Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee makes films on his own terms which are not those of the average commercial film. Da 5 Bloods, his latest offering is funky and urgent, putting a social and political agenda ahead of verisimilitude. The story of four black Vietnam vets returning to a Ho Chi Min City overflowing with tours and tourists to recover a long lost cache of gold bars pays homage to John Huston’s Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) in which a lust for gold leads to madness and death. That is merely a template for Lee’s cry to acknowledge the sacrifices made by African American warriors in a country that continues to oppress communities of color. The classic storyline collides with Lee’s tendency to turn characters into symbols. The result is an intentional and disconcerting, a blend of action and pedantic social commentary with touches of comedy and adventure.
Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Norman (Chadwick Boseman), are Da 5 Bloods. Their squad leader, Norman, symbolizes reason and rationale. “He gave us direction. Taught us about black history when it wasn’t really popular back then. He was our Malcom and our Martin” says Paul. ‘Stormin’ Norman’ died in an ambush during a battle in which four survived and part of their quest is to recover his remains. The other mission is to find a cache of buried gold bars that were carried by the helicopter that crashed during that same battle and buried. Meanwhile, Norman’s death weighs heavily on Paul, a Trump supporter who sports a MAGA cap, and whose anger and whose unresolved issues fuel his politics. One of those conflicts is with his son who suddenly appears on the scene to look after his dad – and wants a share of the loot. This collision of politics, PTSD issues, romanticized war memories and father-son love hate relationship, are merely the beginning of the complex matrix of styles and symbols on which Lee builds his story. Add to this a beautiful French land mine diffusion expert (Mélanie Thierry), a shady French international smuggler for hire (Jean Reno), a former Vietnamese prostitute and lover of Otis with a heart of gold (Lê Y Lan), flashbacks to propaganda broadcasts of Hanoi Hannah (Van Veronica Ngo), and a huffing and puffing overweight land mine assistant (an underused Paul Walter Hauser). It’s not so much a muddle as a passionate jumble international actors in a scenario determined to teach, entertain, and proselytize, all conveyed in B-movie style.
Spike Lee intends to disrupt the assumptions of commercial filmmaking. In Chi-raq and most effectively in Do the Right Thing, Lee made films that broke the fourth wall, that lectured, with scenes that came off as intentionally artificial. This is not for lack of budget or lack of an awareness of what constitutes a commercially “well-made” film. After twenty-four movies and a number of documentaries, he often prioritizes issues over realistic continuity. Here, Lee ties together the Black Lives movement, documentary footage, and lectures on history to call about the indignity suffered by men who, in great numbers, sacrificed so much for this country with their lives, who suffered addiction, and PTSD only to return to a country that beheld them as second class citizens. Lee wants to whip up discontent. You don’t make people angry with a tidy story perfectly told. He heaps on the harangues and unbalances the film with occasional stilted dialogue and cheesy effects. While some may find the blend of impassioned ideas and scruffy filmmaking irksome, it also takes aim at an audience who may be more likely to lend an ear when they are having a good time.
There is no effort to de-age the actors through pricey digital effects. Flashbacks are indicated by shifting the screen size: the present is wide screen 2.39:1 and shot digitally with flashbacks shrinking to a boxy 1.33:1 ratio with 16 mm film. Some scenes feel hammy and the dialogue stilted. At other times messages come burning through. Hanoi Hanna who actually provided English-language broadcasts from North Vietnam in order to disconcert American troops, here becomes a voice of truth: “Your soul sister and soul brothers are enraged in over 122 cities. While you fight us so far away from where you are needed.” She continues: “Negroes are only 11 percent of the U.S population but among troops here in Vietnam you are 32%.” There are flashes of the Mai Lai massacre, of speeches, civil rights marches and rallies. At one point a Vietnamese thief references a famous quote straight out of Treasure of Sierra Madre: “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges.” Characters lecture one another or through extended speeches: “I ain’t getting fucked again. You made me malignant. Bathed me in that lymphoma Agent Orange herbicidal stew” says Paul, in his crusty red MAGA cap, as he grows increasingly unhinged.
One of Lee’s favorite films is Night of the Hunter, from which Lee references Robert Mitchum’s Love/Hate speech. In Do the Right Thing, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) holds up his rings that read Love and Hate and speaking directly to the camera begins: “Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand. It's a tale of good and evil. Hate: it was with this hand that Cane iced his brother. Love: these five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man”. It is clear from that moment that there is dialectic in Lee’s masterpiece represented by Martin Luther King’s non-violence and Malcom X’s more militant approach. Night of the Hunter at first was a box office failure much to the disappointment of its director Charles Laughton, who never directed another film. At the time Laughton’s movie was too odd a blend of piousness, horror, innocence, German Expressionism and a Disney movie. Lee, who can make a fine commercial film (Inside Man, 25th Hour), a Brechtian one (Chi-Raq and others), and films of provocation (She’s Gotta Have It, Bamboozled) knows he can rankle traditionalists. But with playfulness and passion he will be heard – by any means necessary.