Saturday, June 13, 2020

They've Gotta Have It: DA 5 BLOODS

Landmines planted years ago are still harvesting death all these years later. So explains a woman (Mélanie Thierry), a descendant of a Frenchman who got rich as a colonizer in Vietnam, when she meets a group of Black American veterans who’ve returned to the country. She’s telling them what she’s doing out in the jungles, though they aren’t about to tell her they’re after gold they buried on one of their tours of duty over forty years prior. They’re all excavating past sins, she looking to clear her ancestor’s exploitation from her conscience, while the vets are hoping to take back some riches owed for theirs. The gold was American payment to collaborating villagers who were later napalmed casualties of the war. These soldiers found it and hid it for later—for our people, their afroed leader (Chadwick Boseman) assured them. Reparations. The woman’s statement, though, is also a signpost signaling an important theme running through Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, a film about all sorts of landmines, long buried, blasting like new for characters who’ve gone to war but never really came back. Lee, at the full command of his powers as a master filmmaker, has made a film freely mixing present and past, genre and drama, violence and serenity, revenge and recompense. It’s as ambitious a film as he’s ever made. It knows all the right pressure plates to press to build suspense and ignite surprise, sharply, and with studied complexity. A pair of Vietcong vets buy Da Bloods drinks in an opening scene—signaling a film in which history has ways of hiding and revealing the unexpected, even in plain sight.

Here’s a film with full, textured characters who expand and deepen as the film goes on, capable of surprising us with new layers. It’s enough to remind you how simple most films are, how surface level they remain as characters are too thin to change, or grow along predictable lines. No, Lee’s screenplay (co-written with his BlacKkKlansman collaborator Kevin Willmott from a draft by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo) knows too much about world history, and about film history, to stay on the surface. We begin with a reunion of the four surviving Bloods, whose bonds were forged in the heat of Saigon and the jungles beyond. It’s Ho Chi Minh City now, and the men have changed, too. There’s Otis (Clarke Peters) who walks with a limp, pops pain pills, and hopes to reconnect with a Vietnamese woman he left behind (Lê Y Lan). Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is softer, and Eddie (Norm Lewis) is richer—he offers to pay for them all, at least— than when last they saw this place. And Paul (Delroy Lindo), still wracked with PTSD which flares up around the sights and sounds of this place, smugly dons his MAGA hat, to the shock of his compatriots and his estranged son (Jonathan Majors). And yet none of them stay in the first impression we have of them—they are capable of more, rising to difficult occasions or succumbing to dreadful outcomes as the plot rises up to meet them. They all have grown weary and troubled with age, driven at this late stage to find the gold that they think will begin to restore what was taken from them by a pointless war that started their adult lives on a note of such violence and emotional toll. The film is bookended with archival footage of Black dissent—opening with Muhammed Ali explaining why he would not serve in Vietnam, and closing with Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking before a crowd about liberty. Lee gives the movie this mournful edge of righteous agitation, setting a key flashback scene during the war against a radio report of MLK’s assassination, Black soldiers left to wonder if their lives matter.

In true Spike Lee fashion, the film is no mere political sloganeering, nor does it reach for easy answers. Indeed, it proceeds first as a gripping entertainment and draws confidently its ambiguities before dropping rhetorical flourishes. The film is rich in allusion — a Heart of Darkness boat up the river to their buried Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a journey begun from an Apocalypse Now-themed bar. Old war buddies hang out, banter, reminisce, drink, and dance, and then the search drags on and the metaphorical storm clouds gather on the horizon. (The ensemble is terrifically convincing every step of the way, with Lindo’s escalating, sweaty, paranoia a clear standout as it builds to a startling paranoid monologue of Greek tragedy proportions, cut with a lens flare of astonishing grace.) Lee also confidently mixes film stock and aspect ratios — grainy square combat flashbacks and gruesome real war photography, digital scope present-tense, and taller frames swelling with terse suspense. It’s loose in its telling at first, freely cutting between tones and tensions, allowing us to know the characters and feel out their relationships to each other and to their lives. And then it tightens its grip as the action narrows in focus and the stakes get higher.

After all, this treasure hunt is a journey to confront the darkest moment of their past. It kicks up all sorts of memories, jealousies, regrets, and fears. And the film does, too. Memories of Vietnam war films, men-on-a-mission movies, elegiacally sweeping American epics and melancholic revisionist Westerns. They’re stirringly recombined in Lee’s trademark style, probing and provocative—here made contemplative and cynical, blisteringly violent at times and unmistakably, understandably aggrieved. Here’s a movie that knows all too well our American propensity for spotting potential landmines in our culture, then burying them, hoping against hope they won’t explode on us in the future. These vets, returning to extract a dream long deferred, fall into or respond against American traditions of greed, violence, exploitation, racism, and nativism. Their fallen comrade, whose remains now surely mark the spot, represents both trauma and treasure. And the soil in which their personal history took root might yet have death to harvest.

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