Spike Lee’s Messed-Up Joint

January 13, 2024
3 mins read


By Steven Barnes

Monday, October 20, 2008.

There’s a masterpiece lurking somewhere inside the mess that is Miracle at St Anna, but it wasn’t on the screen. Spike is a real artist, with mastery over the basic and advanced cinematic language, used to express his own view of the world. He is dancing to his own beat, and for those of us on the outside, it’s a mixed bag.

In “St. Anna,” an elderly postal employee blows away a customer. Investigating police find a million-dollar statue head in his apartment, missing from Florence (Italy) since World War Two. A reporter tries to discover why and what. You know the drill.

Most of the movie is a flashback demonstrating the lives of the “Buffalo Soldiers,” an experimental combat brigade made up of blacks, and commanded by whites. The entire film starts with images of John Wayne from “A Bridge Too Far,” Spike’s announcement that he’s about to get into Hollywood’s face for excluding blacks from heroic war movie roles.

The trouble is that Spike, for all his brilliance, is carrying heavy damage. This really shows up in the arena of sexuality, most especially black-white relationships. It is so strange to watch John Leguizamo with his black girlfriend in the beginning of this film. Or Ed Norton with Rosario Dawson in “25th Hour”–sexy, naturalistic, lovely scenes.  I can’t remember the last time Spike gave us something like that with two black people.

And a black man with a white woman: Sex is shown as uncomfortable, erotic without romance, and often tied to violence if not death. Spike really messed up on this count, and watching how even a black director gets programmed culturally along the negative stereotype of Black male –White Female sexual encounters, is part of what makes me reject Spike’s notion that “Hollywood is more racist than the rest of America” argument.

And don’t ring in the “White Americans voting for Obama” argument. It ain’t a popularity contest. An election is more like hiring a plumber. You don’t much care about the race of the guy unstopping the toilet: you just want the shit off the floor. Yes, it doesn’t mean you want him dating your daughter!

Anyway, Spike seems to have a profoundly depressive streak. “St. Anna” often feels like a succession of static shots, punctuated by his trade-mark full-screen face shots.

He seethes with pain and resentment. And will someone keep this brilliant director away from writing scripts? I had very little sense of location and perspective, the writing was often pedantic, and tension was a sometime thing. Oddly, a couple of the performances were even fuzzy–and Spike is a wonderful actor’s director. I think he just cared too much.

He wants to make up for a century of films that exclude those of dark hue, or confine them to secondary and degrading roles. And I think that the fire burning inside him has produced some of the most exciting cinema of my lifetime – he has a unique and precious vision.

But as a commercial film-maker, his passion interferes with the narrative, and his pain disrupts the natural flow of human emotions: In ‘Bamboozled’ he missed such an obvious relationship between the tap-dancer and the executive that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. In the history of Spike Lee films, I’m not sure there has ever been a relationship between a black man and woman I would covet. One I would want my own children to have.

Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe in the background somewhere, but not in the foreground with a “Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy gets Girl” variety. And that is central to the survival of a species, and is central to the literature of every culture on this planet. The lack of this precious imagery is no accident, although I’m pretty sure it’s unconscious.


And there have certainly been other war films in which almost everyone you care about dies. “Saving Private Ryan,” for instance.  But  the concept of patriotism as natural and healthy is never questioned. In “Anna,” the question of fighting for a country that does not consider you fully human is raised.

Men die for Ryan, but he not only survives, but thrives: we see his children and grandchildren. The single survivor of “Anna” lives alone, with no apparent children: his genetic line dies with him.

There has been, by my count, one other major film dealing with black soldiers in wartime. As opposed to thousands dealing with white soldiers. “Glory.” And they all died in that one.

What you’ve got here is the most successful black filmmaker in history, and apparently he is tone-deaf to certain delicacies of the human condition. My best guess is that he is extraordinarily sensitive but hides that under bravado. Deep inside, the anger and fear has burned away some of his wiring.

Murky, metaphysical, maddening, brilliant and confusing, I wanted terribly to love “St. Anna.” But I was frustrated that I could not. It’s scope and ambition are “A” level, but the overall execution is “B-”

Steven Barnes is a best-selling novelist, television writer and art critic. His latest book, Great Sky Woman, is now on sale at Amazon. He blogs as Darkush.

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