After his box office smash Inside Man, Spike Lee figured he could exploit that brief window of Hollywood goodwill that exists for any director with a hit movie under his belt and get lift-off for one of two pet projects: a biopic of soul legend James Brown, and a drama about the LA riots. He figured wrong. “I got an offer, but it was not enough,” he says. “I was very frustrated with Hollywood, so I said, 'Fuck it,' and went to Italy.”
Once there, he set plan B in motion: an adaptation of James McBride's 2002 bestseller Miracle at St Anna, the fictionalised account of four African-American soldiers from the all-black 92nd Infantry Division who find themselves trapped behind Nazi lines in Italy during the second world war.
Targeting two Italian producers, Roberto Cicutto and Luigi Musini, who had distributed his films in Italy, Lee gave them three months to raise £25m. “I told them: 'We're going to start shooting in October.' This was July 2, and we didn't have a dime,” says Lee, sporting his trademark tortoiseshell specs and one of the many Obama T-shirts he owns. “They said, 'Spike, you're crazy', but I said, 'If we don't do this film now, it's never getting done.' We willed this film into being.”
At a moment when a black man is on the verge of being elected as the next US president, Miracle at St Anna is Lee's effort to set the record straight about the American men of all races who were part of the Allied victory. Due to screen at the London film festival today, it is the first film to portray the segregated 92nd - dubbed the Buffalo Soldiers - who fought in Italy at the tail end of the war.
Lee doesn't flinch at drawing parallels with what's happening now. “This whole thing is tied into Obama. These guys fought not knowing that there would be a black president, but they were hoping that some day America would deliver on its promise to life and liberty for all American citizens,” he says. “In the Constitution of the United States of America, it is written that slaves are three-fifths of a human being. That's why I'm happy to be alive today, because we're living in a time where there's a seismic shift happening. I never, ever thought that we'd get to a point where a man of African descent can be on the verge of being the president of the US.”
Lee's own mission is to upend the Hollywood myth-making apparatus that has mostly ignored the contributions of the one million African-Americans who served in the second world war. It's the reason he launched his bitter war of words with Clint Eastwood at this year's Cannes film festival, berating the film-maker over the paucity of black faces in his 2006 double bill, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. It's also why Miracle opens with an old, embittered black veteran watching stone-faced as John Wayne parades through the 1962 drama The Longest Day on his television.
“It is not a mistake that this film begins with Wayne. This is the Hollywood bullshit mythology that excludes one million people,” says Lee. “You look at John Wayne - what did he represent? In the second world war films, John Wayne is kicking Nazi ass, and in the Pacific he's kicking Japanese ass. And if it's a western, he's killing the savage Indian. This film is a rebuttal to the same mythology that demeans other people. We have to change this shit. We cannot continue putting out these lies again and again. Young people growing up have no idea that this stuff even happened.”
Lee cites the 761st Tank Battalion, which came to Patton's rescue in the Battle of the Bulge, and the Tuskegee Airmen, whose story will soon be dramatised by George Lucas, as other neglected areas of black wartime participation. Responding to Lee's accusations that he'd effectively erased black GIs from history, Eastwood said in a Guardian interview in June that Lee should “shut his face”, prompting Lee to reply that “we're not on a plantation”. But the Brooklyn-based director, who has never been shy of taking a pop at fellow film-makers (with cynical timing, many feel, since he usually has a film to publicise), insists that the feud is now “over, done with, squashed. I was never saying that it was just Eastwood himself. I was not putting the bull's-eye on him and saying he's the reason for this omission.” Did he feel the need to apologise to Eastwood personally? “No, there was no need to say anything. It's done.”
How it was done, it turns out, is that Lee bumped into Steven Spielberg at a basketball game and asked him to extend the olive branch to Eastwood on his behalf. It is likely to have come at Disney's behest, with the studio, which is distributing Miracle in the US, worried that an unresolved spat with a beloved industry figure such as Eastwood would fatally damage any Oscar hopes the film might have - although Lee insists he hasn't had any conversations with Disney. “That's not a discussion we've had. I'm more concerned with having some numbers when this film opens.”
As for the film itself - bar an abrasive redneck caricature who sends the Buffalo Soldiers into a suicidal frontline attack at the Serchio river - this isn't so much about the politics of African-Americans fighting for the US military, or even a black Saving Private Ryan, as a magic-realist tale of four African-American soldiers who seek refuge in an Italian village.
The film's philosophical divide is represented by duelling sergeants Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), the educated, idealistic one who believes that fighting for their country is the road to change, and Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), a streetwise cynic who thinks it perpetuates their status as second-class citizens. To underline this divide, McBride and Lee concocted a flashback scene in which the soldiers, still at boot camp in the deep south, are refused service at an ice-cream parlour, while German PoWs feast on sundaes. McBride extracted the scene from reality, though he added the PoWs. Lee, however, insists that their research turned up plenty of evidence of German PoWs getting “better housing, better food, better everything”, often on the same bases as the black GIs. “You're a young black man being trained to kill Nazis, and you look around and see the people you're being trained to kill are getting better treatment!”
Compared to his outstanding (and underrated) Malcolm X, Miracle is a disappointment. There's plenty to admire, but there's a lot of muddle, too, with meandering subplots, jarring tonal shifts (hardboiled noir in the framing sequences; an awkward John Leguizamo cameo) and unlikely sequences (a brash, loud village dance when there are Nazis crawling all around?) that could have been sliced from the hefty running time.
Lee filters his vision through what purports to be the bygone spirit of Italian neorealism, claiming a direct lineage from classics such as Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves through the film's little orphaned Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), who strikes up a friendship with gentle giant Train (Omar Benson Miller). He's the film's sentimental and quasi-mystical mascot, and, fortunately for Lee, he found in Sciabordi a child the camera adores.
“The one wild card in this was the kid,” says Lee. “I spent many a sleepless night worrying that if we don't get the right kid, it's not going to work. We had an open audition in Florence, and we were blessed with Matteo. He never acted before, but he had the qualities - the sensitivity, the intelligence, the face, the innocence that you need for a child to play this role. You might think I'm bragging, but he's as good as the kid in Bicycle Thieves. He saved us.”
The film's most devastating sequence is the reenactment of the August 1944 massacre that took place in Sant'Anna di Stazzema, where SS officers mowed down 560 innocent civilians, mostly women, children and the elderly, in the town square. Lee returned to the actual Tuscan location to recreate the scene. “We shot there for two days, and everyone on the cast and crew could feel the spirits and souls of those who were slaughtered,” he says. “That can't help but inspire you and push you, that you have a duty to try to get this right.”
But some Italians are sure that Lee didn't get it right. Earlier this month, the director travelled to Florence for the film's Italian premiere and to receive an honorary citizenship award from Sant'Anna, only to face charges that Miracle insulted the Italian resistance fighters. Veterans from the National Association of Italian Partisans blasted the film as “full of lies” and “an insult to the memory of the brave fighters who gave their lives”, primarily for fictional scenes that depict anti-fascist partisans indirectly sparking the atrocity by hiding in the village and abandoning the villagers to their fate; this contradicts the historical account of the massacre as an unprovoked war crime.
“I am not apologising for anything,” the director told the Italian press, adding that there was “a lot about your history you have yet to come to grips with”. The film has received the same mixed reviews there as elsewhere, with Corriere della Sera taking Lee to task for making a “phoney and rhetorical” war film. Back in the US, Lee - and Disney - hoped Miracle would surf a euphoric wave of Obama-mania and the tectonic changes happening in America's political landscape. But after the film barely scraped $7m in its first 10 days, their expectations have - like those of Republican politicians - been dramatically downsized.
If Obama's surge hasn't helped Miracle's US campaign, Lee is still confident America will vote its first African-American president into office. “I think there's going to be a large, large turnout of young Americans - more white than black - who have been part of the energy, the vitality and excitement of the Obama campaign. And it's going to be this large block of voters, which I feel will show up to vote on November 4, that will be the difference.”
Lee might not win the battle of hearts and minds with Miracle, but if Obama wins the war, he'll feel vindicated. It's precisely those African-Americans who put their faith in hope above separatism during the second world war that paved the way for a black presidency. And if Obama does win the White House, Lee may even find Hollywood loosening its purse strings enough to allow him to make his James Brown biopic or the LA riots docudrama. Or both.