This weekend we’re watching: On-going wars of race and mind
Spike Lee’s newest film has just hit Netflix and it’s just as wild, ground-breaking and culturally loaded as can be expected from the man who brought us ‘Do the Right Thing’ 30 years ago.
Da 5 Bloods
“After you’ve been in a war you understand it really never ends. Whether it’s in your mind or in reality, they are just degrees.” That is the gold nugget of wisdom mined by a sage young Vietnamese guide at the bottom of Da 5 Bloods and, if there is one line which sums up the film, that’s the one. What makes the film so intriguing is how many ways that message can be interpreted within the extensive context of the story.
Which war are we talking about? The Vietnam War, in which tens of thousands of black men died for a country that, in return, did not care about them? Or the American War, as it is known in the East, in which Vietnamese civilians were slayed like dogs by a powerful lumbering invader? The psychological war against one’s inner demons, or the war against racism, still raging into the 21st century?
The answer is all of them. Ever since Do the Right Thing in 1989, we have come to understand that Lee’s genius is his ability to portray opposing perspectives and competing preconceptions and turn them on their heads. There are few conflicts as compelling and emotionally real as those of Spike Lee’s movies. Lee takes his message and practically clobbers you over the head with it – his films could so easily have manifested as one-dimensional propaganda – but his deft sociopolitical awareness moulds them into loaded case studies of cultural conflict instead.
Da 5 Bloods opens in a hotel in present day Ho Chi Minh City with what feels like an old-timer reunion. The four surviving bloods (a colloquial term for a fellow black person) are greying veterans who have aged just enough to have that ol’ timer daddy-cool swag going for them. They have returned to Vietnam under the guise of finding the remains of their squad leader “Stormin’ Norman” who was killed in battle.
Norman has become a mythical figure in their minds. He was their revolutionary teacher, their hard-ass leader, their father and brother in arms. “Our Malcolm and our Martin” they say of him; Norman is played by the Black Panther himself, Chadwick Boseman, and his heroic connotations as an actor are intentionally emblematic. Norman is the perfect martyr, an ideal to strive towards, frozen in time.
The bloods have actually returned to Vietnam to covertly reclaim gold bars they buried during the war under Norman’s orders that they later be used towards black liberation. But each of their relationships to Norman’s legacy becomes a focal point of the chaos that unfolds when they hit the sweltering jungle.
The men are damaged, as all who have seen combat tend to be. They are grappling with their identities as black men; haunted by the war and, interestingly, riddled with the sort of guilt, fear and insecurity typically reserved for white South Africans. Local Vietnamese people derogatorily refer to them as GIs (short for government issue), seeing them as oppressors, flipping the usual experience of black people upside-down.
One of the soldiers is noticeably more “broken” than the others. He suffers from night terrors, PTSD and outbursts of aggression and is filled with self-pity, self-loathing and a soldier’s macho toxic masculinity. If there is one reason to watch Da 5 Bloods, it is Paul. Paul has “Trumpian” Stockholm syndrome. He proudly dons his “Make America Great Again” hat and spews xenophobic nationalistic rants at any opportunity.
Early on in the film, the bloods find themselves in an Apocalypse Now-themed nightclub (Apocalypse Now being the 1979 American film which takes the story of Joseph Conrad’s famous 1899 novel Heart of Darkness and transposes it into Vietnam). This reference ominously foreshadows Paul’s fate, as he slowly descends into madness and takes on the terrifying role of Colonel Kurtz.
Da 5 Bloods reinvigorates the cliché cautionary tale of greed, told in films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The prospect of riches can do funny things to a person, and it all gets pretty Lord of The Flies before it’s all over.
Delroy Lindo’s performance as Paul is absolutely unforgettable, culminating in a deranged soliloquy straight into the camera, like a demented Othello climbing out of your screen, pontificating with wide eyes right up in your grill.
Despite the abundance of genius and political commentary in Da 5 Bloods, it would be fair to say that, in this case, the whole is not as great as the sum of its parts. It is scattered with great scenes and thought-provoking ideas, but the narrative as a whole seems to have been given a back seat. It is punctuated by real-world footage relating to the American war and black rights.
Spike Lee’s production company, 40 acres and a mule, is named for the riches promised to black American families off the Georgia coast in 1865 but which were never delivered. He does not miss an opportunity to remember the promises of wealth and prosperity made to black people in order to convince them to fight on behalf of their oppressors, promises which were made in South Africa during both World Wars, with just as little following up.
In his pursuit of highlighting political points, Lee unashamedly interrupts and shoe-horns his own film and, as a result, it can sometimes lack cohesion and feel rather staccato. Some might also take issue with the unedited middle of the two-and-a-half-hour epic and the dramatic mocking music played during war scenes, a classic Spike Lee technique which persists until the satire is a little stale.
But these are peripheral faults that come with the atypical Spike Lee territory. The film has shed the limitations and pressures of the whole and become more than that. It is a compilation of eloquent ideas and portrayals of complex cross-cultural interpersonal interactions which are entertaining, original and highly relevant today. DM/ML
Da 5 Bloods is available for streaming in South Africa on Netflix.
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