Apocalypse Vow

Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods, 2020, DCP, color, sound, 156 minutes. Melvin, Eddie, Paul, Otis, and David (Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, and Jonathan Majors).

IN DA 5 BLOODS, history repeats itself not as farce but as tragedy compounded. Financed by and now streaming on Netflix, this fiercely intelligent and emotionally go-for-broke Spike Lee joint overwhelmed my small screen and me as well. Colliding hearts and minds, it arrives as a much-needed exorcism, but I suspect that, like Lee’s most urgent movies—Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), 25th Hour (2002), BlacKkKlansman (2018), the anomalously tender Crooklyn (1994), the documentaries 4 Little Girls (1997) and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006), and whichever you might argue for—it will grow even stronger over time.

Lee opens with a montage of iconic still and moving images from what, in the 1960s, was dubbed “the war at home and the war abroad.” As the violence builds visually from 1963 to 1975 in newsreel footage from both Vietnam and the US, soundbites from Black leaders mix with Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” the first of six cuts from his timeless 1971 album What’s Going On that we hear in the movie.

Malcolm X: “When you take twenty million Black people and make them fight all your wars and pick all your cotton and you don’t give them any real recompense, sooner or later their allegiance towards you is going to wear thin.”

Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael): “America has declared war on Black people.”

Angela Davis: “If the link-up is not made between what’s happening in Vietnam and here, we may very well face a period of full-blown fascism very soon.”

We hear Black Panther Party cofounder Bobby Seale reference the high numbers of Black people who served in the Civil War and World War II, and how the promise of freedom is broken again and again: “Now here we go with the Vietnam War, and we still ain’t getting nothing but racist police brutality.”

Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods, 2020, DCP, color, sound, 156 minutes. Norman (Chadwick Boseman).

If you were going to teach a course on a history of the rise of radical Black power within the civil rights movement, this montage would be a good starting point for research. Lee even references the 1970 Jackson State killings, in which two Black students were shot dead by police with another twelve injured—only eleven days after the Ohio National Guard opened fire on white students at Kent State, drawing national outrage. I haven’t seen a mention of Jackson State on mainstream media in decades (and mainstream media is what Netflix is). Da 5 Bloods lands when the struggle for racial justice is headline news, but Lee completed his movie before the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police and the protests that continue in their names and so many others. His project has always been larger than the immediate moment, and his greatest movies allow us to understand the effect of institutionalized racism on the entirety of individual lives, generation after generation, and often, as in this movie, on the relationship between fathers and sons. Last month, Lee released a ninety-four-second video that intercuts images of three Black men dying in police chokeholds: George Floyd, Eric Garner, and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), a fictional character in Do the Right Thing. You could say that Radio Raheem’s murder was prophetic. How could it not be? But Lee was specifically referencing the death of Michael Stewart, who was strangled by NYPD officers in 1983.

If I have belabored this opening montage, it is because it provides the key to the characters and conflict of Da 5 Bloods, especially Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight the Vietcong, who “never lynched me, they never put their dogs on me, they never robbed me of my nationality.” Ali lost his boxing licenses for five years and with them what could have been his best years as a fighter. Lee’s fictional 5 Bloods didn’t have the security of wealth or fame (which is not to diminish Ali’s courageous moral choice), so when they were drafted, they went to Vietnam. Four of them came home alive. But the contradiction of being a Black man fighting in an imperialist war waged against people of color by an institutionally racist nation took its toll. Cognitive dissonance is the term for the experience of a contradiction that batters the psyche. Add to it the trauma of battle and you get PTSD, which is what has afflicted, to varying degrees, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) since their return from Vietnam to the USA.

Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods, 2020, DCP, color, sound, 156 minutes.

We meet these grizzled seniors in a sleek hotel lobby in “present day” Ho Chi Minh City. They are on a mission to retrieve the remains of their revered squadron leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who was killed in firefight after their helicopter was shot down in the jungle. “He was our Malcolm and our Martin,” one of them says later, but in the snapshot that they pass around, it is Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton that he most resembles. (Lee frames Norman with palm fronds curving behind him, just like the curved back of the rattan chair behind Huey in his signature photo.) After hugs and handclasps, the foursome repairs to an Apocalypse Now–themed nightclub, making an exuberant entrance, boogieing across the crowded room, oblivious to reactions by other patrons. It is the most joyous moment in the film, the re-creation of the bond they experienced as young soldiers, and which Stormin’ Norman taught them was the only way they would survive Vietnam. But as they drink and talk about their lives, differences emerge, particularly around Paul having voted for “Fake Bone Spurs.” Paul’s anger and guilt are monumental, and for the others, his belief that Trump could make America great again, or at least give him what he deserves, signifies the extremity of his PTSD, which makes him a danger to himself and to them. But if Paul is wired too tightly, they are as well, because as they leave Apocalypse, an angry one-legged kid tosses a cherry bomb at them—they hit the ground in sync, and suddenly we are alongside a chopper flying above the jungle, and we see Norman as he was in 1968 and the four other bloods looking exactly as they did in earlier scenes. Rather than “de-aging” Paul, Otis, Eddie, and Melvin, Lee defines the half-dozen or so flashbacks as inseparable from what and who these men have become. An ingenious way of depicting memory and subjectivity, the decision is one among many that makes Da 5 Bloods more than an exciting genre mash-up and the first American film about the war in Vietnam with a uniquely Black perspective. It pushes the language of film expressionism to show us not only the action, but soul.

The screenplay for Da 5 Bloods is a rewrite by Lee and Kevin Willmott of a script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo. Since the four share the writing credit, one presumes that the basic structure of a heist movie that resembles John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre defined the original. But Lee’s protagonists are not desperately poor white men, but Black veterans returning to Vietnam to find seventeen million dollars in gold bullion that their squadron leader told them they should take back to the US and give as reparations to all their Black brothers and sisters in the name of all the Black soldiers who did not leave Vietnam alive.

Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods, 2020, DCP, color, sound, 156 minutes. Paul and David (Delroy Lindo and Jonathan Majors).

The reason that they did not return sooner is pretty convoluted (napalm had obliterated landmarks around the site; a mudslide eventually revealed them). Unlike the Hughes Brothers’ 1995 Dead Presidents—which spans six years in the life of a young Black man from the South Bronx who enlists in military, becomes an efficient but not heartless killing machine in Vietnam, and returns to find his neighborhood devastated by the war on drugs and his own life destroyed by PTSD and the failure of his country to honor his service in any way—Da 5 Bloods is a survivors’ story. Although the reasons that Paul, Otis, Eddie, and Melvin return to Vietnam are overdetermined and muddled, they all act out of a desire to fulfill Norman’s vision, to get something for themselves, to prove that they are still the men they once were, and to find again the solidarity that was their only reward.

Running 156 minutes, Da 5 Bloods is both sprawling and intimate—a genre movie packed with film references and familiar narrative ploys and twists, and a psychodrama that’s both collective and individual. Documentary inserts are wake-up calls, as are tonal shifts, not to mention the changes in format: The 16x9 widescreen is contracted in the flashbacks to 1.33:1, the 16-mm format in which newsreels of the war were shot. Editor Adam Gough deftly organized what could easily have been a holy mess and in the best sense still is.

Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods, 2020, DCP, color, sound, 156 minutes.

After the first flashback, the plot is quickly set in motion. The four veterans make contact with Desroche (Jean Reno), a shady French import/export trader, who agrees to move the gold to an offshore account for a hefty commission. Do they trust him? No, and neither do we. In other words, we know in act one who the enemy is and that these four oldsters—who once again become a quintet when Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) arrives to keep an eye on his father, lest he go off the rails—are going to have to fight the war all over again in act three. With their official Vietnamese guide, Vinh Tran (Johnny Tri Nguyen), who knows nothing about the gold, the five Americans begin their journey upriver. Vinh, Otis’s wartime squeeze Tiên (Lé Y Lan), and the daughter that Otis never knew he had are the only Vietnamese characters who are able to express how the American incursion tore apart their lives, and they don’t have nearly enough screen time to accomplish that—which reminds us that there has never been an American fiction movie about the war made from a predominantly Vietnamese point of view. In the flashbacks, the Vietnamese fighters are faceless, which is how the American soldiers are trained to view them. And when Desroche’s Vietnamese henchmen move in for the kill, it is impossible to view them as anything other than thugs and sadists who operate entirely out of greed. It is the pitfall of relying on genre structure: The adversary must inspire hatred in the viewer.

Of course, all the Americans are flawed, including the near-sainted Norman. But Lindo, Peters, Lewis, Whitlock Jr., Majors, and Boseman inhabit their characters so fully and with such generosity that it is impossible not to want them to come out of this alive. Still, it is Lindo’s performance that takes the film to another level. When the group is outnumbered and forced to flee, Paul takes off alone with his share of the loot—maybe because he wants to die alone, maybe because he thinks he’s giving the others cover, maybe because his guilt for what happened to Norman is so great that he can’t allow himself the comfort of friendship, including that of his son. Like King Lear on the heath, Paul slips in and out of madness. Lear had his fool to confide in, but Paul has only us. And so as he walks his Via Dolorosa, beating back the jungle, snake venom coursing through his bloodstream already poisoned by Agent Orange, his backward MAGA hat barely fitting over his big bald head (Lindo has one of the most magnificent heads in cinema and a voice to match it), he talks to the camera, which is his mirror, as are we, because by this point in Da 5 Bloods, we recognize ourselves in his anger, his grief, his self-destructiveness, his inability to forgive himself. He talks and he sings snatches of Marvin Gaye while Terence Blanchard’s horns and drums lift his speech into song, until, at last, he stands at the edge of a clearing and sees something to the right that we cannot yet see. And Newton Thomas Sigel’s camera, following his gaze, makes a slow arcing pan through the sunlight streaming between the trees to find, of course, Norman, who has come to give Paul absolution, or redemption, or whatever you want to call it. To tell him that he loves him, and that God is Love and Love is God. All that which I can’t buy in real life is possible, although rare, in movies, and I thank Lee, Lindo, Boseman, Blanchard, and Sigel for the gift of this truly transcendent moment. After that, Lee takes twenty-three minutes to wrap up the plot: Some live, some die, Black Lives Matter gets paid and so does a French organization dedicated to clearing minefields which I neglected to mention. And Martin Luther King Jr., preaching in Riverside Church a year to the day before he’s assassinated, reads from Langston Hughes: “America never was America to me. And yet I swear this oath, America will be.”

Da 5 Bloods_ is now streaming on Netflix. Taubin also recommends streaming Göran Olsson’s The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 (2011) on YouTube._