Crowd-sourcing a film to shoot in Africa

A still from the proposal for ‘Yefon’

We received this message from Martin Stein about a new African film to be developed via Kickstarter.com

I’ve read the message and checked out the website for the film proposal. It’s very interesting to see what ‘crowd-sourcing’ a film looks like in practice and the subject for the film is one that everyone ought to support – women’s education in West Africa. I’m still not quite clear exactly what kind of film is being proposed. From the very glossy proposal it looks like a film produced from the US about a social issue in Cameroon.

A little context is useful here. There is a growing trend for film projects to be developed by West African filmmakers with US partners. This is part of a coming together of Nollywood and African-American filmmakers to create films for both Nigerian and diaspora markets. The movements in the opposite direction have up to now been mostly concerned with US directors and actors working in South Africa, but also other parts of Africa – and Hotel Rwanda is one film mentioned in the message below. This proposal appears to include a range of creative talent drawn from the US, Nigeria and South Africa.

The driving force behind the proposal is Sahndra Fon Dufe, who is the writer and who plays the central character. She comes from Cameroon and has presumably trained in the US where she currently works. I can’t fault the proposal in any way and she fronts it persuasively. There is part of me that is excited by the prospect of a global project to “put Cameroon and its stories on the map”. But there is also another part of me slightly concerned by a US-led project to make, as the proposal puts it, “the first major production in Cameroon” which is a “virgin country for film”. I wish I knew more about film in Cameroon, but I think that there have been many locally-made films before – perhaps not in the region where the story is set? I suspect that the most activity has been in Francophone Cameroon but I would be surprised if there was no interest in the Anglophone part.

I confess that I’m sceptical about most of those films made by Hollywood in South Africa – will this be a better bet? Is it good to have a bigger budget because there are known stars attached? Are there any local Cameroonian actors and crew who will take part in the production and what are the plans to show the film in Cameroon? It would be good to see these questions addressed in the proposal. Anyway, have a look at the proposal, and especially the video presentation (via the link below), and make up your own mind.

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“A young African woman with dreams of becoming a teacher takes reading and writing lessons from a visiting American. But, when the male village elders find out, she is sentenced to death for breaking from tradition.

Yefon is a film that continues in the proud tradition of socially conscious, Africa-based cinema like Hotel Rwanda, Beat the Drum  and Sarafina — but unlike those movies, its producers will come from the ranks of generous Kickstarter supporters: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/405663859/yefon-the-movie

It has already attracted the attention of Hollywood stars like Jimmy Jean-Louise (“Tears of the Sun” “Heroes”), Adriana Barraza (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee, “Babel”) and Hakeem Kae-Kazim (“Hotel Rwanda”). The film is being co-produced by Justin Massion, the director of the Kickstarter campaign for “Space Command,” which brought in $75,000 in just three days, and ended with over $200,000—making it one of the crowd-funding platform’s top 10 projects.

“Yefon” is the brainchild of 22-year-old actress and filmmaker Sahndra Fon Dufe, who got her inspiration from too many similar, true stories from Africa. Broken-hearted by this sad reality, she and the production team have pledged to use a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the film, a companion documentary, books and related merchandise to build an all-girls school in Nso, the Cameroon village where “Yefon” is set.

As well as playing a role in helping to correct this grievous wrong and set free generations of women, Kickstarter contributors receive amazing gifts, including African couture, masks, jewelry and art; tickets to red carpet premieres; opportunities to meet the cast and crew; and more.

With only 9 days left to reach the goal of $50,000, we can offer more information, artwork and even interviews with Fon Dufe and others so you can help spread the word about this important project.

Thanks!”

 

Buck and the Preacher (US 1972)

Sidney Poitier as a Western hero

Following the release of the Harry Belafonte ‘bio-documentary’ Sing Your Song in UK cinemas, I decided to look at some of the Belafonte movies available on DVD. In all the coverage of the new documentary relatively little has been said about Belafonte’s film work – which though not extensive was important in the development of African-American cinema, not least because the actor-singer produced his own films at a time when few African-Americans had any direct power in the industry. Belafonte’s second independent production company, Belafonte Enterprises, made the film in conjunction with Columbia. Belafonte took the second lead, but the star and director of the film was Sidney Poitier (who took over from the first director, Joseph Sargent). Ruby Dee, often paired with Poitier as an actor and with Belafonte as an activist, was billed third. The script was by the distinguished TV writer Ernest Kinoy who had written another Sidney Poitier script, Brother John, a year earlier and who would go on to contribute scripts to the TV serial Roots (1977) and its sequel in 1979. The music for the film was composed by Benny Carter, the great jazz band leader, and includes contributions from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Buck and the Preacher belongs to the cycle of ‘revisionist Westerns’ in the early 1970s when the counter culture and the anti-war movement in the US managed to find an outlet in the New Hollywood. This was the period of Soldier Blue (1970) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972), but the most popular Western of the 1970s was Mel Brooks’ comedy Blazing Saddles (1974). What links these three very different films is a debunking of the mythology of the West and a reappraisal of the representation of characters who would later be known as ‘African-Americans’ and ‘Native Americans’. This same period also saw the commercial success of a range of ‘Blaxploitation’ films, led by urban crime thrillers like Shaft (1971) and this development also included Blaxploitation Westerns, especially the cycle of films starring Fred Williamson – The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), its sequel The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973) and Boss Nigger (Black Bounty Hunter, 1974). The creation of Black ‘super-heroes’ in different settings attracted audiences (partly because of the provocative titles which created controversy) but didn’t really engage with the Western myths or the conventions of the genre as such. In his magisterial BFI Companion to the Western (1971), editor Ed Buscombe argues that Buck and the Preacher did precisely that – and that makes it an important film both for African-American cinema and the Western.

Outline

The narrative focuses on an aspect of American history largely neglected by Hollywood – the attempt by freed slaves from the South, after the Civil War ended, to head West on wagon trains, seeking new lands. Poitier plays ‘Buck’, an ex Union Cavalry sergeant, who sets himself up as a wagonmaster who will pilot wagon trains through hostile territory. He makes a deal with the local Native American chief to allow the wagon trains an unhindered passage, but he also has to battle a band of ex-Confederate soldiers. These men have been hired by plantation-owners in the South to drive the freed slaves back into low-paid employment in the cottonfields and their tactics are vicious and uncompromising. Ruby Dee plays Buck’s wife and Belafonte plays a con-man preacher who clashes with Buck but eventually forms an uneasy alliance with him to fight the ex-Confederates.

Analysis

The history of African-American cinema is usually presented via three distinct phases in Hollywood and then a question mark about what is happening today. In the first phase early American cinema and Hollywood in the silent era drew upon a range of Black stereotypes that had been developed in the nineteenth century. Donald Bogle’s ‘Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films’ revised in 1992 has the main title of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. These five types defined the roles offered to Black actors in mainstream Hollywood (although initially, following the practices of minstrelsy, white actors ‘blacked up’ for some roles). In the 1930s Black entrepreneurs struggled to offer an alternative to this Hollywood condescension but they did manage to produce low-budget independent Black films exploring popular genres – including Black Westerns such as the ‘Western Musical’ Harlem on the Prairie (1937) and the much earlier The Bull-Dogger (1922).

Hollywood eventually reacted to the potential of the Black popular audience with the gradual development of mainstream films with Black themes – and predominantly Black casting – by the late 1940s and early 1950s when Poitier and Belafonte were young actors seeking work. This was the second phase of African-American cinema with films that were presented as ‘liberal’ dramas attempting to deal with some elements of social realism. However, the old stereotypes remained in place. Sidney Poitier was the 1950s ‘good Negro’, essentially a ‘Tom’ derived from the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ruby Dee was the ‘good Negro wife’ and Harry Belafonte was seen as the ‘beautiful, sexy young man’ – the ‘Buck’ (which he resisted strongly and which no doubt was one of the reasons why he focused more on his musical career). The third phase was associated with the Blaxploitation cycle which critiqued the old stereotypes and the most immediate signal of change was evident in the casting of Poitier, quite literally, as ‘Buck’ with Ruby Dee still his wife, but now supporting him in actions which under the conventions of the Western represent resistance to the dominant ideology. Meanwhile, Belafonte is cast as the ‘Preacher’, a con-man role which featured in several of the earlier Black Westerns of the 1930s/40s.

Harry Belafonte as the long-haired ‘Preacher’

Buck and the Preacher is partly a comedy and that may be both why the film was a relative commercial success, but also why it hasn’t perhaps been given the status it deserves. As Ed Buscombe points out, the script is intelligent and knowing in its play with the conventions and the performances are very enjoyable. Poitier doesn’t just play the ‘Buck’, he overplays the role, sporting two mini-howitzers rather than conventional six-guns. There is an exhilaration in the way in which all three leads become ‘Western heroes’ and Bogle tells us that Black audiences cheered at the sight of the three heroes racing their horses across the screen pursued by a sheriff’s posse – I won’t spoil the narrative by revealing why they are on the run. The smiles are more wry in the key scene when Buck negotiates with the Native American chief who responds to the argument that Black and Red men have both suffered at the hands of the Whites by pointing out that Buck had served in the Union Army. This again feels like a commentary on Poitier’s previous roles in Hollywood – as well as, perhaps, a comment on the way in which Black soldiers had become a crucial element in the US Army in Vietnam.

I highly recommend the film as an enjoyable Western and a film that at least lifts a corner of the carpet under which the African-American experience of the ‘Old West’ has been carefully swept by Hollywood. You can download my notes on Harry Belafonte and Hollywood here: BelafonteNotes

Sing Your Song (US 2011)

Harry Belafonte and the Belafonte Folk Singers perform ‘Coconut Woman’ on Bell Telephone Hour, NBC TV 1964 (the show appeared 1959-68)

Sing Your Song is a ‘bio-doc’ celebrating the extraordinary life of Harry Belafonte, the legendary African-Caribbean-American singer, actor-producer and political and social activist. The title comes from advice given to Belafonte as a young performer by the equally legendary Paul Robeson:

“Get them to sing your song and they will want to know who you are.”

I enjoyed the documentary very much, particularly because it wasn’t until the 1980s that I began to understand the importance of Belafonte as a political activist – and then it was in relation to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and also Belafonte’s role as a producer in independent American cinema. In the 1950s I was aware of Belafonte as a singer, but for a child in the UK the politics of race in American society were not very visible. The documentary spends most of its time focusing on Belafonte’s TV career and his leading role in assembling support from other entertainers for the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s. With his high profile in American music and television he had clout and he was prepared to put his career on the line to fight for equality. I’d not seen most of the TV and news footage presented here before so this was very exciting.

However, there are two problems with the film that I did find frustrating. The first was purely technical. Having discovered so much incredible archive footage, it was a real shame that the filmmakers seemingly made no attempt to process the footage in the correct aspect ratios. The result is that the TV footage from the 1950s and 1960s is stretched from the 4:3 standard and made to fill a 16:9 image (I’m assuming that the film was made for TV screening as the home for many US documentaries – HBO is listed as one of the distributors of the film. (I converted the TV image above as the Press photos also include some stretched images.) Since the whole point about Belafonte’s appearance in the 1950s was that, as well as being very handsome, he was tall and slim, it’s very disappointing that you don’t get that from the footage. This is surprising in that the documentary is made by Belafonte’s own production company. But this in itself constitutes the second problem. Although the film’s director is Susanne Rostock, a distinguished documentary-maker, Belafonte narrates the film himself and his daughter Gina is a producer. My impression is that this is Harry Belafonte’s preferred view of his own story. Which is fine, but since he deals with a wide range of political issues it would be interesting to get a wider perspective on his achievements. I admit that one of the aspects of his career that I would have liked to learn more about was his experience in Hollywood. He clearly feels that his political activities have been more important than his disaffection with the film industry. When I did some work on Belafonte’s film career, I found it very interesting and a few more posts might well follow this one dealing with specific films. In organising an event associated with a screening of Sing Your Song, I produced some notes on his film career which are downloadable: BelafonteNotes

Harry Belafonte with JFK in a campaign film which used to urge African-Americans to vote for Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign. (The ad can be viewed on YouTube.)

My slight reservations about Sing Your Song aren’t intended to put anyone else off watching the film, which I hope will show on UK TV after its cinema run and DVD release. There is also a book, My Song and the official website for the film provides a wealth of resources. Harry Belafonte has been working in the American entertainment industry for more than sixty years and he is still active, using his resources and his celebrity status to develop political campaigns aiming to promote social, economic and political equality, both in the US and in the international arena. As many reviewers have said, he is an inspirational figure and I’m glad an accessible document like Sing Your Song exists. As well as learning about his current political work, I also learned a lot from the archive material. I hadn’t really appreciated just how big a musical and TV star Belafonte was in the 1950s/60s – and therefore the weight that his endorsement of causes carried. His ‘development’ of Caribbean folk tunes in an American context, though in one sense appearing ‘inauthentic’, in another sees him as opening up American popular music to new influences. But it is his strong character that enabled him to challenge the race divide in American broadcasting. I knew about the controversy surrounding his appearance on Pet Clark’s TV Show in 1968 (when the sponsor’s representative objected to the physical contact between the two singers) but not about Belafonte’s own TV show, which was not renewed because the sponsor felt uncomfortable with its social concerns and its ‘blackness’. This morning, the Guardian‘s third editorial, often used as an ‘in praise of . . .’ piece, singles out Harry Belafonte’s book and reiterates his importance as a celebrity figure who commits completely to his political work.

New Spike Lee DVD

Spike Lee’s last feature film, Miracle at St Anna has finally got a DVD release in the UK. Revolver are releasing the DVD/Blu-ray of the film on June 27. We featured a review of the American Region 1 disc here. The film is an adaptation of a novel by James McBride about a small group of ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ – African-American soldiers in Italy in 1944. As in many recent war films, the central story is ‘book-ended’ by events in contemporary New York. The film is long (150 mins plus) but always packed with incident. It’s a Spike Lee film so it is controversial and some people don’t like it for various reasons. But this is an important story about the Second World War and particularly about the segregated American armed forces. The film deserves to be seen.

The UK official website is here.

One of the interesting aspects of this release is the simultaneous launch of the film on DVD/Blu-ray, online via LOVEFiLM, iTunes, Playstation, BlinkBox, FilmFlex, BT Vision and on TV via Sky Box Office.

The film has never had a UK release (unprecedented for a Spike Lee fiction feature, I think) so Revolver should be rewarded with some interest.

The release prompts us to ask what Spike is up to at the moment. As far as we can see he has been working primarily for television documentary (plus one stageplay recording). Nothing new is available in the UK but a Region 1 DVD was released in April of his follow-up to the epic When the Levees Broke (2006). This is the documentary If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise (2010). To keep up-to-date with Spike Lee’s output, the best source is the 40 Acres and a Mule website.

Soul Food (US 1997)

Mama Jo and her three daughters in the kitchen

Mama Jo and her three daughters in the kitchen

I really enjoyed this film. A touch too schmaltzy perhaps but I’m prepared to forgive writer-director George Tillman Jr when the characters are as well drawn as these and the ensemble playing is so good. This is a genuine family melodrama which would not have shamed Hollywood in its classical melodrama period.

The narrative is female centred with the soul food of the title comprising the key focus for all the extended family’s concerns. In the original family home in Chicago, Mama Jo still presides over her grand Sunday feast. Upstairs her brother never ventures out of his room and his meals are taken up on a tray and left outside his door. The three grown-up daughters all have partners and in one case, children who come over on Sunday, along with the local Minister and, at holiday times, other assorted guests.

The narrative conflict arises from the different attitudes of the daughters. Teri (Vanessa Williams) is the careerist lawyer who has chosen work over family. She doesn’t have children and is in danger of losing her partner, another lawyer who would rather be a musician – but she earns the money that her sisters need to borrow. Maxine (Vivica A. Fox) is the happily married mother of two. Her son, Ahmad, is in the narrator of the story. The third daughter is Bird (Nia Long) and it is she who brings in to the family the potential narrative disruption when she marries Lem (Mekhi Phifer). Lem comes to the family with a criminal record behind him and although he has  turned a new leaf, the past catches up with him. When trouble starts, the different reactions of the family members help to make matters worse. Added to this is a further irritant – the arrival of Cousin Faith, a viper in the bosom as far as the sisters are concerned.

In parallel with this disruption, Mama Jo becomes seriously ill – her diabetes not halted by herbal medicine and, dare we suggest, not helped by her generous portions – and is unable to perform her usual healing effect on family squabbles. As Mama slips away, it is clear that the men cause the problems, but the squabbling sisters make them more difficult to resolve.

The focus on eating together in a family setting is of supreme importance and that’s why it provides the title of the film. We know full well that whatever happens, the family (presumably a metaphor for community) will all still have a chance to solve their problems if they can get back to the table and share some traditional dishes. Ham hocks, pigs feet, chitterlings, biscuits, fried chicken, greens, fishcakes, string beans, salads, black-eye peas and pasta are clearly on the menu. As Mama Jo says, “soul food cooking is cooking from the heart”.

There are many references through food and eating to other African-American movies, not least Daughters of the Dust and To Sleep With Anger. The film was successful and later became a successful TV series running for four seasons, but not coming to the UK as far as I know.

There is a perceptive review of the film here and also an interesting lesbian perspective on the TV Series which revels in the drama between three sisters.

Spike Lee in London

BFI Southbank has a current season of films which places Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing in context. Lee has come over to speak during the season and he popped up in the crowd at Arsenal’s home game against Wigan on Saturday. I know he is a big sports fan. He’s been to Arsenal before and I’m sure he enjoyed the game.

We’ve also had interviews in the Independent and on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row in which he was interviewed by the urbane, liberal and generally calm and organised Mark Lawson. But Spike lived up to his billing and Lawson seemed quite nervous. It was a joy to hear someone who wasn’t interested in giving us platitudes and just spoke his mind and laughed a lot. I enjoyed the interview but was very disappointed by one of his comments. Asked about the films that were being shown alongside Do The Right Thing, Lee told us quite clearly that he hadn’t chosen the films – and he didn’t agree with showing all of them. Lawson suggested that the Paul Haggis film Crash might have been influenced by DTRT. Lee said that he didn’t want to be associated with Crash. I can understand that but I confess that I was dismayed when Lee came out with a tirade against Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine. Kassovitz should have acknowledged  his debt to DTRT he said. And then it transpired that Lee hadn’t seen the film. His friends had told him all about it and so he didn’t want to see it.

I guess this is vintage Spike Lee and we have to take the rough with the smooth. You should watch the film, Spike. It’s one of the best films of the 1990s and Kassovitz has spoken about his influences, including your own role model and fellow NYU graduate Jim Jarmusch as well as Martin Scorsese. He has spoken about the independent US features, including the ‘hood’ films that he admired – I think that Juice is perhaps closest to La haine. In many ways the young Kassovitz worked in similar ways to the young Spike Lee and although his subsequent career has been a disappointment, I think La haine still stands up. So, go on Spike, give it a go.

Spike Lee Joint 2: Miracle at St. Anna (US/Italy 2008)

santanna.jpg

The boy with Train and his head and Bishop

This is the only Spike Lee fiction feature that has been denied a UK release. Why? I’m not sure. Possibly because it died at the US Box Office where it failed to reach $10 million against a $45 million budget. But then you would expect Disney (Touchstone) to attempt to get something back on a DVD release in the UK at least. Perhaps one is scheduled, but it is already nearly a year since the US cinema release. IMDB seems out of date on the release schedule since Italy isn’t listed, but according to the Lumiere Database it attracted 191,000 admissions there – not great for an epic film like this. It doesn’t seem to have been released anywhere else in Western Europe (at least not in 2008).

More worrying perhaps is the general unwillingness of distributors to put out films with African-American cultural content in the UK. We are still waiting for the awards-laden The Great Debaters (US 2007), the second film directed by Denzel Washington. There is a form of institutional racism at play here, a kind of dismissal of the possibility that general audiences might find an African-American film interesting. I guess the distributors would point to the general negative reaction to Miracle at St. Anna from US viewers and reviewers, despite the minority view that this is a great film.

I don’t think it is a great film, but it is a film that I would urge anyone interested in representation issues and auteur filmmaking to watch. As is often the case, Roger Ebert gives one of the most sensible responses to the film when he suggests that all the flaws he sees in it, and possibly all the things he doesn’t really like, are evidence of Spike Lee’s vision, which he has maintained in the film in the face of potential front office objections:

“When you see one of his films, you’re seeing one of his films. And Miracle at St. Anna contains richness, anger, history, sentiment, fantasy, reality, violence and life. Maybe too much. Better than too little.”

I’ll go with that.

Outline (no spoilers)

The film is an adaptation, scripted by the author himself, of the novel with the same title by James McBride (published in 2002). The plot opens with an incident in New York in 1983 that sets up a mystery involving, among other things, a marble head that turns out to be a valuable artefact. The main narrative is set in Tuscany in December 1944 during the Allied push against the Germans. Black soldiers from the 92nd Division of the US Army, known as the ‘Buffalo Soldiers’, engage with a large German force near the Serchio River. Four men get detached from the American side and end up on the other side of the river. They rescue a young Italian boy – who bonds immediately with one of the soldiers whom he calls ‘a chocolate giant’ – and eventually find themselves in a mountain village from which the Germans have fled. Meanwhile, the local German commander is being berated by a senior officer and told that he must regroup his men and find both the local partisans who have been harrying the German forces and a German soldier who is missing and must be found. What happens in the ensuing confrontations between the four Americans, the villagers, the partisans and the Germans holds the key to the mystery in New York. The resolution does solve the mystery, but doesn’t perhaps ‘close’ all the narrative questions.

Commentary

The film is 160 minutes (although the closing credits last nearly 10 minutes) and it does feel long. The rigmarole of watching Region 1 DVDs forced me to watch the film in three parts. I think that if I had seen it in one sitting it would have flowed more as a narrative. In a way, I think I was least impressed with the opening and closing (mostly) New York-set scenes. The central narrative however, I found gripping. The ‘bookending’ of Second World War stories has become a convention of recent war films and to some extent it also links this film to Lee’s previous feature, Inside Man (2006) which also posed a mystery in New York that only made sense in terms of events from the 1930s. Lee has worked before with properties from other writers or with scripts written by strong authorial voices, so I’m not sure how much of the audience’s difficulties with the film come from the original story (which is a fiction based around a real incident). I read the book after I saw the film and in a way I’m glad I did it that way round as I enjoyed getting deeper into the narrative. I don’t believe that books are always ‘better’ than films – they are simply different as narratives.

The book isn’t actually very long, but it does have an awful lot of narrative detail. Although the film script more or less sticks to the book’s central narrative, there are aspects that are cut out since they are easily described in a novel, but would be difficult to include in a film narrative lasting less than three hours. This is inevitable – the book can include more detail, but it doesn’t press the emotional triggers as well as the film for a popular audience. Partly this means we learn less about the four central characters in the film than we do in the book. There is also, I think, less possibility of  exploring the various fantasy or ‘spiritual’ elements of the novel – whether ‘real’ or imagined. More intriguingly, the film simplifies some of the subtleties in the depiction of the Buffalo Soldiers – perhaps McBride thought that audiences simply wouldn’t believe what actually happened in the US Army in Italy? Just to give one example, the leader of the four soldiers is a Staff Sergeant in the film, but a 2nd Lieutenant in the novel – a small difference, but important in how the Buffalo Soldiers were organised. There is also rather more in the novel about the issues concerning white officers and Black men. In other words, the film is perhaps less challenging than the novel in confronting the racism in the US armed forces.

Here are Spike Lee and James McBride in New York discussing the issues surrounding the film – it seems to me that in McBride, Spike Lee has found a like-minded soul (but note the emphasis that McBride puts on the theme of friendship and spirituality over and above the story of the Buffalo Soldiers).

Lee says that he wanted to make the film after reading the book, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that he knew quite a lot about the 92nd Division and had already considered this kind of project. The US forces in the Second World War were still segregated (although led by white officers). This caused problems in Europe as depicted in the John Schlesinger film Yanks (UK/US/Germany 1979) in which the local British girls are attracted to the black GIs and don’t really understand the colour bar (which did exist in Britain, but not so openly). The only other films I know that deal directly with segregation in the US forces at this time are The Tuskegee Airmen, an HBO TV film from 1995 and Norman Jewison’s A Soldier’s Story (1984).

As you might expect, the four soldiers are not Hollywood types but carefully-drawn characters who are constructed in various ways to allow McBride and Lee to explore a range of issues. Pfc Train (Omar Benson Miller) is the ‘chocolate giant’ – the gentle and spiritual boy from North Carolina who has never been close to a white person before he rescues the Italian boy. Corporal Negron (Laz Alonso) is the solid and sensible radio operator from Spanish Harlem, a bilingual man who also speaks enough Italian to translate when they meet the villagers. Sergeant Bishop (Michael Ealy) and Staff Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke) are the two who have ‘got on’ in life and in the Army, but Bishop is smooth and light-skinned, a con-man preacher from Kansas with the most obvious vices. Stamps is upright and sober but perhaps repressed – he is the product of a special US Army scheme devised to ‘fast track’ potential leaders. He is shocked that he feels more ‘free’ in Italy than at home and there is a vulnerability about him. They fall out over the only young attractive woman in the village – and just about everything else. There has been some comment that Bishop is too ‘modern’ in his speech and mannerisms and I can see this, but I suspect that Lee and McBride want to be sure that his behaviour is recognisable for a contemporary audience.

There are two aspects of the film that I suspect have caused most problems with American audiences. One is a typical Spike Lee insert into the narrative – a flashback to the soldiers during training in the Southern US where they encounter racists in a town bar (which was in the novel, although slightly differently handled). It’s the kind of incident that may well have happened in ‘real life’, but Lee plays it to the hilt. The other surprise for audiences, perhaps expecting a Hollywood style war film, is that the story is just as interested in the villagers and the partisans as in the soldiers and one of the central themes is the kind of supernatural bond that develops between Train and the boy and between the central family group in the village and the group of Black soldiers. McBride and Lee strongly suggest that for the soldiers, the village is a spiritual home.

The film did remind me of the great Hollywood war films – I mean the small-scale gritty pictures made by Robert Aldrich and Sam Fuller and also Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron – no higher praise really, except that it also reminded me of Rossellini’s Paisa with the partisans and Americans fighting the Germans (and the Brits mentioned and somewhere off-screen). The combat scenes were pretty impressive and exciting and probably quite realistic in terms of the survival rate in what was a very hard-fought campaign. I’d urge anyone to see the film – and to read the book. In an ideal world, I think I’d like Spike Lee to be able to make two films – Part 1 about how the Buffalo Soldiers were formed and Part 2 about what happened to them in Tuscany. I hope he returns to material like this. I’m also tempted to read more by James McBride.