Veteran filmmaker Spike Lee’s latest release examines the multilayered nature and impact of racism, money, war trauma and father figures. Four black army veterans meet up 50 years after their tour of duty on a mission to return to Vietnam. Their aim is two-fold.
First, to reclaim and repatriate their inspirational leader Stormin’ Norman. He it was who taught them how to fight, but he also schooled them in the racist reality of the nation for whom they were fighting. As the tale unfolds, the grim reality of how he died is revealed.
In teaching his comrades about American imperialism, the squad leader also argued about Black people’s right to reclaim the riches that were stolen from them.
Thanks to Norman’s wisdom, the soldier’s return to the jungle gives them a real if perilous opportunity to do that. The intervening decades have been hard on the ‘bloods’. As they embark on their journey we see them limping, sweating and struggling for breath. Instead of depicting them as vigorous young men in the flashback scenes, however, Lee simply uses the same actors complete with their deep set wrinkles and grey beards.
The contrast with Martin Scorsese’s use of de-ageing technology in The Irishman is noteworthy. The difficulty in recalling their younger selves exemplifies the mental toll the men have suffered. They are clearly traumatised by the experience of war but also the wider impact of racism upon their lives.
As they complete their poignant and incendiary journey it is this that brings the men together, but also tears them apart. They are all deeply damaged, struggling to achieve the American Dream to the point where one of them is willing to throw his lot in, showing up at a 2016 pre-election rally as a token Black chump for Trump.
As ever with Spike Lee films therefore, Da Five Bloods is both about America’s guilty past and its troubled and divided present. It begins with a series of real clips of great heroes speaking truth to power. Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Kwame Toure (Stokeley Carmichael), Angela Davis and Bobby Seale rail against the Vietnam war and its disproportionate impact upon the Black and poor.
A “Make America Great Again” cap which becomes progressively more prominent and grubby symbolises the rotten history that Trump celebrates and seeks to preserve with his defence of the statues of Confederate generals.
The film culminates in a celebration of Black Lives Matter filmed long before the current uprisings. It ends with a a stirring speech delivered by Martin Luther King exactly one year before his assassination. Driven by a soundtrack composed by Lee’s longtime collaborator Terence Blanchard, it includes stirring re-workings of Marvin Gaye’s magnum opus What’s Going On.
Pedants are always quick to take a pop at Spike, criticising his choice of music, political stance or technical shortcomings. Ignore them and check out one of his best films in decades.