Tuesday, June 16, 2020

What’s Goin’ On: The Many-Hatted Saga of “Da 5 Bloods”

I don’t know how Spike Lee does it. Just when our national concern about social justice has reached a boiling point, he comes out with a film that addresses the very issues that make this moment so fraught. Lee knows his American history, both the widely shared events and the more hidden ones. He knows about Dr. King and Malcolm X. And he knows about Hanoi Hannah cajoling Black soldiers to reject the patriotic rhetoric that promotes the official American view of the Vietnam War. His new film, Da 5 Bloods, opens with a clip of Muhammad Ali noting that no Viet Cong ever called him nigger.

Lee has over 90 directing credits, and I can’t pretend that this is his very best work. Part of what makes his career so memorable is that, while devoting himself to chronicling the Black American experience, he has tried out so many approaches. He’s shot distinguished documentaries (Four Little Girls) and biopics (Malcolm X). He’s focused on Black music (Mo’ Betta Blues), Black religion (Red Hook Summer), and Black contributions to sports. (He Got Game). I love the sexy humor in his comic take on the streets and the bedrooms of Brooklyn, She’s Gotta Have It. And I doubt there’s a more powerful look at the rage in our streets than 1989’s Do the Right Thing.

Lee can be long-winded, with a tendency to go off in all directions. Two items in the Lee canon I most admire, 2006’s Inside Man and 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, are disciplined  police thrillers that pack a wallop because they’re tightly written and edited. They’re hardly without meaning, but they never wander off from the subject at hand. By contrast, Da 5 Bloods is Homeric in its scope, covering a multitude of issues. This story of a squad of Black grunts returning to Vietnam fifty years later to find the remains of their fallen leader is at the same time a sentimental journey, an adventure saga, and a deeply poignant father/son tale. The film is also a history lesson, bookended as it is by footage of fallen Black leaders as well as shots of people of color bearing the burdens of a questionable war.. One chief plot strand, focusing on the challenges posed by human greed, is deeply reminiscent of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. (We can’t miss it, because Lee makes a joke reference to that classic’s most famous line.) In all, Da 5 Bloods is a mishmash of styles and subjects: it’s a bit formless, but never less than fascinating.

What’s special about Da 5 Bloods, apart from its timeliness and its ambitions? The breathtaking beauty of its landscape scenes owes much to the cinematography of a new Lee collaborator, Newton Thomas Sigel. (Among his previous films is Drive, which turned L.A. into a place of seedy wonder.) There’s also, unusual for a Lee film, a big orchestral score by longtime collaborator Terence Blanchard, which co-exists with a powerful rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On.” And then there are the performers, led by Delroy Lindo, a frequent Lee supporting player who shines here in the central role.

Lindo’s character, Paul, shows more than any of the others how deeply warfare can etch itself into the human psyche. Vietnam is a battle he can never get past. Pointedly, Paul is a guy wearing a “Make America Great Again” red cap. Lee publicly loathes the president he calls “Agent Orange,” and by making a PTSD-riddled Black man a Trump supporter  he makes sure we all know what’s goin’ on in his own mind.

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