Monday, June 22, 2020

Spike Lee | Da 5 Bloods

improbable heroes
by Douglas Messerli

Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee (screenplay) Spike Lee (director) Da 5 Bloods /2020

I want to start this essay by answering a question some critics have recently posed. Isn’t Spike Lee’s film somewhat racist against both the Vietnamese and the American blacks?      Hell, yes it is! It was a racist era, and all the nice words in heaven can’t erase that fact. Indeed, the entire Vietnam episode was not only a dirty war, but a truly filthy one, with Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger ordering entire villages of men, women, and children to be bombed out of existence not only in North Vietnam, but later Cambodia. If superficially the US government described this as a battle between Communism and Democracy, it was, in fact, a war on Southeast Asia, an attempt to show the Chinese who were in control, particularly given Kissinger’s real politick perspectives.
      Even a whore, such as Tiên (Lê Y)—with whom Otis (Clarke Peters) had a child—and whom he revisits upon his later return to Vietnam, recalls how a white American soldier had told her the name of her black lover, moi or “nigger.”  The femme fatale Hanoi Hannah in trying to undermine morale in the US forces focused on the black soldiers, nightly reports their whereabouts, and plays them Marvin Gaye songs.
    The Americans, in turn, had little sympathy with the Vietnamese, or any Asians, gathering them under umbrella terms of hate with words such as “gooks” and myriad of others, whether or not they were living in the South or North. On his return to Vietnam with his other 4 living brothers, Paul (Delroy Lindo), the most haunted and the one most suffering from post-traumatic-stress, cannot even bear to brush up against the river sellers north of Ho Chi Minh City.
      But in the case of the black soldiers’ things were even worse, since they had long suffered racism from their fellow white Americans for hundreds of years back home. The fact is that they were more likely to be drafted into the military than their white brothers—many like Howard and I, able to escape the draft by remaining in the universities and colleges we attended (and later, for me, after I dropped out of the University of Wisconsin to travel east with Howard, a 4F rating because I was gay, and accordingly not seen fit for military duty).
     Although African-Americans represented only about 11 percent of the US civilian population, the represented 16.3 percent of all draftees, and 23 percent of combat troops serving in Vietnam. In 1965, blacks accounted for close to 25 percent of all combat deaths in Vietnam. Although that number later dropped, they continued to perceive that they were far more expendable and open to arrest than whites [based on information from The New York Times, July 18, 2017}.
      And with the shooting death of Martin Luther King it became even more difficult for the black soldiers stationed in Vietnam to any long accept the status quo, with many forming revolutionary organizations such as Minority Servicemen’s Association, the Concerned Veterans Association, Black Brothers United, the Zulu 1200s, De Mau Mau and the Black Liberation Front of the Armed Forces, all related to the Black Power Movement, and precursors of the current variations of Black Lives Matter.
      These specific issues are not raised in Lee’s film, but his and his cowriters’ dialogue is so rich that we can see the 5 men of “Da 5 Bloods” as being itself such a nascent grouping.
       The squad leader of this this quintet of soldiers is Norman Earl "Stormin' Norman" Holloway (Chadwick Boseman), in their minds a kind of benevolent mix of Malcolm X and King, who is not only able to calm their inner demons and violence, but is ready to put it to use in their hand-to-hand battles with the North Vietnamese. All of other four clearly adored him, and the search for his remains is the superficial reason why the four of them remaining have come together in Ho Chi Minh City.
       Three of these old buddies are shocked when Paul appears, wearing a Trump MAGA hat, and they tease him somewhat fiercely about having become a Trump supporter. (Originally even the actor Lindo asked if the director could forego his character’s support of Trump. Lee thought about it but came back saying that it had to remain in the script, and Lindo searched his character deeply to discover why Paul might have slipped into this kind of insane support; it part, of course, it is that Paul, of the 4, is the most out of control, damaged, and slightly insane: he is the most violent of the group and the only one to have true hallucinations. But more on that later). Certainly, Paul’s near insanity helps to explain why his unloved schoolteacher son, David (Jonathan Majors) suddenly shows up their midst, presumably to help control the violent outbreaks of his unloving father. He is not eagerly greeted into their midst, but later they will be happy that he has temporarily restored them to “Da 5”
     Their tour guide, Vihn (Johnny Trí Nguyễn) has been told that he may not accompany them into the jungle, in which their helicopter was originally downed, because they know the territory better than any others. They even now recognize that there has been a recent landslide in the area, which may have revealed their original location in more detail.
      Actually, however, it is not only the remains of Norman that the 4, Paul, Otis, Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) are seeking, but a kind of buried treasure. During the downing of their helicopter, Norman breaks the lock on a trunk they were evidently carrying for delivery to the Lahu people for their work in helping to battle the Viet Cong.
      The sudden introduction of a mercenary motive for their gathering, at first, seemed out of place, even if all them—including, we later discover, the supposedly successful car dealer Melvin—have little money of their own. Yet, given Lee’s intelligent delineation of these much-suffering figures, it seemed hard to me to comprehend how they might now be involved in such an event.
      But then there have been dozens of US movies throughout the years about soldiers involved in just such attempted heists. One is at the center of the romantic comedy, Charade, wherein Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant attempt to outwit the former soldiers and their hidden loot.

      More importantly, the wise Norman had declared the dozens of gold bullion bars he discovered in that trunk as a kind of restitution for the bigotry they have long suffered, and demands that the money they receive for these should be passed on to valued black organizations working against racism.
       These many years later, we are not so sure that any of the remaining four have such high-minded principles behind their hopeful attempt to recover the millions of dollars in gold. They have reluctantly agreed to use a Frenchman, Desroche (Jean Reno) as the go-between (after he takes his 20% and Tiên takes her 10% for connecting them to him).
       Da Bloods stop the first night at an inn to store up on the sleep these now-60-year-olds will need for their voyage into the heart of darkness, while the younger David scouts out the place, discovering a beautiful French woman with the unbelievable name of two great beauties, Hedy Bouvier (Mélanie Thierry) who explains that she is from a wealthy family, who has given up her portion of the money to an organization she has founded, LAMB, which travels about the Vietnam countryside detonating explosive landmines still remaining hidden long after the war.
      She is the first to repeat a major refrain of Lee’s film: “You know you think the war is over, but it remains and keeps returning.” (or words to that effect). She also introduces him to her two associates Seppo Havelin (Jasper Pääkkönen), a beefy and fairly jolly fellow, and the more handsome Simon (Paul Walter Hauser).
      The next morning, as the now 5 men travel deeper into the jungle, alternating with past memories (shot by the director on 16 mm film, the kind used that time, for the flashbacks and digital for the present scenes).
       Since the destruction of the previous vegetation by napalm and landslides from the mountain, it is difficult to find any evidence of where the gold might be buried, until David, needing the relieve himself, takes a shovel to a nearby stream’s edge, and when digging up to bury his excrement hits a gold bar. Quickly bringing it back to the group, they take out their metal detector and find more bars; but when they finally uncover the original trunk, it is empty, and they realize that the bars are now buried all over the mountain.
     Gradually, they retrieve them, one by one, finally discovering the dog-tag and skeleton remains of Norman, which the military will eventually dig up and return to his family for proper burial. If there is a true hero in this work—which one of the bloods wishes would be portrayed in a film instead of figures such as Sylvester Stallone running in to pretend to save all the others—it is Norman.
      We do slowly come to see these men, and even Paul’s son, David, as improbable heroes, despite their mercenary proclivities.
       Yet they still must undergo many challenges before they can prove their worth without Norman at their side. It begins with Melvin steeping on a landmine, which kills him, followed soon after by his Paul’s son David’s foot half-balanced on another mine. At that very moment the three members of LAMB enter with a suggestion that perhaps they can help. Yet their solutions involve blowing up the mines, not extricating someone who is about to trigger one.
       Reminded of another soldier’s solution, Paul wraps a rope around David’s chest, insisting he fly like a famous running hurdler as the others, on command, pull David to safety. The mine blows up behind him, and he’s saved.
       But now afraid that the three intruders will reveal their activities, he has David tie them up, while he threatens them with a gun (which Tiên has given Morris for his protection) held to their heads.
       When Simon escapes, Paul threatens to kill the other two, while David and others of da Bloods disarm him. Yet almost before the other two can escape, a Vietnamese contingent enters the scene, threatening to kill Simon, whom they have picked up upon his run.
       A shootout entails, with David being shot seriously in the leg, Seppo being killed, and their guide’s truck, in which he has been waiting for their return, having lost most of its gas. As it now becomes apparent to them all that Desroche has betrayed them. And Hedy demands, with the death of Seppo, that the disbursement of the gold be shared with her and Simon.
       Vinh suggests that they head for a nearby abandoned temple, an idea which Paul refuses, striking out alone to a village nearly 20 miles away.
        Speaking to himself, later bitten by poisonous tree snakes, Paul hallucinates the image of Norman, who gently reminds that it was Paul who accidentally killed him when a Viet Cong soldier suddenly entered their downed helicopter and stood over the squad-leader, ready to kill him. We now know the deepest source of Paul’s self-punishment and his belief that only a strong leader can help him out of his abyss. What he can’t perceive, however, is just how truly incompetent that strongman will be.
       Discovered by Desroche’s men, he is forced to dig his own grave—a grave he has long been digging—and is shot and killed within when he finishes.
       We know, as do the remaining two bloods, what will soon happen, that the armed soldiers and Desroche will soon find their temple and attempt to kill them as well. At least they have a plan: Morris and Heddy bring out what they describe as a basket of the gold bars; but when the soldiers go to collect it they perceive is filled with simple bricks, and the shooting again starts—continuing that war which seemingly will never end. This time Eddie is killed, and when Desroche escapes from his overturned SUV, he sneaks back to kill Morris. As he stands over him with a gun, David, who can hardly walk, suddenly stands in the doorway to shoot the Frenchman dead.
       I’m sorry to detail so much of the plot, but this, after all is, an action film that depends on its moment to moment events. Like war, if you leave out the details, you have only the blur of history, not the expression of irreality it truly is. Is it any wonder that book after book recounting wars of the past, spend pages on each of the battles won and lost? War is not something anyone can believe or comprehend in the abstract.
      Fortunately, Spike Lee knows that, and presents his details with great wit, with a sense of their ugliness and glory. For illogical reasons, these four men, along with Paul’s seemingly hated son, have all, in one way or another given up their current lives for one more tour of duty in Vietnam. If Norman could convince them that they would return home alive, their own final actions prove something else.
      Only after the battles can love and homelife, little by little, be restored. David is given a letter to be read after his father’s death which proclaims that the violent man truly did love him, and he can now to return to his classroom a slightly healed man.
      Morris returns to Tiên’s, remarking that he cannot leave without saying goodbye. But when his daughter Michon (Sandy Hương Phạm), and he lovingly embrace, with now her full recognition that he is her father, we are not certain he will return to the seemingly endless racism of the US.
      But his checks do: Vinh helps the surviving Bloods share out the gold. Melvin's widow receives his share, and Eddie's share, 2 million dollars, goes to a Black Lives Matter organization. Heddy and Simon leave 3 million, in the name of Seppo, to the LAMB Foundation, obviously with the hope that for future generations the war will not leave yet more deaths.
      As Norman had desired, at least partial restitution has been accomplished.
      If only this flick were not just fiction!
      I should add, however, that throughout his film, Lee punctuates his heavy action with Marvin Gaye’s real songs of the era, from the 1971 album What’s Going On . This from “What’s Happening Brother.”

Hey baby, what'cha know good
I'm just gettin' back, but you knew I would
War is hell, when will it end,
When will people start gettin' together again
Are things really gettin' better, like the newspaper said
What else is new my friend, besides what I read
Can't find no work, can't find no job my friend
Money is tighter than it's ever been
Say man, I just don't understand
What's going on across this land

Los Angeles, June 22, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2020).

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