The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;
they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
People will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth.’
Spike Lee takes on World War Two era prejudice in his latest film, judged by many as being too long and complicated. Although framed by a puzzling murder in 1984, the film forcefully depicts the entrenched racism suffered by African American G.I.s in that era, the story focusing upon four soldiers of the “Negro” 92nd Division who find themselves behind German lines in a mountainous region of Italy. When they come under attack and call in for artillery fire to cover them, their white commander refuses to do so because he does not believe that “colored soldiers” could have advanced so far into enemy territory. In a flashback to their training days in a Southern Army camp, they are refused service at a restaurant, even though several German POWs are allowed to sit in a booth and eat a leisurely meal. Unlike other African Americans, these are heavily armed, so after quietly leaving, they have second thoughts and return to teach the smug racists a lesson.
Based on the novel by James McBride (who also wrote the script), Mr. Lee’s film opens with an elderly black man watching on TV John Wayne in The Longest Day. He mutters that we also fought in the war, an echo of Spike Lee’s criticism of fellow director Clint Eastwood’s not showing any black soldiers in his two Iwo Jima epics. This is immediately followed by a murder and subsequent investigation in present day New York City. The TV watcher we discover works at the Post Office, and stares briefly at another old man seeking postage stamps. With no warning he takes out a gun, and shoots the customer point blank. During the investigation the police discover in the clerk’s apartment the head of an ancient Roman statue that turns out to be priceless. Switch to the mountainous region of WW 2 Italy, and a towering black GI Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) who develops a close bond with the little boy whom he rescues during a Nazi bombardment of a village. He is the soldier who carries the head of the statue, but is he the postal clerk who shoots the customer?
The film is long, and as we expect from Lee, filled with racial insights as he reminds us that blacks fought bravely for a country whose racial policies was closer to Hitler’s than it would ever admit. The battle scenes are effectively staged, and the Nazi massacre of villagers in retaliation for guerilla attacks is gut wrenching. The ending, which provides justification for vengeance, might stretch our credulity quite a bit, but no doubt is audience-pleasing.
1) With which of the four soldiers do you most closely identify? Staff Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke), Sergeant Cummings (Michael Ealy), Corporal Negron (Laz Alonso), or Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller)?
2) Compare these soldiers’ experience of racism to what is depicted in Glory: even though 80 years separate the Civil War epic from World War Two, had much changed in the U.S.?
3) What did you think of the “Axis Sally” segment? How did the Nazi propaganda try to exploit US racism? What does the reaction of the Americans say about themselves? How is their dedication similar to that of the Japanese-Americans who fought in the war? What irony do we see in some of the German propaganda posters?
4) How does Sam Train embody both faith and superstition? What are the miracles in the story?
5) What do you think of the moment of grace when one combatant grants an enemy his life? How is the final scene one of grace also?
6) What do you think of the vengeance finally extracted? Justice catching up with the former partisan turned traitor—or? What danger do you see in dwelling too much on such passages as the one in Psalm 58?