One of the things you notice after having been at TIFF a couple of years is that camera people are pretty direct. When jostling for position they're even grumpier than journalists dragged out to a 9 a.m. press conference, and they've got no problem calling stars by their first names in order to get them to turn their way.
So when the lens wielders refer to someone as "Mr. So-and-So," you know that person's special. Russell Crowe got that treatment a couple of years ago. And so did Spike Lee, at Sunday's 9 a.m. press conference (grumpy journalists in full force) at the Sutton Place Hotel.
"Mr. Lee" is in town to promote Miracle At St. Anna, a nearly three hour long movie based on the novel by James McBride about the all-black 92nd Division in World War II, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Lee and actor Michael Ealy (who plays Sgt. Bishop Cummings) were both sporting Barack Obama T-shirts, while McBride looked like an errant member of Run DMC in his dapper suit and hat.
At a brief public appearance at the Bloor St. Indigo on Friday night, McBride spoke indignantly about the hoops Lee had to jump through to get funding for a film about "American patriots fighting a war."
Lee expanded on this on Sunday.
"There's only a few people who can get stuff made," he said. "Lucas, Spielberg. If you're not making a comic book or making a TV show into a movie... I'm not complaining about it, it's just how it is."
Lee had assumed that after Inside Man, his biggest box office hit, it would be easier to get funding for his next project. Not so much, however, and like Woody Allen (another director who's had to turn his back on Hollywood), Lee looked to Europe for help.
"I said, 'Fuck it,' flew to Italy and held a press conference in Rome on July 2nd announcing the film would start production October 10th.
"We willed this film into being," he added. "I really believe in miracles now."
The young actors enrolled in boot camp, or "Spike Camp," as they called it, according to Derek Luke (Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps). They had to give up the comforts of home, such as cell phones, and not only learned how to hold and shoot guns but immersed themselves in the history - not just McBride's book but feature films and documentaries about the war.
Lee hopes this film is going to fill in the gaps in the accepted history, what McBride on Friday night called "a group of people in a room agreeing on the lie."
There's a scene in the film that's not in the book (Ealy said it was "devastating" to shoot), where Ealy, Luke, Omar Benson Miller (Pvt. Sam Train) and Laz Alonso (Cpl. Hector Negron) go into an ice cream shack and are told to go around back to get served, at the same time as German P.O.W.s are eating ice cream in a booth. This is the kind of thing people don't know about, Lee said.
"Thousands upon thousands of German POWs were shipped from Europe back to America. And many of them, these Nazis, were placed on the same bases where these black troops were being trained," Lee said.
"So think about this. You're a young black man being trained to kill Nazis. And you look around and you see the Nazis, on this base, getting better housing than you have, eating better food than you are and getting better medical care. Despite this, these men still fought for this country."
Lee sees this film as a "rebuttal to the Hollywood bullshit mythology" wherein John Wayne eliminates the Other (whoever that might be) and saves the day for mom and apple pie. "We cannot continue to put out these lies again and again and have our young people growing up with no idea that this stuff even happened.
"That's why I'm so glad to be alive today. There's been a seismic shift. I never, ever thought we'd be at the point where a man of African descent would be on the verge of being President of the United States of America.
"So that's my tirade for today."