Film Reviews

Reaping Reparations in DA 5 BLOODS

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The existence of Spike Lee is radical, but what of the filmmaker himself? In light of a global wave of anti-police protests, the director has spoken out in mild retaliation against the newly popular chant, nay, mission of “defunding the police,” warning that possible misinterpretation of the phrase (note: not sure what can be misinterpreted by “verb + article + noun”) could be used to twist the narrative in the American right’s favor.

In his eyes, we need the police; perhaps not in its current form, but a policing body to maintain the law. Look, every director of his class often puts their foot in their mouths on the press runs, they wouldn’t be the elder statesmen of cinema if they didn’t know when to shut the fuck up, but what’s most confusing about Spike’s semi-conservative position is that his latest feature, DA 5 BLOODS, a Netflix-produced follow-up to the director’s first mainstream hit in over a decade, provides a radical, alternative form of self-sustainable community. The goal, to “give this [stolen, 60+ years old US Army] gold to our people” offers a reallocation of resources to the community from the community, a reworking of the commonwealth ideal. America has no intention of distributing reparations so it’s down to Black communities to do so themselves, by any means necessary.

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Lee has made a career out of society’s messes—what irks him is likely less the possible abolition of police, but the murky transfer of power between abolition and a new establishment. Spike loves America in major part due to his model vision of an American not being any Dick or Jane. He harbors such admiration for the everyday freedom fighters of the nation’s fabric that it can circle back into a respect for traditionalism given how long this fight has been raging on for. Even so, it’s strikingly off-putting how straightforward the man-on-a-mission Vietnam flashback shootouts can be, where the Sarandos money is getting flexed by the second—Spike adores the fundamentals. He wants a Black WHERE EAGLES DARE while also denouncing cinema’s deification of overseas heroics, a la THE STEEL HELMET. His reverence for the canon and classical film form not so coincidentally lines up with his buzzy tenure as an NYU professor; hailing from a family of teachers, the filmmaker has always sought to educate, often to our collective advantage in a KKKountry known for manipulating its historical curriculums, but Spike’s historic didacticism achieves dividends less when communicated through boilerplate dialogue.

We witness what feels like three projectors running completely different films at once. A quintessential Afro-American death machine critique at its angriest and most imperative and other times an obviously race-swapped Blacklist script meant for the likes of Harrison Ford and Ed Harris. DA 5 BLOODS is meant to be viewed beyond its base plot, a sermon on the bloody extents the oppressed must endure to accomplish community uplift, but it’s also the director’s most rapturously, swashbuckling widescreen odyssey. When haggling with Vietnamese rogues still manipulated by the French over $17 million in buried gold, the ringleader proclaims “You want to divide what is already ours?” A class struggle is a race struggle, and vice versa. Later, the maestro’s signature double-dolly signifies a unity between two imperialized citizen troops once forced to slaughter one another under the agenda of the invading oppressor. A father and daughter joined by newly mixed blood; the further implications are pricklier than Lee seems willing to embrace, opting for the cleaner story arc over the structural politics of “multiplication.” These are signature Spike dialectics, since settling on a clear thesis would betray both his characters and yourself, but his cinema functions best when the thought machines synchronize to create one fierce mosaic. Spike’s messiness is trademark, but DA 5 BLOODS is obtuse in ways he’d often be above. Of course he’d take issue with how to communicate an agenda—damn near his whole oeuvre is dedicated to parsing the almighty, ever-elusive “right way” to pronounce one’s mission.

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Truthful expression carries the unendingly clunky dialogue to the finishing line in a film that’s often seeking to create a historical collage, but more often foolhardily focuses on bland interpersonal dynamics between the five titular caricatures. More of Hanoi Hannah’s anti-American propaganda providing the only presentation of fact to a forsaken people, more archival footage punctuating a new dawn of non-white American hero, more elegant montage tracking the transference of hereditary trauma, and so much less of “the rich character reveals that he actually lost all his money and lied because he just wanted to hang out with his boys” bullshit, please. Unfortunately, what I desire least makes up a decent bulk of DA 5 BLOODS. It’s confounding on multiple levels: such focus on the interpersonal doesn’t work when the real-world logic makes zero sense. The film takes place in a vacuum where ages do not align with history, Jean Reno is straight out of COMMANDO, and our main characters act both as if they have not seen each other in 50 years *and* have kept in touch throughout the years. Flat characters in a 150+ minute hang-out descent into American madness is like a poutine with too little gravy: these are just wet fries. Sure, Spike’s chosen some expert dramatists, I mean they even turn the conceptually dreadful wide-lens gold-digging sequence with Blanchard’s blaring sentimental score into a joyous celebration, but even their passion can’t get them through some of the deeply questionable dialogue. But you know what, who the fuck cares, because I got two words for you:

Delroy Lindo.

The ballad of Paul, or, to be an accidental Judas and lose your soul after killing God, is one of Spike’s most invigorating plots in quite some time, perhaps ever, encapsulating the self-destructive ruin of losing one’s fire for the cause. In DA 5 BLOODS’ thunderous third act, Lindo’s Paul heads off into the jungle on a type of SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG corollary whilst on the run, sweatily questioning his self-worth as administered by the evil country that’s made near-constant attempts to take his life

“I’m tired of not getting mine, man.”

Van Peebles posited an eternal pursuit, but Paul settles for white supremacist snake oil after decades of charley horses. That is, until he returns to the original breeding ground of his trauma, the jungles he was never meant to visit, let alone tear down with machine gun spread. In purgatory, Paul comes face-to-face with the unknown privilege of commanding your own fate in the United States of Amerikkka. Like Public Enemy traveling through Brooklyn’s heights in DO THE RIGHT THING or the most sumptuous Prince records scoring GIRL 6, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and accompanying hits float through the jungle treetops like the cool relief of wind in tropical heat, a squad of brothers marching through retired war zones singing along to anti-establishment soul anthems that continue ringing true half a century later. It’s the resurrection and degradation of soul, a Schrödinger’s Cat of dedication in the tropics. It’s a performance and arc so powerful that it elevates an aight joint to a nigh-essential piece of 2020 cinema.

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Paul remarks that we can’t turn back time, followed promptly by a Black Lives Matter chapter regaling in the two million-dollar donation in stolen gold they just received. To mend the past we must brave the cruel future with every hand on deck—this ain’t just the youngins’ fight. The current fight is not a passing of the baton, but a cyclical transaction of resources, tactics, and spirit. Find hope in your community educators, your Stormin’ Normans, but be wary of heralding them as your sole lord and savior. You are your own and your neighbor’s savior. DA 5 BLOODS is sloppy, sometimes stagnant, often awkward, but I’m more into passionate cinema than the Kino Dasein transcendence shit. I’ll give concessions out the ass if the cost of a movie having a beating heart means parts of it just don’t make any goddamn sense—life’s too short for technical precision. As the great bard sang, “Are things really getting better like the newspaper said?” Only if we work. See you in the streets.

Kevin Cookman
Deserted in a video store as an infant, Kevin was raised on Fulci, Tarantino, Kubrick, and Whoppers. Now he's a graduate of Chapman University who acts as a contributor for Merry-Go-Round on the side: what a success story.

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