"We fought in an immoral war that wasn't ours, for rights we didn't have"
The aforementioned line is spoken by Paul, the protagonist in Spike Lee's latest film, Da 5 Bloods – a revisiting of the horrors of the Vietnam war through the eyes of four jaded African-American war veterans.The explosive narrative is not one to shy away from exposing the brutalities of prejudice and blatant racism, which have plagued the United States of America, ever since its inception. Volatile, effective and immersive, the movie is a triumphant recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement and reinforces a sense of understanding amidst a prevalent skewed sense of justice.
Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr. star as former soldiers undertaking a visit to Vietnam to salvage the remains of their resolute leader, Norman (a familiar Wakandan prince – Chadwick Boseman) and also in search of a treasure – tons of gold bars, which they buried.
"War is money; money is war"
The words of their leader prove prophetic, as loyalties are tested in the face of scepticism and PTSD, which linger as they return to the very place they barely made it out of. For almost twenty years, Vietnam served as the final resting place of scores of African American soldiers, who ended up as casualties, nameless and forgotten. Mere youths, who declared their undying allegiance to their nation – an allegiance that received not-so-stellar recompense in return, till this very day.
Paul, particularly, seems to bear the brunt of a future denied, as hallucinations of his dear friend and leader continue to haunt him. He is unable to express attachment of any sorts towards his son, David (Jonathan Majors) and years of denial has converted him into a paradoxical Trump supporter. He constitutes the most interesting character of the film as Delroy Lindo breathes life into his visceral, moving portrayal of a man torn apart, yet defined by the horrors of war, desperate to survive in the present.
If Do the Right Thing (1989) focused on fighting the power in a small microcosmic town, emblematic of a global struggle, 2018's Blackkkansman tackled the corrosive effect of white supremacy and a predetermined mindset. With Da 5 Bloods — the title referring to a sense of defiant brotherhood stronger than familial ties, Spike Lee's visionary art seems to have come full circle. The movie is historically rich, replete with references to civil rights activists, poets and singers associated with a strong sense of identity and rebellion. Historical facts are intercut with commentaries by the characters and Lee deconstructs the idea of a glorious war by depicting its graphic horrors, where humanity is the sole loser.
Beginning with a speech by Muhammad Ali and ending with one by Martin Luther King Jr, the movie is an ode to the Black Power movement and the scores of icons who rest in power. It helps in reinforcing the ideal that Black deaths have and always will matter – deaths for a semblance of normality, respect and identity. Icons like Malcolm X, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and war heroes like Milton Olive are referenced, amongst others as the film shines not only as an evocative history lesson but also a wholesome understanding of where we're heading as a species. The most effective scenes are his trademark head-on shots, where the protagonist appears to be addressing each one of us directly, holding the entire spectrum of humanity accountable for the oddity that he has become.
Themes of fatherhood interwoven with PTSD constitute the emotional core of the film as their quest for closure rages on. A quest to shatter the heroic ideals and romanticised notions of war as scores of youth were sacrificed at the altar of anarchy. In one particular scene, a characters says "He was our Malcolm and our Martin" envisaging a seamless blend of force and reticence as key, in building a hopeful tomorrow. A war drama on the surface, but essentially a humane story of identity at its core, Da 5 Bloods is a smorgasbord of things past and present, interwoven with compelling documentary footage of a xenophobic nation.
The film ends with a present day reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, and is prophetic in terms of its storytelling prowess- to educate and to inspire. An understanding of history is essential to mount a raging, successful protest in the face of injustice. Today, as millions across the globe stand united with a larger, incendiary outburst of the 1920's Harlem resistance, the prophetic role of cinema in effectively mirroring and influencing society, has never been more important.