Spike Lee, Terence Blanchard and the Spoils of Vietnam

Streaming services have inundated the world’s quarantined population. The rising digital waters have distracted and anesthetized viewers, but also, at times, buoyed and instructed them.

It is Netflix that has issued the defining entertainments of the four months of the pandemic.

At the start of the crisis, the Tiger King captivated with big cats and their keepers. The show imbued the felines’ captivity with menacing metaphorical power. It didn’t take much reflection to realize that the viewers were drawn to this lurid spectacle partly because they were also caged. It was tempting to identify with the big-game diaspora. But what would happen if Americans—many armed to the teeth like the Tiger King himself—escaped into the urban wilds and, ignoring commands for social-distancing, coagulated into rabid packs that swarmed into city streets and up state house steps? How long could the small-screen circus keep the pent-up audience calm and in its place? The Tiger King wasn’t reality tv, it was allegory—Animal Farm fed on past-the-sell-by-date Walmart meat.

The show’s white cast of criminals and cultists was irresistibly, shamefully entertaining. The delusions of the characters made those watching trust in their own wavering sanity, at least by comparison. In a viral video O. J. Simpson happily admitted he’d binge-watched the show before roundly condemning the cat’s captors along racial lines: “White people! What’s with you and wild animals?” he asked with a laugh. “Leave those animals alone!” Simpson did not call for a more inclusive cast in future seasons. In the video Simpson’s hands appear briefly in blue latex gloves, immediately spurring thoughts of the infamous “ill-fitting” gloves of his 1995 murder trial. Simpson’s clubhouse bonhomie performed solo for his own iPhone and the world was also laden with broader, ominous meaning. If “white people” could treat cats like this, what would they do when push came to shivs? O. J. the murderer ensconced in Florda condo admonished Oklahoma trailer trash to find it in themselves to be humane. The madman spake an incendiary truth.

The human population simmered in their shelters, watching. Other videos were fed them. In early May came the release of footage of the cold-blooded shooting by two white men of Ahmaud Arbery two months earlier as he jogged along a suburban road in Georgia. The Arbery execution was itself a sequel to a seemingly endless number of prior episodes. Then came another: the murder of George Floyd. It was one more documentary, a segment of reality tv a horrific eight minutes and forty-eight seconds long: another mostly white (certainly non-black) cast snuffed out the life of a black man with the victim and onlooker begging the perpetrators to relent.

Across the country and the world, captives burst their shackles and streamed into the streets.

The cinematic monument of the unrest that followed Floyd’ death is Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, an adventure tale of a band (the characters’ names are shared with the five members of the Temptations) of black veterans returning to Vietnam to confront their past and reclaim the spoils of war —a chest of gold bars that they’d had to abandon half a century earlier. Filming in Southeast Asia concluded a year ago and the movie had been scheduled for screening in May outside of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where Spike Lee had been chosen as the first ever black chair of the jury. A general theatrical release was to follow, but the pandemic postponed the festival and public screenings, and sent the movie to Netflix for timely domestic viewing that began two weeks ago.

Da 5 Bloods is the movie of this “moment.” Lee’s film is not just a passionate indictment of racial injustices in the Vietnam War and of the treatment of its black soldiers, but also of oppression across America’s past and into its present. Its release was preceded by Lee’s short documentary, 3 Brothers, in which the filmmaker intercuts footage of three murders of black men by strangulation: George Floyd, Eric Garner and Radio Raheem, a character from Lee’s1983 film Do the Right Thing. Raheem’s fictional murder was based on that of Michael Stewart, asphyxiated by New York City Transit Police in 1983 after being caught painting graffiti in a Manhattan subway station. The six officers were acquitted on charges of criminally negligent homicide.

For all its exuberant flaws, the movie achieves its monumental, history-defining status not least through the grandly romantic soundtrack composed by Terence Blanchard, Lee’s long-time collaborator. Blanchard’s is a fascinating and varied career in music: alum of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and a leading jazz trumpeter and arranger; an impressive catalog of soundtracks over thirty years (beginning with Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues of 1990); a Grammy award for instrumental composition; and two operas, the most recent of which, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, will be mounted by the Metropolitan Opera, the first piece by a black composer to be presented by the company in its 136-year history. Blanchard’s rich orchestral score to Da 5 Bloods is often elegiac, a tribute to black soldiers, fallen or soon to fall. But it can also be heard as a eulogy for Blanchard’s boyhood composition teacher in his native New Orleans, Ellis Marsalis. The jazz patriarch was claimed by Covid on April 2nd, and deprived of taking pride in the latest creation of one of his many protégés.

Blanchard’s music does not begin the film. That honor is accorded Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” which accompanies archival footage of the Vietnam War, its atrocities, the conflict’s domestic opponents (Bobby Seale, Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis); we see LBJ withdrawing his candidacy, Nixon resigning, black inductees burning their draft cards. Later, after the film’s own narrative has begun, the veterans traipse through the jungle and act as their own chorus, singing Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Throughout, Gaye’s music emanates from the world of the film. The characters hear it, sing it. The songs provide a range of leitmotivs, finally even serving as a sign of solace and long-sought inner peace. There are many other music-cinematic leitmotivs, too, the most obvious being Wagner’s “Ride of Valkyries.” Blared from onboard a helicopter in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam movie, Apocalypse Now, the piece is heard by the audience of Da 5 Bloods (but not the characters in the movie) during a slow boat ride upriver, thus ironically drawing attention to the apparent, though ultimately illusory, distance between war and peace, past and present. (Apocalypse Now is also the name of the bar where the aged vets party at the start of the film, dancing to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.”)

Blanchard’s soundtrack provides the marginal commentary on the proceedings, as if from the historian’s perspective: this is classical music, a sermon in sound. Its grandeur evokes Periclean oratory that is a world away from Gaye’s soulful critique of white American power. Blanchard’s music is deployed most memorably in flashbacks that are visually marked by a snapping inward of the frame from the wider modern format to the classic, squarer dimensions of yore. The first of these has the unit’s helicopter dropped from the sky above the jungle canopy by enemy fire. The Bloods’ fellow white soldiers are conveniently cut down by the Viet Cong, so that the black soldiers can between them discover the Army gold they have come to retrieve. They will reclaim the loot as reparations for centuries of slavery and enduring injustice inflicted on their people.

For this harrowing battle, trumpet-master Blanchard gives the theme to the brass, for centuries the instruments of combat and its commemoration. The action is fierce and fast, the music stately, almost a dirge, the persistent drumbeat fit for a cortege. Like the men, the brass harmonies stay in closed formation, shoulder to shoulder. The martial interval of the fourth—as in the bugle call of the charge and of Taps, and, not coincidentally, the common currency of heroic adventure, from Star Trek to Raiders of the Lost Ark and beyond)—conjure fortitude and destiny. The impact of bullets in bodies produce awful syncopations with the portentous drum beat. The killing is mythologized as tragic but unavoidable.

Blanchard’s music is also called on to glaze the film’s romantic encounters. One of the veterans visits his former Vietnamese lover and has his first fleeting meeting with the daughter he fathered with her. At another lively upriver bar, one of the vet’s sons who has tagged along on the adventure to look after his PTSD-plagued dad, sweet-talks a French heiress working to expiate her ancestors’ colonial crimes by removing landmines. Blanchard’s underscoring for these off-the-shelf scenes is continuous: if the characters in the film had to hear this background music themselves, they’d undoubtedly ask the bartender or maître d’ to shut it off immediately. The soundtrack is charged with freighting these generic moments with emotion, but the effect is instead one of maudlin irritation and excess.

In a second wartime flashback, the soldiers, now deprived of their helicopter, make their way through the jungle and ambush a Viet Cong unit. Before the surprise attack, one of the Vietnamese proudly recounts to his comrades the contents of a lovely letter with a poem he has received from his wife. This detail humanizes the “enemy.” The black Americans open fire and kill them all. This time there is no music. Here, it seems, Lee refuses to sanctify the slaughter with the symphonic strains of heroism. But the disjunction comes across as arbitrary, perhaps simply an easy way to heighten the tension of the ambush.

The essential mission for which Lee enlists Blanchard’s music is to sanctify the sacrifice of the men: they kill people who are defending their homeland even as the Bloods’ own country goes up in flames of racial violence. When the Bloods learn from Viet Cong radio’s Hanoi Hannah that Martin Luther King has been assassinated, Blanchard’s music rises up like spirit and smoke. The angered, mourning men point their assault rifles towards heaven and let fly with a frenzied salute. Blanchard’s music does not rage, but ascends in poised prayer, the bullets screaming through it.

There are no orchestras in the jungle. Yet filmmakers seem to need them, from Samuel Barber’s sappy Adagio in Platoon to the adrenaline-rush of Wagner’s horse-riding heroines in Apocalypse Now. In taking up the same baton, Blanchard bathes war in ennobling tragedy. For all its anti-Vietnam War postures, the movie can’t help but celebrate its own violence.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com