but for the Italians, as well as many of the Germans.
“You could say it's a war movie,” continues McBride. “You could say it's a movie about a boy and a man. You could say it's a movie about Americans and Italians. You could say it's a movie about a German who does the right thing. But the film is ultimately about the miracle of love between human beings and the choices they make in the face of enormous adversity.”
McBride says it was tough at first to transform the novel into a movie. “As a novelist, you tend to think internally,” he says. “You can guide what the character says and you can explore what he or she is thinking. Movies don't have time to explain. You have to get right to the muscle.”
The author adds that he didn't mind handing over control of what had been his baby for so long. “It was nice to see somebody else put their vision to it. I happen to like Spike's vision. I trust it. It's like jazz. Everyone adds their own particular flavor and color and that's what creates the song.”