I think it’s long past due we start talking about Spike Lee in the same reverence and awe we talk about other distinctly American filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and John Huston. Here sits a director in his 60’s, prolifically making movies just as vibrant, vital, and varied (I hate that most of his career has been spent writing his movies off as just black movies; they unapologetically are, but that unfairly diminishes them in a backhanded way) as the day he got a budget to make his first feature-length movie over three decades ago, and with the exception of a couple of head-scratchers — I’m still not positive Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and his Oldboy remake actually exist and I saw them both in a movie theater — he has never stopped swinging for fences. Even when he misses, it’s always interesting and guaranteed to generate some conversation. Yet beyond how full-throated, tragically relevant and thought-provoking his films are, we often neglect that Spike never stopped growing. He never stopped working with interesting young talent and getting blustery yet nuanced performances out of them. He never stopped challenging his own preconceived notions about sex, gender and race (he still stumbles in a couple of those categories, but he tries) and most interestingly, he never stopped experimenting with the form.
And here we are at Da 5 Bloods, the film Netflix tossed him a blank check for after finally winning his long overdue Do the Right Thing apology Oscar for 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, a film about racial identity that’s great in own right but is not without criticism for its depiction of police involvement in the actual case the movie is based upon and Spike’s relationship with the NYPD (as past IU Cinema guest filmmaker Boots Riley was one of the first to point out on social media upon the film’s release). Da 5 Bloods centers around four Vietnam War vets reuniting and returning to Ho Chi Mihn City to find and recover the remains of their squad leader and spiritual brother, Norman (played by Chadwick Boseman). However, while that is one reason why they are there, Da Bloods, as they call themselves, are also there to recover lost treasure: gold that they discovered from a CIA plane crash that was originally intended to pay off the Vietcong. Da Bloods have spent their life fighting for a country that gave them and their people nothing, so for them this is as close as they’ll ever come to reparations.
Spike’s not playing coy about what this movie is. It’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre spliced together with Seven Samurai all the way down to two lines being explicitly lifted from the former and a finale and ethos that’s ripped from the latter. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s chosen to discover that Spike, while experimental, is a classicist down to his bones. However, those are just shorthand for the absolutely heart-wrenching performances and tightly knotted-up themes this movie is attempting to tackle. The movie sits and wrestles with the intersection of Black America’s hand in building and fighting for this country and their bodies and yet have never received any form of payment, just further subjugation. It makes me think of this video that’s been playing in my head like a prayer, where this woman passionately and pointedly talks about America’s refusal to honor their social contract. Absolutely do not continue reading this review if you don’t take the 6 minutes and 46 seconds to watch this.
It wrestles with the intersection of those same black soldiers serving and imperialists juggernaut and the havoc they themselves wreaked upon a nation 40 years ago, but the trauma still lingers. Black people are second-class citizens fighting a war that’s looking to just further propagate the same pain that’s been done to them in their homeland. Those two ideas come rushing together like atoms in a particle accelerator to create a film that ultimately wants to ask the difficult questions of “How can we reconcile these two things?” and “How can we pay our debts and heal?”
Those are maddening and depressing concepts to wrestle with even in the best of times but sitting here at a time where black people are tired of receiving 400-plus years of brutality and dehumanization, yet are now so irrevocably products of American culture while contributing our literal blood sweat and tears to no avail… it gets downright existentially horrific for the black writer writing this review right now. There’s a quote from that Childish Gambino New Yorker profile from 2017 when he talks about why the characters smoke weed constantly on his TV show Atlanta and I have come back to it over and over again in the past three years. He says, “[T]he characters aren’t smoking weed all the time because it’s cool but because they have PTSD—every black person does. It’s scary to be at the bottom, yelling up out of the hole, and all they shout down is ‘Keep digging! We’ll reach God soon!’”
That cultural PTSD informs the motivations of every character in this film. Some are doing better than others. Eddie (played by Norm Lewis) is a seemingly successful businessman and Melvin (Issiah Whitlock Jr, who’s a Spike regular and notable The Wire alum) seems like he’s well-adjusted and dealing with the trauma the best he can. But Otis (Clark Peters, another The Wire actor I’m happy to see in a film any day) and Paul (Delroy Lindo, who I cannot stress enough absolutely dominates in this movie and who we need to give much more respect to as an actor) are both struggling a bit more. Otis has never reconciled his past with Vietnam and Paul has fully swung so far away from fighting for others that he’s become a pro-wall-building Trump supporter who has inflicted his trauma upon his son David (Last Black Man in San Francisco’s Johnathan Majors). As the film progresses and you see flashbacks with Norman, a man who first understands the nightmarish dichotomy he embodies as an imperialist soldier during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, you slowly start to understand how these men ended up the way they did. They all took Norman’s lessons to heart in completely different ways. This reunion serves as a reckoning and an opportunity to redeem their past selves and move forward.
Which brings me back to the form of the movie. Spike isn’t just satisfied with intertwining the past and present with flashbacks and commentary. He’s combing documentary-style, objectively placed archival footage and juxtaposing it with character dialogue. He’s taking songs from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” album and dropping the instrumentals out and turning them into chants and prayers that serve as leitmotifs throughout the film. He’s smacking away digital de-aging technology his mentor and friend Martin Scorsese helped pioneer with Netflix’s checkbook and keeping the actors their proper age in flashbacks to add depth to the film that these are memories and presented as maybe a bit heightened (along with healthy and sudden aspect ratio changes — still got nothin’ on his use of that same trick in Crooklyn, though). I tend to call Spike a post-modernist filmmaker along with his other ’80s and ’90s indie film counterparts but at this point, I feel like filmmakers are just now catching up to what he’s doing which almost makes Da 5 Bloods feel appropriately modern for something that’s making us remember the sins of the late 20th century while dealing with the current sins of the 21st. (Spoilers: they’re the same sins. Same shit, different time.) The film is alive and fresh and the technique shows that off, but it never forgets its classical roots and its foundation, which is appropriate.
It’s interesting to me that in the past six months we’ve had two pieces of media that have dealt with what on paper are essentially the same themes, made before the current movement to abolish the authoritarian and systemic stranglehold the police have had over this country’s black inhabitants for centuries. Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen sequel to Alan Moore’s work tackles the very same Gordian knot of America’s scarring of Vietnam, police brutality and black people’s place and contribution to the American myth. But where I feel like that show’s message is ultimately a little muddled in the end due to not really committing to the logical conclusion of a big idea such as radical reform headed by black voices, Da 5 Bloods takes the time and effort to offer one of many solutions to a problem of this magnitude. It’s one as radical and classical as the works of Spike’s oeuvre tend to be, one that hits home as people take to the streets and stand united and those more fortunate spread their wealth to a people and community that has had theirs stripped away from them time and time again:
“Bloods don’t die. They multiply.”
Black Lives Matter
Abolish the Police
Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was previously screened at IU Cinema in 2019 as part of the series Ruth E. Carter: Afrocentric Cinematic Universes and the International Arthouse Series. His new film, Da 5 Bloods, is now available to stream on Netflix.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.