The Spike Lee School of the Falsification of History?

I’ve just been reading this story in the Times, about the reaction of Italian partisans to Spike Lee’s forthcoming film Miracle at St Anna. The partisans are outraged about the representation of events at Sant’ Anna di Stazzema, where 560 men, women and children were masacred in August 1944 by SS troops. According to the story, the film seems to blame the partisans for bringing the Nazis to the village, then abandoning the villagers to their fate, and shows one partisan as a collaborator. This is in direct contrast to the accepted Italian version, where the presence of the partisans served as a mere excuse.

The film is Spike Lee’s attempt to tell the neglected tale of black soldiers during the Second World War. His interest in this subject has recently led to a squabble between him and Clint Eastwood over the absence of Black soldiers in Clint’s Flags of our Fathers, so it is perhaps ironic that the Italian veterans are now accusing him of failing to accurately reflect history. The Italian criticism has raised the question of the memory of World War II, and the received Italian version that the partisans redeemed the sins of fascism. Although the author of the novel Lee’s story is based on, a black veteran of the war, has been conciliatory, Lee has not:
“I am not apologising for anything”. “I think these questions are evidence that there is still a lot about your history during the war that you [the Italians] have got to come to grips with.

It seems to me – at a time when Italy has neo-fascists in government, Rome has a fascist mayor, and leading footballers are declaring themselves fascists – that Lee has inadvertently raised some important questions about Italy’s relationship with its fascist past. The decline of the PCI from one of the major political, intellectual and cultural forces in Italian society has weakened the defences against the falsification of the fascist past. Berlusconi’s government has red-baited judges, praised Italians who fought with the Nazis, and there is a real danger that the horrors of the past are not only being ignored but glorified. The rise in immigration has led to a great deal of racist agitation and violence, as well as the growing neo-fascist vote all point to this. Whatever about the rights and wrongs of the massacre, it seems to me a good thing that young Italians will be reminded of the true nature of fascism and the need to combat it by any means necessary.


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9 Responses to “The Spike Lee School of the Falsification of History?”

  1. Vanda Says:

    I’m reserving judgement on this one til I’ve seen the film, which I’m keen to see; I enjoyed the novel which I think reflected some of the complexities of the situation, it remains to be seen if the film can do the same.

    The issue of the memory & representation of the partisans is fraught & complex. The role of the Resistance in the foundation narratives of the Italian Republic is fundamental, but today has become controversial, not least because of the way over time the story changed until the PCI were the only anti-Fascist partisans. This means that anyone who’s anti-communist – and there are plenty from various parts of the political spectrum – has by default become increasingly anti-partisan.

    In truth, the Italian Resistance was a very broad church indeed; communists fought alongside liberals, republicans, socialist, devout Catholics, future Christian Democrats… while the PCI provided a lot of the leadership and a lot of the manpower, it’s a mistake to conflate “partisans” and “communists”, but that is unfortuantely what has happened.

    I suppose what troubles me is the question of why Lee’s focus – a perfectly legitimate and indeed admirable one – has to somehow come at the expense of someone else, so to speak. Why is it more important to historically represent one struggle than another?

  2. Vanda Says:

    oh and also, nice blog, I like. I was too busy thinking about the issues raised by your post to actually remember to compliment you, which is I suppose its own compliment.

    Young Italians are terrifyingly ignorant about Fascism not least because no twentieth century history is taught in schools. None. Zilch. Zero. And because the (mostly Berlusconi-owned) media churns out the most extraordinary presentations of the past, the kind of thing that leaves one slack-jawed with astonishment and horror.

  3. garibaldy Says:

    Thanks. I’m surprised at Lee making the argument he did about Italians not facing up to the past. It makes him look like he’s setting himself up as arbiter. Maybe he made some comment praising the partisans, and it was cut from the reports, but on the reported speech, I think it could have been handled by him better. That is shocking what you’re saying about Italian education, and the lack of knowledge of fascism. Frightening. A good compulsory viewing of The World at War sounds in order.

  4. Redking Says:

    Hey Garibaldy congrats on the blog!
    It is good to be critical of one’s history-what may get up Italian’s noses is of course a “Hollywood” account of a controversial subject-although Lee is not exactly the establishment.

    I was in Italy a few years back (in Turin) and was shocked about the prevalance of fascist literature, books, posters etc all for sale on street stalls -some at motorway stations-Mussolini boxer shorts for F**ks sake! There were equvalent “left” stuff but not really PCI stuff-no pictues of Gramsci/Toggliatti – What shocked was the casual almost relativist nature of it all.

    And maybe its the decline of the Left as well that’s created space for an unchallenged view of all this-just goes to show what can happen when the Left fractues a la DL/Refoundazione…but then we all know about left splits here…

  5. Omar Little Says:

    One thing that struck me about Lee’s complaints re Clint Eastwood was that black soldiers were written out of the movie. Actually there were no black marines during WW2 and blacks were put in completely segregated army units, usually never in front-line roles; they had to do lots of the back up and shit work. Senior officers claimed that blacks would not be good combat troops, would panic and not obey orders etc. There were exceptions, mainly in western Europe, but to put black troops in combat on Iwo Jima would have actually been unhistorical.

  6. garibaldy Says:

    Cheers Redking. Mussolini boxer shorts don’t bear thinking about. Although they might look good if the photo of him with his faced knocked sideways was used. The casual fascism is definitely bad. Left splits never good. Nor is going social democrat. I wonder if they would do it all again. Somehow I suspect they would.


    That’s a very valid point. Surely shoehorning black people in where they weren’t in the name of political correctness is more patronising than leaving them out altogether?

  7. juno moore Says:

    joe allen seems to have it right, both in relation to the film and to the filmmaker’s misstep on the controversy he’s generated:

  8. garibaldy Says:

    Hi Juno,

    Thanks for that link. I haven’t seen the film, so I won’t address that, but I agree with Joe Allen that it’s a shame that Spike Lee has given a negative image of the partisans. I’m less sure he’s on solid ground with what he said about Clint Eastwood. From what I remember, Clint said that he didn’t put any black soldiers in Flags of Our Fathers because it focused on the guys in the photograph. He said that Spike could have a got at him if he cast white people to play black people in his forthcoming film about South Africa. So it wasn’t as simplistic as him telling Spike Lee to shut up as in he had no right to speak.

  9. Fotios Says:

    pretty much on the money:

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