Lee blasts Hollywood war mythology as Miracle at St. Anna debuts
Though Spike Lee grew up watching Second World War movies, he calls his contribution to the genre, the upcoming Miracle at St. Anna, "a rebuttal to the same Hollywood bullshit mythology" he finds in many war films.
Lee and six of his stars described the movie as a labour of love on Sunday morning, ahead of Miracle at St. Anna's evening debut at the Toronto International Film Festival.
They were joined on the panel by James McBride, who co-wrote the film and the novel on which it is based, and jazz composer, bandleader and trumpeter Terence Blanchard, creator of musical scores for many of Lee's films.
"It was so important to tell this story," said Omar Benson Miller, who portrays one of the film's four African-American soldiers who become trapped in Tuscany behind Nazi lines.
"This film needed to be made," he said at a festival news conference for the film.
For Italian actress Valentina Cervi, St. Anna also offered a respectful, "non stereotypical" portrayal of regular Italians, sharing the story of not just fighters but "also the people who suffered."
McBride said that one of his biggest challenges as a writer was offering Italian and German perspectives as well as the main story of the four Americans from the all-black 92nd Division, known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
New movie follows filmmaker spat
Lee, whose credits span racially charged dramas such as Do The Right Thing to his blockbuster thriller Inside Man, made headlines at the Cannes film festival in May when he criticized Clint Eastwood for not including any African American soldiers in his pair of Second World War films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima.
Eastwood shot back in an interview Britain's Guardian paper that Lee's criticism was off base, since no black soldiers were involved in the famous flag-raising photograph at Iwo Jima — the subject of the first film. Lee has since said the spat between the two was blown out of proportion and that they've declared a truce.
Lee also told reporters Sunday that "it's a miracle this film was made" — despite his experience as a filmmaker and the strong critical and commercial reception for Inside Man (his biggest box office success), he was forced to go seek part of his financing from Europe.
Stories of minority soldiers largely unknown
The hope is for Miracle at St. Anna to draw attention to the wartime contributions of minority soldiers, so much of which remains largely unknown to the general public, the director said.
A professor of film for New York University (who provided his cast with an extensive "war room" of movies, literature and research documents as part of their preparation), Lee ran through a host of examples, ranging from the black fighter pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen to the Nisei (second-generation Japanese-American) soldiers who fought on the European front.
Historically, he said, U.S. films depicting the war focus on only one perspective.
"John Wayne is kicking Nazi ass and he's kicking Japanese ass. If it's a western, he's killing the savage Indians … I'm not trying to kill [Wayne's reputation], because it wasn't his fault, but he was built up to represent America," Lee said.
"We cannot continue putting out these lies again and again. Young people growing up have no idea that this stuff even happened."
Next spring, Lee pointed out, George Lucas is set to release a film about the Tuskegee Airmen.
"Hopefully [St. Anna and Lucas's film] will spark the many other stories that have yet to be told about this great war and the so-called great generation."
Lee links soldiers' hopes to Obama
The 51-year-old filmmaker, who attended the news conference dressed in a shirt bearing a stylized image of U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama, pointed out St. Anna's relevance to the political atmosphere in his home country today.
African-American soldiers "fought in hope that someday America would deliver on its promise of life and liberty for all men," he said.
"That's why I'm happy to be alive today … I never thought there'd be a time when a man of African descent would be on the verge of becoming the president of the United States of America.
"So that's my tirade," Lee concluded, consciously delivering the passionate outburst so often expected of him.
Miracle at St. Anna hits theatres across North America on Sept. 26.
With files from the Canadian Press