TORONTO (Reuters) - Filmmaker Spike Lee was focusing on the past when he made a movie about oft-forgotten the role of black soldiers in World War Two, a war film with both blood and schmaltz set in Tuscany.
But the way the United States has changed since then makes the movie relevant for the present too, said Lee, who proudly sported an Obama T-shirt as he introduced "Miracle at St Anna" to the Toronto International Film Festival this week.
The movie, filmed mostly in Italy, and partly funded there, tells the story of four members of the all-black 92nd Division Buffalo Soldiers who are stranded behind enemy lines during the U.S. army's push up the Italian peninsula.
At times violent, at times touching and at times pure saccharine, the film highlights both the camaraderie of the four soldiers and the tensions between them, and the ugly racism that they faced at home and from their white commanders.
While Lee has focused on race in a string of movies from "Do the Right Thing" up to "Inside Man," and "When the Levees Broke," he insists America has moved well away from the racism in this latest film, where his soldier heroes are sent to the back door of a Louisiana bar while Nazi prisoners of war guzzle ice cream sundaes inside.
"There has been a seismic movement in this country," Lee told Reuters, noting that even a few years ago, Barack Obama could not have won the Democratic nomination for president.
"I'm trying to change the world for the better, and entertain at the same time."
Lee made headlines earlier this year when he complained that director Clint Eastwood had ignored the role of African Americans in his twin movies about the battle of Iwo Jima, "Flags of our Fathers" and "The Battle of Iwo Jima."
But he insisted on Sunday that the spat had been overdone.
"Clint Eastwood and I are cool ... it's not an issue," he said. "He believes what he believes, and I believe what I believe, and that's that. There's no malice toward him."
"Miracle at St Anna" is Lee's first movie filmed outside America, and the first that is filmed in three languages, with actors from America, Italy and Germany.
Fleeing from the Germans after a bloody battle, the American solders stumble across a wide-eyed Italian boy, played by first-time child actor Matteo Sciabordi, and the child's own past becomes a symbol for the pointless cruelty of war.
"It's an African-American-Italian neo-realist film," Lee said.
He said "Miracle" had been hard to finance, despite the $184 million global box office take for thriller "Inside Man," which starred Clive Owen as a bank robber carrying out the perfect heist, and Denzel Washington and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the detectives who try to outsmart him.
"It's hard to get funding and it's no different with this film, and that's been the story from the beginning," he said.
"It's not a comic book, super hero stuff, and also you don't have a big star attached -- it's not a good environment for these type of films to be made, so we are very happy to be here," he said separately at a festival news conference.
"It's a miracle that this film got made."
"Miracle at St Anna," distributed by Walt Disney Co unit Touchstone Pictures, opens in North America on September 26.
Reporting by Janet Guttsman; Editing by Cynthia Osterman