Spike Lee's latest is a powerful and deeply political triumph, finds Chris Nineham
This film is dynamite. Sometimes Spike Lee can be cartoonish and contrarian, but here the characters are complex and utterly believable even in extreme situations. But it’s the story that is absolutely standout. The plot is wildly unpredictable but all the time follows a disturbing logic. Focussed on the digging up of the body of a fallen black GI in Vietnam it blows open a crucial, concealed episode in the African-American experience.
Overall the film is a wonderful mash up of newsreel, fake archive and home movie with contemporary footage and retro film references in which almost all the lead characters are either black or brown. We spend it trying to get to grips with the experience of four black veterans returning to Vietnam to find the body of their fallen comrade Stormin' Norman and to recover a case of gold bullion they buried the day Norman was killed.
The jungle search draws the four vets into a series of crazed adventures and confrontations. You sense the trip was always partly an attempt to come to terms with the horror of the original experience of combat in Vietnam, but the group could have had no idea of the extent to which they are going to relive versions of their nightmare past.
Flashbacks explore the painful position of black GIs fighting in Vietnam. They had to kill or be killed while all the time knowing they were being used as cannon fodder by the US war machine. The film is partly about the resulting psychic disorder as some of the characters start to unravel.
But it is also deeply political. A powerful sequence shows a Vietnamese radio broadcaster, Hanoi Hannah, appealing to them as brothers to stop fighting and go back to the US to deal with their real enemy. This kind of propaganda had a big effect and it was in the real world mass insubordination and mutiny, often led by black GIs that finally brought the war to an end.
The bloods' fallen comrade Stormin’ Norman embodies the desperate paradox of their situation. He was such a brilliant jungle soldier that he gave his comrades confidence that they might live to return home, but he was also a black revolutionary who wanted to fight for change when they all got ‘back to the world’.
Another strand playfully references old films like Apocalypse Now and The Treasure of Sierra Madre to explore how the colonial quest for power and wealth leads to madness and murder. This helps to bring us up to date too. Because this multi-layered film is also about the legacy of what both the veterans and the Vietnamese rightly call ‘the American War’. The country is still littered with the debris of battle, the population is still bitter and city streets are lined with US corporate outlets.
Not surprisingly the bloods encounter both suspicion and solidarity from the Vietnamese. And they also discover that they are not the only ones looking for gold in Vietnam as the country is still being fought over by powerful interests. There can be no easy ending to this complex story, but after a roller coaster ride Lee leaves us with the sense that the great black revolutionaries of the sixties were right – the struggle of black people is linked to the freedom of the oppressed around the world. And that neither can be free until the US war machine has finally been taken apart.
Da 5 Bloods is available on Netflix
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Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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