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Derek Luke, one of the principle leads in Spike Lee’s war era flick Miracle at St. Anna has a lot on his shoulders. One of Hollywood’s best and brightest newcomers has a pretty hefty schedule ahead of him after showcasing his acting chops as Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps. With career turning roles as Sean Combs in George Tillman Jr.’s Notorious and Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail, Derek Luke sits down with The Urban Daily to discuss his thoughts on Miracle at St. Anna, explains how Spike has grown as an artist and shares his thoughts on “black” Hollywood.

The Urban Daily: Morning, Derek… How are you doing? Could you let the people know about your role in Miracle at St. Anna and how you got the part?

Derek Luke: In the movie, I play Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps who is fighting in World War II against the Germans. What was unique about him was that he was one of the few men of color who actually had a college education. In the book, he went to Howard University and in World War II he enlisted in the army. That was rare because, if you watch the film, you’ll see a difference of characteristics between the four principle characters that showcases the psychology of the status of America at that time.

During World War II, there were a lot of “who’s who” in the military – Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and these guys picked up a gun and they would train. But during their training they noticed that they were being treated better outside the country they called home. It made them come out in the field more aggressively. It also lead to help push the Civil Rights movement into a particular area that would heighten their world awareness.

TUD: There’s a scene with you, a young Italian lady and Michael Ealy where you can sense the drama, but not much is said in the beginning…

DL: It was hard to do, man… I felt like, “Man, you got the girl,” in the movie and I had to figure out how to make my character justified, in the movie, without making him a sucker. It was really difficult, you know, but the part called for it. I felt like it was high school all over again and I just got really angry because all the athletes got the girls. You didn’t have to tell me to “act” for that scene. Mike is a good guy. But my character, Stamps, is a leader. As a leader, you can’t be impulsive with your emotions. There’s going to be bickering on your squad, but you can’t join in. Even Spike [Lee] said it to me, “You’re a leader! You’re out front and when you’re out front, everyone’s looking at you.” You can’t deal with the games like people normally deal with it in other situations.

TUD: Spike’s films are usually in your face, poignant and angry, but this one has it’s own subdued anger. There are some choice shots in the film from the crossing of the Serchio river to the WWII propaganda. How do you think Spike has grown from his first days as a director to now?

DL: You know what? I believe that up to this very moment, Spike has been prepared for it. He’s like wine – he just gets better with time. So, the only way I could address it was that we had boot camp two weeks before [we started shooting] and in boot camp, every evening or during the day, he would be showing us videos, propaganda on the war – whether it was Hitler or the racism from America – Spike was so passionate about telling the story of what it was like for these dying heroes. One of the things that made this story so interesting was that I don’t remember this being taught in school. Spike put together an ensemble cast, so he couldn’t be angry. It included Germans, the Italians and the Americans – he had to tell a 16-year period piece in two-and-a-half hours. That is how he grew as a director and an artist, he did it in pieces and made the film a beautiful work of art.

TUD: The movie itself is a blend of things: mystery, magic and a war picture. Do you think that when people come to see this flick that they’ll be able to grasp the full scope of the story?

DL: I think that, for me, I see what the spiritualism of the film is. It touches on so many bases. I think there’s never just a war, there’s people in a war. One of the scenes in the movie focuses on John Wayne, but there was really no focus on any John Wayne-type of character. When it comes down to Miracle At St. Anna, I want people to think that the Buffalo Soliders were really mysterious because they rose out of nowhere. How they got their name was by the Indians who related their hair to that of buffalos. The Italians were praying for soldiers or people to help them, but they just didn’t know that they would be people of color. Going to Italy, man… they are very religious and spiritual people. I believe that if you’re going to do a war movie, you have that battle element, but if you’re going to get more out of it than just the field dramatics, then come and see a Spike Lee movie and leave that much more satisfied.

TUD: The cast is relatively new names on the mainstream Hollywood circuit. How did the cast get along on the set and after this, do you think that there will be a forward progression for more diverse roles for you all?

DL: Every year, in every generation, it’s going to get better than it was before. [My character] is very hopeful and optimistic of the future. I don’t think that they [the Buffalo Soldiers] just impacted the political front, but they also affected the entertainment front. So, every year people of color and their status always ends up changing. One of the things I believe can get done is that a lot of us can start getting together to make more films. The work will be about getting those causes done than just about an individual highlight and promoting one’s self. What I love about Miracle at St. Anna was that this was a universal cast and that love of this story and of each other was shared.

TUD: Did you have that same type of universal chemistry on the set of Notorious?

DL: There was a sense of spiritualism. I think that any time something comes together that you couldn’t plan, then that spirit is there. What I loved about the Notorious cast is that there was nothing but new and fresh faces. I applaud the filmmakers and the studios for introducing all these new people ‘cause now we have another dozen actors who are popping up in a strong film. Jamal, aka Gravy, who plays B.I.G. just tears the role up!

TUD: What was that one moment where you just looked at him and thought to yourself, “Damn, he’s B.I.G.”?

DL: We were in the studio and inside there were all these pictures that were used as props. It’s 2008, you know, and you needed them to be able to go back into 1995 and put yourself into that time frame. Anyways, I look into the window and I see a profile picture of B.I.G., but when I looked closer at it, it wasn’t him, it was Jamal! He was in a chair and they took a shot of his profile. I ran into the room excited like, “Yo! Gravy… I just thought you was B.I.G.!” In that instance, even the way I responded, I felt like I’m acting like Puff, right now, because I felt like I saw a ghost.

TUD: Is there a true difference between how black soldiers are treated in Iraq versus how they were treated during World War II? That racism may not be overt, but the discrimination is still there…

DL: The difference now is that I believe the majority of guys who make up the enlistment ratio are men of color. What I would like to see happen is that when they see this film, the men who are fighting now can see how their ancestors were involved, not only in the front-lines, but in the political area. When I grew up, you saw a couple of dudes in the service and you thought, “That’s crazy.” But I didn’t know that there was a foundation with the 92nd Buffalo Soldiers that inspired them. Now, when a soldier dies, they show all the men who died, but sixty years ago, you wouldn’t have seen most of these black soldiers names listed. What America is saying now is – for my character and the dudes making these serious contributions – that these guys are the reason why we’re standing and we’re in support of their commitment. Blacks and Latinos make up the core of the military now and they’re getting some sort of support from their government now.

TUD: How hard was it to do the ice slope scene?

DL: Oh, man… It was really hard. As a matter of fact, the ice slop scene was one that we shot last, but it’s really one that I wish we had done first because it sets the tone of the movie. It sets the tone with all of our relationships and how it felt to be a stranger in your own town and not be appreciated. We got a glimpse of what the Buffalo Soldiers must’ve gone through because people, during that time, were so open with their thoughts and at the time, one could only be receptive or reactive. In the movie, you see how the Buffalo Soldiers handle that situation.

TUD: Black Hollywood is getting meatier roles for their actors and behind-the-scenes, filmmakers like Spike Lee and Tyler Perry are able to express themselves without compromising their integrity. Is Hollywood finally becoming more receptive to the black experience?

DL: History has an unseen time on it. I think all through history there have been steps made to make these things happen. But now, the world is becoming much more universal, all the way from hip-hop to politics. I believe that the world we live in now is more colorless than anyone has ever seen. So, we’re in for a lot of surprises. What would be a shock to most a generation before isn’t one now to this new one. In the end, you must always stay wise and stay current so that those moves you hope to make are well-timed.

TUD: What’s up next for you and where should people look out for you next?

DL: I’m being much more proactive in the production side of things. I am going to be in front of the cameras, still, but I’ll be learning a lot about what goes on behind the scenes. After that, it is what it is – just expect the best. We’re living in a time where there are no limits to what you can do. We’re definitely standing on the shoulders of our ancestors and I’m looking to the future.

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