Sunday, July 19, 2020

Our July Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman -- DA 5 BLOODS: Apocalypse Here

This post is written by our
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

Spike Lee’s journey into the Vietnam miasma with black vets (Netflix) is a hot mess and a painful experience for this (white) viewer — it’s his scream of rage following millennia of white discrimination against non-whites because the white establishment could. I hated/loved/admired the 2.5 hour ungrammatical screed for making me suffer knowing what has been suffered. Watching Spike’s film is like the misery of our communal watch of George Floyd, boot-on-neck, for nine+ minutes. But Spike is also funny, witty, affectionate, honest and a lively storyteller — DA  5 BLOODS is a crazy ride, a comic-book page-turner, a lesson.

Spike, above left, with his stars in chief, Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr., ), Paul (Delroy Lindo), David (Jonathan Majors), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), goads you through their mission that starts full of joy at lively bar in Vietnam named Apocalypse Now. There, in modern Ho Chi Minh City, four (fictional) aging vets of the now old despised war have reunited to launch the recovery of the body of the fifth Blood (‘Blood’ is a term of brotherhood among black servicemen); below, they find their brother’s skull.

The departed is hero-turned-myth, ‘Stormin Norman,’ on whom the light shined, killed long ago in a firefight. He is played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman (below) a face known for his movie roles playing other myth-makers: Black Panther, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and James Brown.

The buddy group have also tasked themselves with finding a buried trunk of gold bars and figuring out how to divvy up the haul. Lee juxtaposes the Vietnam of the 60’s-70’s with race wars at home, setting apart the flashbacks using a square format and period camera equipment. It works seamlessly, as though you were busy in the present while seeing the past in your mind. He also puts today’s aging vets into flashbacks with heroic young Norman (second and third photos below) kaleidoscoping past and present.

Hanoi Hannah’s Famed North Vietnamese propagandist Hanoi Hannah (above l, who died at 87 in 2016, and Ngo Thanh Van, who plays her) comes through the portable radio on the battlefield to report Martin Luther King’s assassination and the uprisings in 122 cities that followed with near a third of the fighting men in Vietnam being black. She says: ‘Is it fair that you are fighting the white man’s war? Have a good day gentlemen…stay safe’. Da Bloods react to the news of King’s death with rage and grief....(below)

Otis quotes Norman’s influence on them to his godson, David, who has joined the quartet to repair emotional distance with his father Paul: ‘Norman taught us Black history when it wasn’t popular...schooled us about drinking that anti-commie kool-aid they was selling. Yeah, he was our Malcolm and our Martin…..’

Otis quotes Norman: ‘The man was using Bloods for cannon fodder. White boys who stayed in college, they’d dodged that shit. They put our poor black asses on the front lines, killing us off like flies…..War’s about money, money is about war. Everytime I walk out my front door I see cops patrolling my neighborhood like it’s some kind of war; I can feel just how much I ain’t worth…..’ You’d be wrong to expect ‘Da Bloods’ to actually feel like the polemic it is. Spike, a spiritual descendent of Berthold Brecht, jumbles politics, history, and theater into a film that acts like a play, here making a flamboyant ride with the jocular, noisy, squabbling, limping compatriots. Lindo’s Paul, the rogue in the MAGA cap, is the depressed, manicky central force speaking directly into the camera at the viewer, harnessing moments of desperate everyman (gaining him buzz for best actor nominations).

It is the busy plotting and sidebars (some being silly but contributing to the daily-life-ness of the messy whole) that allow Lee’s underlying political truths to seep into the brain with ease — fact relief from intense Paul and the noisy thrum. And there’s more, much more that Spike embeds in his today/yesterday Vietnam patchwork including assorted miscreants chasing after the about-to-be-found gold.

There’s double-crossing French businessman, Desroche, (Jean Reno) whom the Bloods hire to launder the golden horde. A group of French volunteers are wandering around in country to defuse landmines under the banner of ‘LAMB: love and mines/bombs’. LAMB’s founder is pale beauty Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), an heiress expiating guilt because her family's rubber plantations had exploited the Vietnamese during France’s colonial occupation of Indochina. Both Thierry and Reno are major stars of French cinema here in supporting roles, a nice touch for us and them.

Along the journey upriver to the Vietnam interior to find Da 5th and gold bars, local Vietnamese stray in and out of frame (‘you Americans killed my mother, my father’) — those who, like Da group, were also pawns of global power. Not least, Otis reunites with his former lover/sex worker and meets his/their grown daughter (below).

Spike has blended a good ol boys reunion, a noisy heist, a father-son (and other family) melodrama, drug addiction, and matters of morality and conscience into a film so packed with action (including good endings for the players who survive the junket) that it just about gets away with its long running time. Spike couldn’t have planned better than an accidental film debut alongside the largest mass movement at home since the 1960’s, driven by revulsion at the murder of George Floyd. Lee told Yahoo News …”People are fed up ...tired of the debasing, the killing of black bodies.” The throughline is the pain of black men fighting for rights overseas in a war they are losing at home. But today’s search for the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and yesterday’s (commie kool-aid) patriotism end up the same — guns blazing, brothers dead.

Some Notes: 

1. In the following story,from The Atlantic, the screenwriters discuss the evolution of the original script (Oliver Stone to have directed) into the film that matured into one featuring Black vets, directed and co-written by Spike Lee.

2. Spike Lee shares much with Berthold Brecht in temperament and political moxy. Credit to SJ Horton (who has acted in ‘Threepenny Opera’) for the apt Brecht reminder.

3. Watch this lovely rendering of Frederick Douglass’s speech of July 4 recited and commented upon by 5 of his young descendants -- and, in more current news, RIP, John Lewis, image below.

4. Experience the flavor of Da 5 Bloods in the movie trailer

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