Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman, Jonathan Majors
Streaming on: Netflix
It’s tempting to suggest that Spike Lee’s latest, Da 5 Bloods, is a film of this moment. Footage of police brutality the Black Lives Matter movement is semi-seamlessly integrated into a narrative of four African American war veterans returning to Vietnam to retrieve the remains of their fallen comrade…and a hidden treasure. But in actuality, America’s today – divisive, angry, bloody – is a moment of this film. From Do The Right Thing to BlacKkKlansman, it’s a moment of most Spike Lee films.
What Da 5 Bloods does, often garishly and often gloriously, is fetishize the broadness of this moment. It’s always existed. Since before World War 2, since before 1965. History has been its slave: Muhammad Ali opens the film, Martin Luther King Jr. closes it. But if there’s one event that officially combines the trauma of identity with the pain of sadism, it’s the Vietnam War. Both Muhammad and Martin, too, were victims of different degrees: the boxer risked a priceless athletic career to defy enlistment, and the Civil Rights leader was assassinated a year after his eloquent anti-war speech.
Which is why it’s no surprise that Spike Lee reframes this Vietnam War – retrieving it from the alt-white clutches of action Hollywood (Rambo is dissed, Apocalypse Now is deified) – to place it squarely within the dimensions of black angst. After all, despite forming only 11 percent of the United States population, African Americans made for 32 percent of the troops in Vietnam, fighting and dying for white Presidents who, in a character’s immortal words, happily fed them “anti-Commie Kool Aid”. Lee, then, turns the war into a history-pop journey that literalizes not just the physical consequences of oppression (via battlefield violence) but also the emotional consequences: The wizened gang is convinced that the hidden treasure, a pot of gold buried almost 50 years ago, is a reward for their suffering and sacrifice. They are convinced that richness is their birthright, and the narrative in their heads equates these personal gains to racial justice. Their morality takes a hit, and blood is shed – a theatrical reflection of how crime often wears the mask of self-righteous lunacy.
This is further evidenced in the fact that this battalion of The Bloods – a proud moniker that gave them purpose during the purposelessness of battle – has returned to honour ‘the memory of’ their fifth and killed-in-action squadron leader: Retrieving his remains is likely an excuse that they now have the obligation of glorifying. What starts as a nostalgic Hangover movie then morphs into a heist-thriller-cum-fairytale-tragedy that, not unlike rage, is both stuffy and hypnotic, choppy and passionate.
In a way, the filmmaker, too, creates like he’s owed the freedom of expression. He creates with a sense of contempt and care – abruptly inserting Black History lessons as if they were Tarantino-esque chapter cards while paying punkish homages to artists ranging from John Huston to Marvin Gaye. Particularly haunting is the way he uses Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” a song previously made Hollywood-famous in Jerry Maguire by Cuba Gooding Jr., who with his football-star performance had become only the fourth black actor to win an Oscar.
Lee informs the conscience of this moment with his character tropes, too. The five men – four Bloods plus one adult son – are written as disparate faces of a lifelong movement. At the center is Paul (an award-worthy Delroy Lindo), a paranoid and PTSD-afflicted ex-con who leads them into the jungles wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap. Like his orange-haired hero, he despises ‘minorities,’ and projects all his failings on his black-studies-teacher son, David (Jonathan Majors). Paul is the joker in the pack, distrusting of his own colleagues, including the level-headed medic Otis (Clarke Peters), the sardonic Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and the wealthy idealist, Eddie (Norm Lewis). An iconic scene features Paul, hot and deluded in the wild, launching into an anti-government rant directly at the camera: Lindo here walks the thin line between madness and closure, zooming in and pulling out with the mental anguish of a broken beast in search of his Frankenstein.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film, though, is the visual language. The 1971 flashbacks feature the brave young leader (Black Panther, James Brown and Jackie Robinson himself: Chadwick Boseman) in faded retro-starchy frames of the Vietnam war in the company of the same older actors. This, along with the photographic aspect ratio, can be disorienting at first, but it aims to convey two things. First, wars never end for black soldiers: Home or away, the battle for survival continues. And second, they can’t remember what they looked like as young men anymore because racism, like love, is as old as time.
There’s also something tonally distinct about the way Spike Lee directs his scenes. Almost every scene – even men stepping on landmines and being blown to bits – swings between self-serious satire and satirical seriousness. He wants us to believe that he’s messing with us, but what we seldom understand is that the rhythm of his stories reflects the sheer surrealism of the injustice they set out to critique. There’s a wryness to his moments, as if to suggest that the concept of discrimination is so fundamentally ridiculous that one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at it. The hybrid of both, as an observer, is unnerving and exciting. It’s a little like the election of Donald Trump – a joke that got too real too soon. He’s a parody on paper but a nightmare in person. I’m quite sure that a Spike Lee movie, in its artful pursuit of dissent, strives to be described in those exact words.