FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Filmmaker Spike Lee's latest movie "Miracle at St. Anna" opened over the weekend. It took in a modest three and a half million dollars. It's a story about four members of the all-black 92nd buffalo soldier division. They're fighting the Nazis and they get trapped behind enemy lines in Italy during World War II.
(Soundbite of movie "Miracle at St. Anna")
Unidentified Man #1: You come here.
Unidentified Man #2: Gather the rest, whoever will come and we'll take them down the mountain.
Unidentified Woman: We do not come with you.
Unidentified Man #2: Why not?
Unidentified Woman: Nazis in all villages.
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Boom boom. You just sit tight, it'll be jingle bells real soon. The U.S. Army is sitting right here in front of you.
Unidentified Woman: We need the army inside house now. Three years we've been waiting. First the British, then the Americans, Italy's tired to wait.
CHIDEYA: On Friday, we featured some of the stars of the film plus its writer. Now we have NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates who got the chance to sit down with Spike Lee. This has been a project of the heart for him. His mission started with the man of the 92nd buffalo soldier division.
Mr. SPIKE LEE (Director, "Miracle at St. Anna"): 15,000 African-American men stationed in Italy, they fought in an army that was segregated. Many of their commanding offices were from the south. That was a policy of the army. They felt that somehow that white southerners could control negroes better that the white officers from the north. That was a recipe for disaster. That did not work out at all.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: At one point in the film, one of the generals...
Mr. LEE: General Almond, real, real person.
GRIGSBY BATES: Says this is Mrs. Roosevelt's little experiment and we're going to have to live with it which indicated to me that there was a fair amount of resentment at having to even deal with the idea of black combatants.
Mr. LEE: Yes, it's a known fact that it was the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, getting on her husband's case, day after day, FDR. So he finally, probably, just probably to get some peace of mind, said OK, OK, I'll let them fight. Because, they weren't allowed to fight at first, it was just you could cook, you could clean, you'd do the menial stuff. And I feel they had really the guts to fight that, when the bullets started flying in, the black soldiers would just drop and run.
GRIGSBY BATES: Were they also worried about black soldiers with guns?
Mr. LEE: Well that was the case really in the States. Many towns had objections to these black bases with these men armed.
GRIGSBY BATES: Yet you have these men who get separated from their general unit in the hills of Tuscany.
Mr. LEE: Right. Behind Nazi lines.
GRIGSBY BATES: Behind enemy lines, they show up in- I mean as I was looking at the film I kept saying you know, in some ways, this is the Italian equivalent of Appalachia. You know, they're living up in these tiny, isolated little hamlets where everybody knows everybody else, or they're related to everybody else in some kind of tangential way. They've got, you know, feuds and connections that go back several generations. And they've mostly seen their own people all this time.
Mr. LEE: Right.
GRIGSBY BATES: And then all of a sudden, here come these brothers.
Mr. LEE: They've never seen a black person before, ever. But they saw these men as their liberators, they'd been waiting for the United States Army. First, they're waiting for the British and then Americans came so, this is true. While we were shooting in Tuscany, several times, elderly, at times, told me about their fond memories as children seeing the buffalo soldiers, black soldiers.
GRIGSBY BATES: What did they remember about them?
Mr. LEE: Well, one lady told me that she's alive today because of buffalo soldiers. She has just been born, a month or two old, she was dying of some illness. Her mother took her to the black camp. Black doctors gave her shots, probably penicillin, and she lived. And as she told me the story, tears running in their eyes and she just grabbed me and hugged me. She said, I'm alive because of the buffalo soldiers.
GRIGSBY BATES: So they had more than one job while they were there. And it seems that they were acutely conscious of that, that they weren't just soldiers, that they had this larger responsibility that white soldiers to a certain degree didn't have.
Mr. LEE: And also many of them felt as one of - Derek Luke's characters says in the film, that's the first time they felt free. And a - in reflection saying that it's a shame, for the first time they feel free in a foreign country and not in their own home, their native land.
GRIGSBY BATES: At one point they were having an argument about whether they should stay, whether they should go, whether this was, you know, going to lead to certain disaster. And Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps says, I'm not doing this for me. I'm doing this for my kids, for my kid's kids. This is our country too.
Mr. LEE: Progress.
GRIGBSY BATES: This is progress, this is progress, we have to make progress. What did he mean by that?
Mr. LEE: Well, it's something that all African-Americans have felt. I think it was felt when Crispus Attucks was killed by the British in the Boston Massacre. He was the first person to die in the war for the United States of America. A black man. We felt that in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, even today, in Iraq and Afghanistan. I find it amusing when people question the patriotism of African-Americans. It is so easy to be a patriot when you're receiving the full rights and benefits of a citizen. It is much more to be a patriot, when you're being lynched, you live in the apartheid of Jim Crow segregation, denied your rights as a human being.
And despite that, again and again and again, African-Americans have taken up the mantle, fought and died for his country. And, as you said before, Stamps talked about promise. Well, we're about to see that promise finally. November 4th, this country's going to vote for the 44th president of the United States of America. The promise that Stamps talked about, I think we're getting to that point because this thing is going to happen. And that is for me concrete evidence that this country has made a seismic move as far as race relations go that we have yet to see that a black man, someone who's father was born in Kenya, is going to be the commander-in-chief.
GRIGSBY BATES: He certainly will be, if he's elected.
Mr. LEE: He's going to win.
GRIGSBY BATES: OK. If he wins, does…
Mr. LEE: I'm sorry. I'm - whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. You said if...
GRIGSBY BATES: Well, I have to, I'm a reporter…
Mr. LEE: OK, but I'm not a reporter, and I can't let people ask me, so what happens if he doesn't win. I don't think like that. The man will - going to be delivered on November 4th. That's me - I'm speaking for myself.
GRIGSBY BATES: Let's look at it from your perspective then. He gets elected on November 4th, is part of why he gets elected this service that the real-life Aubrey Stamps have done, this down payment that they have made in order to get to this point.
Mr. LEE: Yes. It's not- yeah, this is not just him is- we could go on and on and on. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Shirley Chisholm, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Malcolm, Dr. King, JFK, you know. So, everything that's happened, you know- he's been able to- he's on their shoulders, I feel.
GRIGSBY BATES: But this is, in a way, this film, a big public thank you to people who didn't get thanked enough.
Mr. LEE: We filmed the supplement for the DVD recently of "Miracle at St. Anna." We had a round table with several buffalo soldiers. These men now in their later ages, very graceful, dignified men. And one gentleman, I can't recall his name, said I gave- I put my life on the line for this country. And I was hoping and praying that this would hopefully prove to white America that we were worthy, and we belong and we're Americans. The war was over, the ships left, his ship left from England, and it docked, I think at Newport News or Hamptons, you know, wherever the naval base there.
And it pulled up to the thing and before they could set their feet on American soil, walking down the plank, at the end of the plank, you had a sign, colored troops to the left, white troops to the right. And he said, he was broke down and cried, right there. So these men they're, they really - you're right, they should be given their due. These American heroes, the American patriots. And this film could be in a small way to illuminate these great Americans and then we're happy for that.
GRIGSBY BATES: Well, this is certainly a complement to all the rest of it, this definitely fills in some of the missing gaps. You know, when little kids in my age, you know, used to come home and go, where were all the black soldiers in the war, because we didn't see them in the history books. This is something that they will see. And I wish you good luck with it.
Mr. LEE: Thank you very much.
CHIDEYA: That was filmmaker and director Spike Lee talking about his new film "Miracle at St. Anna", with NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates. You can watch his full interview plus our conversation with the cast of the film at our website, nprnewsandviews.org. And that's our show for today. Thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our website, nprnewsandnotes.org. To join the conversation or sign up for our newsletter, visit our blog at nprnewsandviews.org. News and Notes was created by NPR News and the African-American public radio consortium. Tomorrow, the first lady of hip-hop was a widow at the age of 24. Her murdered husband was the popular rapper Chris Wallace, known as Biggie Smalls. She's come a long way since then with her family and recording career. We'll talk to Faith Evans about her life and new memoir, "Keep the Faith."