' ' Cinema Romantico: Da 5 Bloods

Monday, July 20, 2020

Da 5 Bloods

In “BlacKkKlansman”, director Spike Lee made a movie about a true story from the past that was communicating with the present, foreshadowing our current crippling racial polarization. In “Da 5 Bloods”, on the other hand, telling the story of five American Black Vietnam veterans, one of whom died during the war, by jumping back and forth between the late 60s and right now, the past and the present are having a conversation. If Lee changes the aspect ratio between eras, that is more to signify the switches, because “Da 5 Bloods” blurs the lines between eras, living out the idea of the past not being dead. Rather than cast younger actors for the flashback scenes, or even opt for digital de-aging effects, Lee simply has his four older actors work right alongside the younger Chadwick Boseman. The effect is brilliant, conveying how the remaining 4 bloods were both made by their Vietnam service and how hardened they have become in the intervening years when seen standing next to the young, idealistic Boseman, a radical frozen in time.

The movie opens in the ebullient vein of a hangout movie as the remaining Bloods — Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) — meet up in Ho Chi Minh City and boogie their way through a nightclub conspicuously called the Apocalypse Now (this is a real place). As young Vietnamese cheer the men on and slap their backs, all the famous portent of Coppola’s film just seems to drain away in real time, hinting at a kind of peace. When Da Bloods are a bought of round of drinks, however, by a couple aged ex-Viet Cong and raise their glasses to the end of The American War, all the jovial air in the movie vanishes, just for a moment. And if this sequence epitomizes “Da 5 Bloods’” tendency to render its Vietnamese characters as mere bystanders, it all also efficiently illustrates how for these Black American men, the war remains an open wound.

Nominally Da Bloods have come to find the body of Boseman’s Stormin Norman in the jungle and provide a proper burial; really, they are here to honor something like Stormin Norman’s dying wish. In flashbacks we see Da Bloods unearth a cache of gold bars, intended as payment from the United States to the South Vietnamese. Stormin Norman, however, argues, in commanding rhetorical flourish by Boseman, to keep these gold bars, not as payment for themselves but as reparations. And so, Da Bloods’ present-day journey upriver is not into a heart of darkness but toward something like the light, glimpsed in a flashback where the camera looks up at Stormin Norman, the sun falling on him through the trees, casting him in the image of a martyred saint.

This scene is also evocative of Lee’s penchant for just letting his characters talk. Film might be visual medium, but Lee has never been shy about opening the floor up to debate. He has also never been shy about just sort of stopping a movie in its tracks o tell you what he wants to tell you. And if “Da 5 Bloods” opens with an electrifying visual essay, cutting between images of Vietnam and the American Civil Rights moments, convincingly arguing that for Black Americans the real war was back home, it continues raiding the archives throughout. When Otis cites Milton Olive III, Lee proudly puts the Medal of Honor winner’s visage on screen. Even a dramatic moment deep in the jungle finds time for a moving, wonderful, Only-In-A-Spike-Lee-Joint Edwin Moses reference. The French characters who join Da Bloods midway through their mission are not much more than emblems, though Lee deems their representation as atonement for French Colonialist sins too crucial to cut. And though the daughter Otis did not know he had with his long-ago Vietnamese girlfriend gets next to no screen time, that lack of presence proves deliberate, a moving means to bring home the movie’s ultimate argument.

Paul is not history; he is living and breathing and breathing fire. Though he is riddled with PTSD, brought to life in Lindo’s bulging eyes and rapid edits that do not take your breath away but make it feel as if you truly can’t breathe, Lindo is not playing the part as someone who went to Vietnam and never came but came back from Vietnam to find nothing for him at all. It makes sense, then, that he would be a Trump supporter, all his rage and resentment at being left behind taking root in that red cap on his head. In going back to Vietnam, he is not seeking to expunge what he felt but looking to get his, to take what he’s owed. That, however, puts him at odds with the expressed original intent of Stormin Norman which Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) is on hand to represent, tagging along as the new 5th Blood, pointedly written as a Professor of Black Studies at Morehouse, as if he, not his pops, has carried on Norm’s legacy. And if Paul descends into madness, he descends so far that in some strange way he loops back around and meets at the truth, breaking the fourth wall, looking right at us, talking straight to us, not appealing but telling, ensuring this forgotten man will be remembered.

Lindo’s denouement evokes “Da 5 Bloods’” turn toward “Treasure of Sierra Madre” with all sorts of hands wanting a piece of the gold bars the men lug out of the jungle. And if Lee has been tweaking war movies, cuing up “Ride of the Valkyries” during Da Bloods’ tourist boat ride, the more it transforms into one, leading to a standoff between Americans, French and Vietnamese. This arc reminded me less of any war movie, really, than “Unforgiven” in which a movie picking apart myths yields to them. And though “Da 5 Bloods” cannot quite square with the idea of taking gold intended for the South Vietnamese, there is still considerable power to the conclusion and the honoring of Stormin Norman’s wishes, linking Otis’s finally meeting his daughter with MLK’s closing words about letting America be great again. The latter can only happen when we finally, fully face our history.

1 comment:

Alex Withrow said...

Damn this is a great review, so well said concerning so many different issues. Lindo was such a force here; I've always loved the guy, but this was next-level. It's criminal that the Oscars may not happen this year, because that performance deserves attention.