Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
– Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again” (1936)
Keep on keeping on — that’s what one of the brothers tells himself in a crucial part of Spike Lee’s new film Da 5 Bloods, now streaming on Netflix. Last year African-Americans commemorated the 400th anniversary of their arrival as slaves in America. At the end of Bloods Lee flashes a snippet of Martin Luther King, Jr’s 1967 Riverside Church speech where he reminds the listener that in order “to save the soul of America,”
We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people…but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear.
Lee’s five Bloods are a gang chained together by traumatic memories of their hypocritical participation in Nam.
The cast is headed by Delroy Lindo (Malcolm X), Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco), Clarke Peters (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Norm Lewis (Stand By Me), and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (BlacKkKlansman). It was shot on location in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) and in Cambodia.
The setting is Nam now, 50 years later. Trump’s in the White House. Lee has four tired, paunchy African-American vets entering their 70s — Paul, Melvin, Otis and Eddie — returning to the scene of the crime, literally, to recover gold they’ve hidden and, more importantly, they tell themselves, to find the remains of their former beloved platoon leader, Stormin Norman, killed during a firefight with the VC. There are flashbacks of Norman’s courage and skill as a fighter, but, more importantly, we’re told he was the spiritual glue that held the Bloods together, almost a minister in stature, constantly reinforcing the value of their brotherly bonding. He provides lessons in Black history, telling the men the American Revolution began with Crispus Attucks being shot first at the Boston Massacre.
Such blooding becomes especially important, when the atrocities mount up in Nam, and over the radio Hanoi Hannah addresses them personally, and announces MLK’s 1968 assassination and ensuing race riots, and forces them to question why American Blacks would fight in such a war, given the oppression of their race back home. We see grown men crying, without answers, and helpless to fight the real battle Hannah refers to. So they are properly motivated when they come across a C-47 CIA plane that’s gone down containing dozens of bricks of gold meant for pay-offs that they decide to bury and come back for after the war. But Norman gets killed and this becomes a focal point in the return of the four. They are later joined by Paul’s son, David, making it five Bloods again.
Relationships are at the heart of the movie. And the five Bloods are not the only cluster of importance. At the beginning of the film, Lee inserts snippets of Black voices calling America out on her racist policies and demanding change — Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, MLK, and Bobby Seale, all return in tiny moments from an era nobody even remembers any more. There’s Otis’s warm reunion with his former Vietnamese girlfriend, Tiên Luu, a prostitute during the war, who introduces him to their grown-up daughter, Michon. There’s Hedy (“as in Lamarr”), a beautiful French woman who hits it off with David at a bar, as well as her two mates Simon and Seppo, the three forming LAMB, a peacenik group in Nam to clear unexploded ordnance.
Equally important is the backdrop of the country — the Vietnamese are depicted getting on with normal, modern lives. Ho Chi Minh City is bustling. Rice paddy farmers quietly go about their work and call out ‘hello’ as the Bloods pass. Folks along the river going about their days, it seems, trying to get by for another day — just like before the war. There are signs of hidden hostility that will become important for Lee’s themes later, such as when a Vietnamese imp fucks with the Bloods’s PTSD by exploding some firecrackers, causing them to eat dirt.
While it’s a fine ensemble cast, with complex projections of character, the central character in the film is Delroy Lindo’s Paul. He’s haunted by Norman’s ghost. He’s angry, energized by his troubles; he’s a failed state, or, as he calls himself, weeping, “I’m a broken man,” words made more poignant by his hulk and seeming strength; he’s the Blood who needs containing. He bears a rage he can’t find a way to overcome. He’s a Trump-ite, who wears a “Make America Great Again” cap, and says crazy shit to his buddies, like, “Time we got these freeloading immigrants off our back and built that wall.” Paul becomes Lee’s catalyst for the action that unfolds; he’s a time bomb waiting to explode. He’s especially reactive to locals who approach him for money. Something’s gotta give.
Lee sprinkles the visual narrative with images of Black legends and resistance to white domination, newsreel footage of atrocities, and makes several allusions to other Oscar-winning films. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now becomes the name of a lively, airy bar — you can imagine a drink on the menu called The Horror The Horror; and, when the Bloods make their way up the river (to the tune of Ride of the Valkyries), it’s to locate the gold and Norman, not Kurtz. Oliver Stone’s Platoon is referenced, as is the weariness of Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman. A whiff of Three Kings. Even Tarrantino is alluded to a couple of times — in a scene where bad French is spoken by an American, reminiscent of Inglorious Basterds, and another where Paul cites Psalm 24:3 — a cry for redemption — replacing Samuel L. Jackson’s Ezekiel 25:17 threat of vengeance in Pulp Fiction. Hell, even John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre figures into Lee’s thinking (Badges?).
Probably the most telling quote from the film comes when three of the Bloods are out walking one night in Ho Chi Minh City with the guide they’ve hired to take them to the gold and Norman. Eddie, the ostensibly most successful of the Bloods (he has a black American Express, but he’s close to bust), takes a look around at the commercial development and says, “Will you look at this? [the neon lights of capital everywhere] They didn’t need us. They should’ve just sent Mickey D’s, Pizza Hut and The Colonel, and we would’ve defeated the VC in one week.” Sure, it worked in China (too well). The Russians ate it up. Probably the Koreans would too, if given half a chance. The North and South are only at war now because the Americans and Soviets reneged on their promise to the Koreans upon their release from the control of the Japanese at the end of WWII.
Capitalism just could not win against Ho Chi Minh, The Last Poets tell us. But, on the continent of billions, Mickey D has ended up with ‘billions and billions served’. So, maybe the Clown-Christ of capitalism and his Golden Arches have had the last laugh. But, on the other hand, it’s a curious fact that the two biggest opioid crises America has faced came during the Vietnam era and during the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, where over 90% of the world’s opium is grown. The Golden Triangle. Taliban Opium.
And then there’s the Big Pharma distribution of opium since the commencement of the War on Terror after 9/11, creating the opioid crisis in America. But Big Pharma gets most of its opium from Tasmania (bad enough the Aussies gave us Fox News and the NY Post to degrade American journalism). In Da 5 Bloods oxycontin rears its ugly head as the Bloods make their way toward the gold cache. Otis, the medic among them, horrifies his mates, when they discover he’s an addict. To show good faith, he tosses his stash — “I don’t need it,” he says (but a secondary stash comes in handy later as a painkiller). War is the real opium of the people.
Looking at Spike Lee’s directorial decision-making, I was left with some questions. The hero images and newsreels alluded to earlier seem in the end to be short cut replacements to a fuller narrative. The film is more than 2 ½ hours long, but feels undertold — unlike, say Apocalypse Now, with a similar length, that focuses on one character — Capt. Willard with his voice-over narration — and his journey up the river, without a soul paddle, deep into the ‘heart of darkness’. I wondered what it would have been like had Lee focussed on haunted Paul even more, perhaps a voice-over narration that helps the viewer better understand the torment that leads him to being a Trump supporter; something that might have provided a clue to the lives the Bloods led in America for the 50 years preceding their reunion in Nam in search of loot and boot. I wondered: Why did they wait 50 years to go looking for Norman and the gold?
The Trump cap Paul wears will become a device for showing that nothing has changed since the war’s end for America, except it’s gone downhill and is seen with contempt. Without spoiling, the cap becomes a point of contention that spills over into violence, when a Vietnamese gangster calls him on wearing the cap and Paul loses his nut. The weariness of the Bloods, the shallow jingoism of the cap’s motto (recalling how Langston Hughes begged to differ), the suggestiveness of Tiên Luu’s postwar wealth, and even the hidden resentment implied by the one-legged child beggar knowingly terrifying the ex-soldiers with firecrackers (“GI! GI! Ha Ha”) suggest unfinished business. The child, you realize, is one-legged because he probably stepped on left-over ordnance. As Vien Tran, the Bloods’ guide for the recovery effort, says, “The war is still going on for some.”
Spike Lee also brings in a dual French presence — the aforementioned peacenik group LAMB (anagram of BLAM. if you’re keeping score), and Desroche, a wheeler-and-dealer (who dressed and operated like the double-crossing Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon) who promises to convert the gold to cash for the Bloods. Again, sly ol’ Spike suggests, early on, that the French have come back contrite and wanting to make amends (LAMB), while Desroche represents the trouble-making, arguably evil, French who fucked up Nam to begin with refusing to leggo their colonial hold on the country (see Korea) after the Japanese were booted out in 1945. Desroche deals with gangsters, and when he dons that magical Trump cap, it’s about as filthy a statement you could make against American Exceptionalism. French wit, rapier sharp, right?
There are other touches and flourishes in the film that make for worthwhile viewing. He does a fine job implying underlying tension. The beggar boy who won’t take No for an answer. The trip up river when Paul has to be restrained from going at a local who refuses to take No for an answer and keeps pushing a chicken for sale at Paul; it might even have been a taunt; words break out about who killed who during the war, and suddenly the quiet river community is on alert. Again, on the river, they cross under a telephone cable over which someone has tossed basketball shoes, as if marking their territory — again, a possible taunt to the Black soldiers. Later, it’s amusing, if unbelievable, when the Bloods come across the gold, because David starts digging for hole to poop in. Norman’s discovered equally miraculously.
The soundtrack, featuring the Chambers Brothers and Marvin Gaye, is good, but nothing special. Again, Spike suggests that Time has come today and already passed, and you can only squeeze so much brotherly love out of Marvin Gaye’s ghost. Spike seems to be saying, 50 years have Come Today and not a fucking thing has changed. They are still disenfranchised, their votes thrown away, their heads still busted by cops. This helps explain the haggard, I Need Some Geritol look the Bloods have throughout the film.
Americans have had 50 years of Lesser Evil presidents since Nam ended, and the choices have become so indistinguishable that in 2016 they seem to have risked everything to take a chance on a Big Circus sideshow barker. The Dream is over, as Lennon said, and then they shot him, in case anyone had doubts. There’s not a lot of oomph in Spike Lee’s message, as if that were the message. He closes the film with a quiet MLK speaking, not with the upraised fist of Malcolm, as he has done in the past. There are placards held up at the end of the movie: Black Lives Matter. Spike Lee seems in grief.