In 1935, Langston Hughes, the bard of Harlem, wrote a poem entitled “Let America Be America Again“, Within his lamentation of a land failing to live up to its potential, he hoped for a future in which no man would be “crushed by one above”. Yet in 2020, America finds itself amid an uprising in the name of black liberation, spurred by the murder of George Floyd, a black man. It was a murder in which a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds as three other officers stood by with their hands in their pockets, doing nothing.
We’re at moment in which the United States must once again face up to the racism upon which it was founded and the ideology within which it continues to function. Within this moment lies fertile ground for the release of a Spike Lee joint.
Lee’s cinema has always centered around reflection and the lived experience of black people in America. For over three decades, the director has invaded cultural conversations with powerful imagery in the form of archival footage, montage, and utilization of cinematography and editing unique to him and his collaborators. In 1989’s Do the Right Thing, Lee used one block in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York to force audiences to reflect on the fragility of social relations between different ethnicities. The film successfully argued that the “color line“, to quote W.E.B. DuBois, is always on the verge of exploding.
Malcolm X, Lee crafted an unprecedented biographical epic that reintroduced the eponymous civil rights champion to a younger generation and forced older audiences to reckon with the vitriol Malcolm received from white America during his brief life. BlacKkKlansman (2018) reflects upon the prevalence of violent white supremacist groups—one need not a white hood or a burning cross to hate, sometimes all that is needed is a tiki torch, a laptop, or a red hat.
And now we’ve got
Da 5 Bloods, a two-and-a-half-hour war film reflecting upon the United States’ crimes against the Vietnamese people and the legacy of black soldiers who have served the United States, even as the United States has and continues to largely treat its African American citizens as sub-human.
Delroy Lindo, Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Jonathan Majors in Da 5 Bloods (IMDB)
Da 5 Bloods finds four Vietnam veterans, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Otis (Clarke Peters), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), reunited in present-day Vietnam, a country that has vastly changed but still struggles with the specter of what its people refer to as the “American War”. In returning to Vietnam they hope to find the remains of a fallen comrade who served as a moral leader, Norman “Stormin’ Norm” Holloway” (Chadwick Boseman), and a cache of gold, originally intended for the South Vietnamese government, which may be buried with him.
The opening moments of Da Five Bloods seeks to contextualize the social milieu in which black soldiers found themselves in the 1960s and ’70s. A clip finds legendary boxer and activist Muhammad Ali criticizing the role forced upon black men in the American military, “My conscience won’t let me shoot my brother or some darker people…for big, powerful America, and shoot them for what?…They never took my nationality.”
What follows is a sobering assemblage of historical footage accompanied by Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” — from rocket launches to space, to rockets launched by American forces upon innocent civilians abroad, half-century-old warnings of America’s waging of a “war” against black people and how we’re teetering on the edge of “full-blown fascism”, to the National Guard violently quelling protests — the prescience and parallels are blistering. Bobby Seale, a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, contextualizes his era, today’s movement, and Spike’s film when he reminds us that black soldiers have fought in every American conflict, in the hundreds of thousands, and have always been promised freedom which has never been granted. “And we still ain’t getting nothing but police brutality…,” he declares.
This montage, and the film itself, engages with the notion of perpetual conflict: those who fought or whose family members fought in the Vietnam War (or any war, for that matter) can never shake the legacy of conflict, just as the black experience in the United States, in whatever formulation it presents itself, is a perpetual conflict for recognition as a human being.
Every character in Da 5 Bloods is engaged in perpetual conflict with themselves and their past, regardless of ethnicity. The Bloods specifically have struggled to adjust to life post-Vietnam for decades, with Paul being the most extreme example. After returning from war abroad to war at home, losing his wife, and failing to form a harmonious relationship with his son David (Jonathan Majors), he seeks refuge in Trumpism, as he proudly brandishes a “Make America Great Again” hat throughout the film.
Delroy Lindo, who has worked with Lee in the past (most notably as West Indian Archie in Malcolm X), admitted in an interview with NPR that his character’s overt allegiance to Trump wasn’t something he initially agreed with. “I didn’t want to do it…I read the script an additional two times, and I came to realize it’s just one component of this man,” he said. Lindo’s performance is exhausting in the most brilliant of ways. After a life defined by loss, “Paul needs a win” but it’s easily apparent that his president is of the same ilk as the villains that have been haunting him and all black people in America and elsewhere in the modern world.
Yet, for all the film’s complexities and the inner and outer journeys of the characters, the film fails to speak to the current insurrection. Of course, this is no fault of Lee’s: The film’s release date was set for months and the current iteration of the police violence protest movements went global overnight. Unfortunately for Da 5 Bloods, the montage described above represents the peak of the film.
As Lee jumbles making five characters sympathetic, while trying to bring a sixth back from the dead via flashback, he loses sight of the anger and energy contained within the montage—the same anger and energy filling America’s streets on a nightly basis this summer since the killing of George Floyd. Lee engages with the likes of Angela Davis and Kwame Ture on an aesthetic level but doesn’t allow for their politics to seep through into his work. A particularly interesting flashback finds the Bloods in a militant mood after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. “The goddamn white man gone too far,” Eddie says, gun in hand. Everyone, save for Norman, wants white blood in the aftermath of MLK’s death. Norman calms his brothers in arms by arguing that no one should use their rage against them, “we control our rage.”
Whereas the film could’ve seized a few minutes of its 155-minute runtime to explore the relationship between violence and non-violence in the name of liberation, the scene ends with Norman telling the others that they’ll have to kill him to enact their revenge. This unevenness isn’t new to Lee’s filmography, as it results from the director’s good-hearted intention to squeeze a multitude of ideas into his films.
The evolution of the current protests against police violence and institutional racism, which shows no signs of dwindling, will be the ultimate arbiter of Da 5 Bloods. Lee has recently been critical of the movement for using the verbiage “Defund the Police”, when many activists feel defunding police departments and reallocating money to social services is the least local governments could do. While his concerns as to how right-wing politicians can twist certain slogans to stoke fear are valid, his criticism falls short of adding to what should be an expansive conversation. The question is, does Da 5 Bloods contribute to the current conversation?