Spike Lee‘s Da 5 Bloods (2020) is a film about the politics of visual culture. It’s not a film to get uncritically lost in, but rather, one that foregrounds its own visual apparatus, making audiences aware throughout that images are not neutral windows into the world, but rather, ideological constructs that need to be interrogated.
As the film makes explicit, politics begins with framing.
Lee is a political filmmaker and a pedagogical one. As detailed in a 2018 article authored by Mekado Murphy, every one of Lee’s films contains examples of what the filmmaker calls “Spikeisms”. A “Spikeism” is a “heightened visual flourish that makes you take notice while moving the narrative forward“. One of the more pronounced of such “Spikeisms” is what is now known as the “double dolly shot”.
In this visual flourish that has become a stylistic signature, two dollies are used to give the appearance that a character is floating through space rather than walking. To achieve this effect, both the actor and camera are placed on dollies and rolled backward simultaneously. In one of the most and powerful famous examples of this stylistic flourish, in Malcolm X (1992) the titular character (famously played by Denzel Washington) walks to the site where he will be assassinated. Rather than stay in the realm of what is coded as “realism”, Lee uses the aesthetics of the double dolly shot over the soundtrack of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”.
One way to read Lee’s choice to use a double dolly shot in this scene is because this gliding effect undercuts Malcolm X’s agency. In a racist, anti-Black America, it’s an illusion to believe that African Americans, on an individual level, have agency. In a racist nation-state, Malcolm X is pulled to the site of his assassination. To be Black in America is to exist within the gravitational pull of anti-Black violence.
What the writer-director calls “Spikeisms”, I want to suggest, are not sporadic individual shots that are elevated above the more pedestrian whole. Rather, Lee’s films are replete with experimental aesthetics that deconstruct the conventions of (white) Hollywood and re-frame and re-contextualize Black lives and Black history.
Lee’s experimental filmmaking are on full display in Da 5 BloodsBloods, a war film that re-signifies and re-contextualizes what we mean when we say “war”. To make a pedantic point, “war movies” are a prominent genre in US filmmaking. (See, for example Robert Eberwein’s The Hollywood War Film and Daniel Binns’ The Hollywood War Film: Critical Observations from World War I to Iraq.) However, as Lee teaches, war is not exclusively defined by dominant genres and discourses of power. A war film need not be about recognizable periods within the genre, such as World War I, World War II, and Vietnam. Rather, as Lee emphasizes, “war” is the constant condition in a nation-state founded upon and perpetuated by anti-Black racism.
The film’s opening sequence flouts Hollywood conventions. It doesn’t introduce us to the main characters with whom audiences are supposed to identify and empathize with. In contrast to Roger Ebert’s famous dictum that films are “empathy machines“, Lee’s films, we can say, are “teaching machines”.
Lee begins Da 5 Bloods by reframing the Vietnam War and Cold War through the prism of race and racism. The film opens with archival footage of Muhammad Ali being led to prison, incarcerated because he refused to participate in America’s latest oversea war, ostensibly for the abstract ideals of “liberty” and ‘justice”, words that ring hollow from the perspective of African Americans.
We hear Ali’s voice, speaking truth to power:
“My conscious won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality.”
For his refusal to fight on moral and religious grounds, Ali was arrested, declared guilty of draft evasion, and stripped of his boxing titles. Speech is political, and the ramifications of speech, especially when contrasting dominant narratives of power, can lead to incarceration (or worse). But it can also be a spark in a long revolution. By placing this archival footage at the head of his film, Lee reignites Ali’s revolutionary fervor.
The opening minutes of Lee’s “fictional movie” is a montage of archival footage, artfully arranged to provoke wider (and whiter) audiences into recognized patterns of institutional racism.
After Ali’s speech, articulating why he refuses to fight in America’s latest war, Lee then shows a series of images of African American soldiers in Vietnam, reminding us of the disproportionate number of African Americans recruited to fight in Southeast Asia. Despite ideologies promising that becoming a soldier creates a brotherhood that transcends ethnicity and race, this ideology proved a fiction. A recent Time article documents: “Black Vietnam Veterans Recall the Real Injustices They Faced During and After the War“. (For a salient oral history on these racial injustices and injuries, read Wallace Terry’s Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History.)
Lee’s montage helps make visible what the nation-state invests in and conversely, what it disinvests in. After showing images of African American soldiers in Vietnam, Lee juxtaposes archival footage of Apollo 11’s historic launch and Neil Armstrong’s famous words upon becoming the first human to walk on the moon. The nation-state’s multi-billion dollar investment in Cold War technology and warfare, packaged and sold as a universal story of national triumph, is rhetorically reframed by Lee. Lee contextualizes Armstrong, the only white voice in the montage, as follows:
July 21st, 1969
In contrast to the White Culture claiming and marking of the moon, Lee reframes the event with an African American linguistic signifier that echoes the film’s title, Da 5 Bloods. Rather than uncritically celebrating this historic launch, Lee instead shows African Americans holding a sign of protest that reads: “$12 a day to feed an astronaut. We could feed a starving child for $8”. While white America looked up in awe, Lee insists we stay on the streets where anti-Black racism unfurls in myriad ways from housing insecurity, food insecurity, and mass incarceration.
Power works, in part, by erasing its victims—making illegible the dispossessed, the displaced, and the disenfranchised. In opposition to this dominant cultural trend, Lee makes visible the Black presence and experience throughout US history. Lee’s montage reframes and recontextualizes US history against the soundtrack of Marvin Gaye‘s “Inner City Blues“, a song that focuses on segregated ghettos outside the dominant, national channels. (This is the first of six songs played from Gaye’s essential 1971 album, What’s Going On.)
The montage juxtaposes images and footage of horrific, state-sanctioned racialized violence in the 1960s with prominent Black leaders who re-frame US history by centering on Black history and Black experiences. Malcolm X explains what happens when “you take 20 million black people and make them fight all your wars and pick all your cotton and never give them any recompense.” Kwame Toure (aka Stokley Carmichael) reframes how we understand war: “America has declared war on black people.”
Angela Davis engages in a form of intersectional analysis before such a method had a name: “If the link up is not made between what’s happening in Vietnam and what’s happening here, we may very well face a period of full-blown fascism very soon.” Bobby Seale uses facts and figures to narrate how Black people have always been central to US wars: 186,000 black men fought in the Civil War and 850,000 conscripted in World War II to fight for the promise of freedom that was never given and “now here we go with the damn Vietnam War and we still ain’t getting nothin’ but racist police brutality.”
In this montage, Lee offers a history lesson comprised of voices not heard in state-sanctioned history books and images not seen in award-winning historical documentaries. This lesson emphasizes that war is not exclusively a contained event that happens outside the nation-state, but rather, war is the condition of everyday life in and for Black America.
From the onset, Lee insists that we become aware of the cultural technologies that make history visible and legible. He does this by consistently defying and upending the normative Hollywood codes and conventions. By such aesthetic transgressions, Lee makes audiences aware of how “reality” is the production of aesthetic choices and aesthetic framings. As Da 5 Bloods foregrounds, one of the most powerful apparatuses for framing and enforcing what is widely recognized as “reality” is Hollywood itself.
Da 5 Bloods focuses on four African American veterans who return to Vietnam to retrieve the remains of the respected squadron leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who was killed in combat. The four veterans, played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock Jr., all suffer from various degrees of PTSD. Yet even in a narrative that centers on Black lives and experiences, Hollywood war films intrude in nearly every scene, from explicit references to Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo (1980) and Joseph Zito’s Missing in Action (1984) to refigurations of scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).
Moreover, Da 5 Bloods, on one level, is a retelling of John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Like in Huston’s film, the four veterans also return to Vietnam to retrieve buried bars of gold. (As Lee understands, the Hollywood war film and Western are inextricably conjoined as forms of white, hyper-masculine, colonial adventures.)
Yet even though Hollywood codes and conventions are omnipresent, Lee also insists that this is a Black film about Black experiences and Black history. He communicates this mostly through experimental aesthetics. When the film departs from the present and flashbacks to the war, Lee refuses the Hollywood convention of casting younger actors to play versions of the four protagonists. Instead, Lee has the lead actors—ages 68 (Peters), 67 (Lindo), 65 (Whitlock Jr.), and 52 (Lewis)—play both their present-day and teenage selves, shuttling between the different historical junctures.
Seeing actors in their 60s playing late teenagers metaphorically represents how trauma freezes time. This stylistic flourish foregrounds how history doesn’t march forward, but rather, for those traumatized by violence, the past haunts, shapes, and defines the present. These grown men, in a fundamental way, have never escaped the jungles of Southeast Asia. And of course, we can extrapolate this to think about African Americans in general. The myriad, racialized violence of the past continue to haunt and structure the present: slavery; lynchings; school segregation; “race films”; race massacres in Tulsa, Chicago, Detroit, Ferguson; redlining; predatory lending; mass incarceration; the murders of Oscar Grant, Sandra Bland, Tanisha Anderson, Bettie Jones, Eric Garner, Yvette Smith, Freddy Gray. Tamir Rice, Yuvette Henderson, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks.
These racialized violences are largely invisible in the dominant channels of US culture, an insight informing Lee’s film throughout. And yet, as Lee critically highlights, there is no way to represent African American lives and history in a direct, unmediated way; the story of Black America is already and always mediated by dominant US institutions and forms.
Since there is no way to avoid Hollywood and other mass-mediated representations, Lee foregrounds throughout the cultural technologies that frame and shape reality. For example, when the film leaves the present and flashes back to the Vietnam War, Lee makes visible the medium by changing the aspect ratios (shifting from an ultrawide 2.39:1 aspect ratio to a narrower 1.33:1 aspect ratio). Put differently, when Lee flashes back to the Vietnam War, the image compresses and shrinks, transforming from a rectangle filling the screen to a square. Moreover, for the flashback sequences, Lee also changes the film formats, shifting from digital to 16 mm cameras.
These jarring, formal transformations foreclose audiences from losing themselves in the narrative. Instead, Lee makes audiences aware of how images are always artificially framed, arranged, and produced. Lee, in other words, disallows us to see uncritically.
When the story flashes back to the Vietnam War, the film changes aspect ratio and format, yet still, it remains shaped by the genre of Hollywood war films. There’s still a swelling score reminiscent of past Hollywood war-film soundtracks, and the film’s war scenes still seem like Hollywood action sequences. The point, I believe, is that the grammar of Hollywood remains intact; the critical task is to learn to recognize this grammar and experiment with new ways of critically seeing from within this grammar.
Tellingly, while touring Vietnam in the present, the Black veterans take turns shooting the geography with a Super 8 mm camera, and Lee shows is their framing and their perspective. Moreover, one of the veterans frequently photographs Vietnam, and Lee inserts these black-and-white pictures, intentionally disrupting the narrative flow.
The challenges of seeing and understanding race in America is critically understanding how race is always already mediated.
This pedagogical project of being aware of the process of framing and the politics of representation is so important because what so many people believe to be “reality” is largely framed by mass media. Views of war are shaped by television and films, and so too are views of communities of color. Da 5 Bloods frequently breaks away from the conventions of narrative and instead becomes explicitly didactic. Throughout, representations of famous African Americans interrupt the main narrative to offer a history lesson not typically found in textbooks.
The archival footage that comprises the montage is not a contained section. Instead, archival photographs and representation interrupt the film’s present, from a photograph of Milton L. Olive III, the first African American to be awarded the Medal of Honor in Vietnam, to a sketching of Crispus Attucks, an African American killed at the Boston Massacre. As a character states, in reference to Attucks, African Americans “were the very first people that died for the red, white, and blue.”
But there’s a limit to visual culture. In a flashback, the crew’s squadron leader, Norman, says that they are entitled to a case of gold as a symbolic form of reparations. In a rousing speech, Norman asserts they are owed this gold in the name of “every single black boot that never made it home” and for “every brother and sister stolen from Mother Africa to Jamestown, Virginia.” There are no images, no representations, of these unseen women, children, and men who were brutally forced to build the Americas and build modernity.
Roughly a third of the way through the film, one of the Black soldiers in the present proclaims that he “sees ghosts”. One of his comrades proclaims, “it happens to all of us”. Some of these ghosts are visible, but most can’t be conjured by the dominant regimes of visibility.
In modernity, race and racism are mediated through mass-mediated visual media, and making Black lives and Black history matter is a project that frequently must unfold within the grammar of white, state-sanctioned power. Da 5 Bloods became possible, after all, because Netflix financed and distributed the film. From within, revolution can unfold.
As Da 5 Bloods suggests, the revolution in how we see and understand African American history and lives will be televised. This message is reinforced by the millions of African Americans with miniature cameras in their pockets, making the most important film of the 21st century: A collective entitled Black Lives Matter.
Binns, Daniel. The Hollywood War Film: Critical Observations from World War I to Iraq. Intellect Books. 2017.
Eberwein Robert. The Hollywood War Film. John Wiley & Sons. 2009.
Chow, Andre R. and Josiah Bates. “As ‘Da 5 Bloods’ Hits Netflix, Black Vietnam Veterans Recall the Real Injustices They Faced During and After the War.” Time. 12 June 2020.
Hellerman, Jason. “How Spike Lee Uses Aspect Ratio to Drive Story“. No Film School. 15 June 2020.
Keegan, Rebecca. “Spike Lee on the Challenge of Bringing Nextflix’s ‘Da 5 Bloods’ to the Screen”. The Hollywood Reporter. 11 June 2020.
Murphy, Mekado. “How Spike Lee Created Three Signature Visual Shots”. The New York Times. 2 August 2018.
Terry, Wallace. Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History. Presidio Press. 1985.