FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
It's September 1944, World War II is in full flourish. The all-black 92nd buffalo soldier division is trapped behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied Italy. They've survived a bloody battle made worse by a white commander who doesn't believe in his own men. While battling the racism and the Nazi attacks, one of the men risks his life to save a young Italian boy.
(Soundbite of movie "Miracle At St. Anna")
Mr. DEREK LUKE: (As Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps) We got a boy that needs help.
Unidentified Woman: (Italian spoken)
Mr. LUKE: (As Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps) We have to tell them we're taking the boy to a hospital. They can come, too. They need to evacuate anyway. We'll escort them down the mountain.
CHIDEYA: "Miracle at St. Anna" is filmmaker Spike Lee's first war movie. It's based on James McBride's novel of the same name and the best-selling writer McBride also wrote the screenplay. On Monday, you can tune in for our conversation with director Spike Lee. But right now, we want you to listen in on a conversation I had with three stars of the film, Derek Luke, Laz Alonso and Omar Benson Miller. They were all with me at our studios at NPR West, and we had writer James McBride on the line as well. I started off by asking Laz Alonso about playing an older veteran in the opening scene.
Mr. LAZ ALONZO (Actor): Well, for me, it started off, you know with knowing that these characters were actually real living souls. They were real people who experienced this at one time. James McBride actually used to be best friends with and rode the train with everyday with the character who I portray was based on. You know, so to know that these same exact words weren't something that came out of someone's figment of their imagination but they were direct quotes from James' interviews with these veterans, it really put the level of responsibility on portraying these characters into a whole different place for me.
CHIDEYA: Well, James, Laz has already pointed out that you have a personal connection to the material, hearing the stories of a generation of men who's dying out now. What really prompted you to make this happen?
Mr. JAMES MCBRIDE (Novelist and Screenwriter): Well, I had an uncle who served in World War II. And when I was a kid, I used to hear him talk about, you know, the Italians loved the colored men and so forth and I never paid attention to those stories until I became grown and became a writer and long after he passed. And then, when I started researching "Miracle at St. Anna," I interviewed at least two or three dozen veterans from the 92nd Division, and then I moved to Italy for six months or so and interviewed Italians and people from that side of the war.
CHIDEYA: Derek, tell me about your character and his relationship to power and how it changes over the time that he is there in Italy.
Mr. DEREK LUKE (Actor): My character is Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps, and I'm part of the four that gets separated from our regiment and I think part of the power, to answer your question, is having a scope or a vision for the future. I think that Stamps felt like, you know, we couldn't continue like this the way the country was and the political climate, the racial climate that couldn't continue in the film and during the 1944 - my character, he was one of the few that was not drafted but enlisted and had a college degree. So, education played a whole lot on his plate.
CHIDEYA: Uh oh, there's a pound going on, a terrorist fist jab.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LUKE: Oh, terrorist fist jabs.
CHIDEYA: I might have to call- might have to call Homeland Security right now.
Mr. ALONZO: Call Michelle Obama.
CHIDEYA: Hello. This interview is over. I just saw dap. I just saw a dap in the office. I want to let you know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: But moving on to you, Omar. Your character is - and this is of course, incredibly pivotal to the whole story- is takes responsibility for a young boy, a young Italian boy who he can't even speak the same language with. What was it like playing someone who had that kind of a heart?
Mr. OMAR BENSON MILLER (Actor): For me, playing Train was angelic in a way. And I mean, you can ask the fellas, there was a lot of activities that I'm involved in in my day to day life that I wasn't involved in when we were shooting the film. Based on my dedication to try to keep the innocence about this man who's almost like a- a man-child, because he's actually concerned with others' well-being regardless of whether they treat him well or whether they don't treat him well, whether he speaks the same language as them, whether he doesn't speak the same language as them. This child represents everything that could be in life. The potential of positivity and that's how he's living his life in this righteous sort of way.
(Soundbite of movie "Miracle At St. Anna")
Mr. MILLER: (As Private First Class Sam Train) You ain't got to own nothing. You ain't got to be a big somebody. All you got to do is believe in Him, boy.
Mr. MATTEO SCIABORDI: (As Angelo Torancelli) (Italian spoken)
Mr. MILLER: (As Private First Class Sam Train) God made this thing here, through man's hand. But the Lord gived it shape, and purpose, and through this little thing here, God gives you something else, boy. You know what it is? It's a secret. Miracles.
CHIDEYA: James, what does it mean to you to work for the screen as opposed to working for the pad and paper but you also wrote the screenplay, and then got to see it executed into the movie. So what was the difference between part A and part B?
Mr. MCBRIDE: Well, the main difference is that screenplays are all about muscle. You don't have time really that you'd have in a novel to go into a character's backstory, it's going to the head. I mean, it's extraordinary to watch your words come to life. Omar has at one point one of my favorite scenes in the movie where he has a- almost a 10-minute scene with this Italian kid which he basically improvised where this whole business of using taps to communicate. And I mean it's a really long scene on the page. When you watch it in the movie, it was one of my favorite parts of the movie because the innocence of these two characters really connects and, similarly, you know to present Laz as - Hector is an old man at the top, you put the words on the page but when an actor takes these words and communicates them to an audience, Laz just- they just take it to another level.
It was quite refreshing for - I've heard horror stories about writers whose books become screenplays but in this case, it was really wonderful to see it happen. Spike also saw early on that this isn't really just a war movie, it's really a movie about friendship and about the commonalities that we have as people. And what he does, what he did with me was he gave me a wide pallet. He gave me a wide plate and just let me exercise my ability. And as high as you can work and as hard as you can work, that's what he'll accept. When you drop below the level that you- you're capable of, he senses it instantly and I suspect the actors have had that same experience.
Mr. LUKE: You're absolutely right.
CHIDEYA: I see a lot of head nodding, a little chuckling.
Mr. MILLER: And a long distance pound to James.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: Omar, did you feel like you were ever pushed to your limits as an actor, you know, whether it was the demands of the director or, you know, the demands of- the physical demands must have been considerable, too.
Mr. MILLER: I was pushed to the limit before we even started shooting because I had to lose 60 pounds to play the role, to play a soldier and the movie that I shot right before I was a burly football player and then to play a soldier, I had to tighten up. But one of the best talents that Spike has is being able to know what everybody can do. So that when you have the role, take confidence in the fact that you are the right person for the role. And I think that, you know, we all pushed each other to take it to the next level because we're all competitive individuals and I loved it. I'll work on a set like this every day of the week.
CHIDEYA: Laz, I'm going to loop back to ethnicity. Your character is Afro-Puerto Rican, you yourself are Afro-Cuban in your heritage. You're bilingual in Spanish. Your character's bilingual in Spanish and he was kind of a bridge between these communities. So, what did that bring to the table in terms of being able to play someone who was that kind of a bridge?
Mr. ALFONSO: The main thing that helped me in portraying this character is that I'm also a first-generation American as this character was. And when you're a first-generation American, you kind of look at this country as a place of opportunity, irrespective of its faults, you know. So where I grew up with my friends kind of feeling disenfranchised in a lot of ways and left out of the American dream, for me, it was still light years ahead of what would have been available to me in Cuba.
You know, so you kind of - you kind of look at things differently, and I felt like you know once again James and Spike you know because Spike has been doing multi-cultural stories forever. Everybody kind of puts this big thing on - oh, it's his first war film. But it's a - this is more than just a war film, this is a story of how human beings can - in a time of crisis can come together irrespective of language barriers, color, you know. So in essence, he was kind of the glue that kind of held this group together and made sense of their union. And I just felt like James McBride and Spike both hit it on the head as far as showing a first-generation Latin's experience in this country, no matter how bad things may be here to them, it's the promised land.
Mr. MCBRIDE: Wow.
Mr. MCBRIDE: Wow, that was...
CHIDEYA: And then add to that the symbolism of him being the radio operator, the communicator, we could go in to a whole thesis - somebody will write a thesis on all this. James, what do you think is important to communicate about this generation of man that's dying out?
Mr. MCBRIDE: You know we haven't gotten a chance to really thank them as a community. They were part of the greatest generation as well. And most of these men did, - were just like the greatest generation in that did they not complain, they worked hard and many of them unfortunately, got to see their communities decimated by crack and drugs and so forth. And that's - I think that was probably as heart breaking for many of these man as it was when they came back from Europe to face the kind of discrimination they did face.
I think they would be proud of what we've tried to attempt here. And I think they would be delighted to know that this movie is about how they represented America in Italy because the soldier on the ground is really an ambassador, and the 92nd division universally were admired and love by the Italian people. Not because there were brave soldiers, that was only one reason, but also if they fed, they housed, they provided medical care and a lot of these men were poor and the Italians were poor. And they were spiritual and they were spiritual together, they celebrate Christmas together, they sang songs together. They really related to each other and that part of the - sort the Italian-black connection has never really been discussed in modern day media mythology until now. And you know this is a blessed cast, and we've been very fortunate to tell this small story in a world of very big ones.
CHIDEYA: That was writer James McBride along with actors Derek Luke, Laz Alonso and Omar Benson Miller. The new movie "Miracle at St. Anna" is based on James McBride's novel by the same name. It open nationwide today, and you can watch the full interview with the cast our website, nprnewsandviews.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.