Lee: Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Spike Lee’s films have always been torn between progressive racial politics and toxic masculinity, but his late work has seen him re-examine that conflict, and strain at the outer limits of his macho auteurism. In recent years he’s questioned it, probed it, and sometimes moved away from it, but with Da 5 Bloods he just falls back upon what’s most comfortable, resulting in the most anodyne movie of his entire career. Beyond a certain point, this revisionist Vietnam film is almost unwatchable – easily the most tedious, insufferable and regressive outing in Lee’s whole back catalogue, especially when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement, which his work increasingly refuses to process or properly acknowledge.
On the face of it, this looks like a rollicking revisionist take on the tortured white masculinities that emerged in American cinema in the wake of the Vietnam War. These lasted from the late 70s up until the late 90s, so Lee is already targeting a cinematic mode that is two decades old. To make it all feel relevant again, he presents Vietnam as a crisis in African-American identity, by way of a quintet of characters – the Bloods – who all fought together in Nam. Delroy Lindo plays Paul, the alpha male of the group, and Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters and Norm Lewis play David, Otis, Ettie, a trio of considerably cooler-blooded veterans. They’re travelling back to Vietnam to recover a case of gold ingots that they discovered during the war, but also to give a proper burial to the fifth Blood, Norman, played by Chadwick Boseman, who died in battle, and who we only see in retrospect. Along the way, David is unexpectedly joined by his estranged son Melvin, played by Isaiah Whitelock Jr., who becomes an unofficial fifth Blood, and a cipher for Norman, by all accounts the spiritual and emotional fulcrum of the Bloods.
From the outset, Lee presents Vietnam as a crisis in African-American masculinity, taking us through a series of historical facts that are more or less delivered verbatim by the characters when they don’t unfold through one of the expository intertitles or montage sequences that have become Lee’s recent stock in trade. We start with a montage that intercuts every major post-WWII American flashpoint with the evolution of Civil Rights, culminating with the war in Vietnam. We also learn that 11% of the American population of the time was black, but 32% of GIs were black, and we get some insight into how it must have felt to hear the news about Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination from the depths of the Vietnamese jungle. Lee also sets his sights on previous representations of Vietnam, situating an early scene in an “Apocalypse Now” nightclub, as if to dismiss the white take on Nam as so much errant, intoxicated fantasy.
This stuff would all be powerful if Lee didn’t also double down on his revanchist masculinity, taking us back to a time when “being a brother meant something.” All of the Bloods – with the exception of Norman – feel like black Trump voters, so it makes sense that Lee has to actually characterise one of them as a Trump supporter, replete with MAGA hat and all, to make the rest feel less conservative. Lee’s whole macho shtick feels pretty geriatric by this point, especially when combined with the film’s flashbacks, which are pretty baggy, especially in a 2.5 hour watch. Most of them are shot like news montage, or Vietnam photojournalism, reducing them to a lecture, while the kind of action Lee goes for here is not all that compelling when shot in flashback either, let alone such preciously stylised flashback. After a point, the flashbacks just descend into so much macho posturing – hits of testosterone that keep the action going as it flounders and blathers in the present. Every now and then the historical footage really lands – especially with the creation of Hanoi Hannah, a Vietnamese broadcaster who addresses black American troops – but all too often its macho, mansplainy and tedious.
Indeed, so expository is the film as a whole that Lee has to resort to increasingly desperate measures to make it all hang together as an immersive experience. All the actors here are just mouthpieces for the director, while even the Vietnamese subtitles are all capitalised, giving the impression that the on-screen text is shouting at us too. Watching it, I felt that Lee should really just shift to documentaries at this point – not just because When the Levees Broke is still his best film of the last fifteen years, but because there’s no genuine interest in characterisation, narrative or atmosphere here, let alone a good-faith attempt to return to the stylistic brilliance of his classic works. Just as the exposition is utterly intert, none of the emotional epiphanies and character arcs are compelling or interesting either. No doubt, this looks like the kind of film that was quite fun to make – lots of it plays like a holiday video – but Lee is strikingly disinterested in the adventure elements of the script, which is a pity, since they’re easily the most propulsive part, and the best venue for his characters’ various issues.
Instead, Lee fulls back upon naff stylistic devices and empty “experimentation,” resulting in the worst kind of Netflix film – made-for-Netflix in the same way as Adam Sandler’s recent releases, none of which would be enough to satisfy audiences in a regular theatrical context. All the conflicts are stupid, pretentious and arbitrary – despite his ambition to create a revisionist Nam film, Lee just pastiches other, better Nam films, most of which have already been extensively parodied by this point anyway. For all the supposed critique of Nam, and of Nam cinema, Lee’s clearly heavily invested in the same hyper-masculinity that dominated cinema during and after the war. If you were cynical, you might argue that “revising” Nam just legitimises Lee’s plead for the same machismo as a viable Civil Rights platform in the present, despite the fact that Black Lives Matter emerged in part to diversity black protest.
Before moving onto those thornier questions, it’s also worth noting there’s no interest here in one of the most enduring elements of Vietnam – the otherness of the landscape as an American theatre of war, both in actuality and in memory. The entire film could easily be shot in America – it looks like the Bloods are just wandering around the same farm the whole time, overlaying the plot with a semi-senile oblivion that requites the biggest deus ex machina in Lee’s work for them to stumble on the gold at the right time and place (and even then the film still exceeds two and a half hours). Without any clear or coherent sense of place, Da 5 Bloods descends into a piecemeal mess, full of shifts so abrupt they feel like continuity errors, as we’re ushered through one situation after another in which Lee tries to revise his macho posturing blustering blather as relevant to the present moment. In other words, this plays like a film made by an insecure fourteen-year-old – hence the MAGA hat – and takes some pretty sick turns that are justified as collateral damage for his collective coming-of-age machismo.
All of which is to say that this hardcore Nam attitude feels pretty dated now, from both white and black actors. All of the historical footage – the sense of a potted history lesson – finally feels like a desperate diversion tactic, a way of distracting us from a protest present that Lee can’t or won’t accept – namely, the protest milieu of Black Lives Matter, which has expanded Civil Rights discourse way beyond the singular macho voices that inexorably anchor Lee’s cinematic vision. The result is a kind of black Boomer aesthetic that can’t process black women except as reflections of black male virility. Lee’s key Boomer icon here is Marvin Gaye, and the film includes most tracks on What’s Going On, adopting a similar division of black labour to that implied by Gaye’s two best releases – What’s Going On, which is directed at the brothers, and Let’s Get It On, which more or less relegates black women to the bedroom.
Of course, that’s too cynical a reading of those two albums, which are both beautiful and brilliant on their own terms, but the thing is that Lee’s film makes Gaye’s project seems that limited, given the way in which What’s Going On is used to invoke the macho black voice here. Watching Da 5 Bloods, I was reminded of the front cover of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which presents a collective of black protesters outside the White House, all of whom are inexplicably male, despite the fact that the BLM moment fuelling the album was started by women. Something of that occurs here too – there’s a continuity between Boomer and gangsta protest, and the inability of either to properly process black female voices – as Lee’s need to distill the quintessence of black machismo culminates with two simultaneous monologues. In the first, Paul breaks off the into the forest, and accelerates into a manic address to camera; in the second, Lee removes the backing vocals and accompaniment from “What’s Going On,” and leaves Gaye’s voice to float, a cappella, across Paul’s inane soliloquy.
This a cappella machismo – sentimental and brutal at the same time – is the logical endpoint of Da 5 Bloods. It’s so absurd that Lee backtracks a little in the third act, almost conceding that this singularly and splendidly isolated machismo can’t possibly hold the key to the future. First, we discover that Paul accidentally shot Norman. No doubt, this was an accident, but it still gestures towards something self-destructive and untenable about the way that the Bloods have established their collective masculinity. Then, we get a bloodbath that doesn’t really suit the tone of the film, and so plays like another concession by Lee that the Bloods have a limited lifespan, since it ends with all but one of them being killed. Finally, the film’s fixation with Gaye condenses to a father-son letter that dictates the last few key events. On its own terms, this letter is quite effective at keeping the civil rights focus squarely on men, and reducing any concern about how civil rights has been organised to a generational agon between men. Yet the fact that Gaye was killed by his own father hovers uneasily over this tight father-son focus, and seems to inform some of the key moments that occurs here too.
For a moment, then, Lee wavers on the fringes of his own limitations, only to double down in a quite disingenuous way – by cutting into a heroic epilogue in which the Bloods distribute the treasure to the Black Lives Matter movement. Despite the fact that BLM was set up by women, and designed to broaden the range of protest voices, the Bloods’ surrogate delivers the money with exactly the same machismo they’ve espoused all along, pumping up the crowd before him (composed significantly of women) as if to redress the gender equity that BLM advocates in protest. You can’t help but feel that Lee can’t or won’t fully conceive of female activism, at least not at this point in his career, instead trying desperately to convince himself – and his audience – that BLM is a simple continuation of the civil rights discourse of the 1960s, rather than an expansion and evolution of it. Ironically, although Da 5 Bloods got a free pass critically because it was released just after the race riots, it’s sulkily resistant to the BLM mission to platform black women, black trans folk, and a broader black consensus.
In the end, then, Lee falls back upon what’s familiar – a shot of King speaking, followed by the last of his own montage sequences and expository intertitles. In another kind of film, this might feel radical, or at least open-minded, but it’s a conservative gesture here – a repudiation of BLM and recourse to the macho past that seems less interested in King’s words than in his platform as a black man – an oddly bad-faith way to end the film, since you’d have to imagine King would have more sympathy with how BLM developed his ethos, rather than the revanchist posturings on display here. In true Boomer fashion, Lee instructs us to look back to a supposedly simpler and truer time in protest, making his most conservative film by lecturing his audience about how his own generational still eclipses the protest present. And by presenting Vietnam as the logical end-point of Civil Rights, Lee finds a convenient way to eulogise civil rights as a static past object, rather than an ongoing process, despite all his desperate montage sequences of the present, which finally feel compensatory – a last-ditch bid to retain a mansplainy machismo for a BLM ethos that no longer really wants ot needs it.
Yet the blandness of the film belies how poignant this now feels as a eulogy for Boseman – the only Blood who doesn’t survive, and whose story is told entirely in flashback. Whether or not Boseman confided his situation to Lee, Da 5 Bloods feels like a pre-emptive tribute to his talent and significance – and that emotional core of the film does survive and endure all the swagger and blather around it. In the final scenes, Norm is presented as the messianic harbinger of a new generation of black protest, and while the film can’t process that, Boseman’s presence is radiant – a source of inspiration, even amidst Lee’s mess, for generations to come, in a performance that resonates quite beautifully with Black Panther.
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