Biweekly Binge: Da 5 Bloods - Spike Lee and the labour theory of value
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Da 5 Bloods, streaming on Netflix
The new Spike Lee joint, Da 5 Bloods, arrived on Netflix with the familiar irreverent panache one would associate with Lee's films. Not one to hold his punches, Da 5 Bloods is about four African American Vietnam War veterans returning to the country after several decades, looking for the remains of their missing comrade. The fifth Blood. Da 5 Bloods is an ultra-ambitious confluence of genres, films, and narrative devices that sounds unwieldy on paper, but Lee injects the material with a jazzy, kinetic prestige to pull it off.
Every pixel in Lee's frame is carefully constructed, as are the lines. Take this innocuous instance of David (Jonathan Majors) walking up to a white blonde and saying, "Didn't think I'd meet another American here?" She's French. Strike one. She says her name is Hedy and adds, "Like Hedy Lamarr? Old-time Hollywood star?" David is still lost but gets past the initial awkwardness. The example of Lamarr is not a coin toss. Lamarr's son James Holder was an Omaha policeman who shot and killed Vivian Strong, a 14-year old African American girl, sparking race riots for three days in the neighbourhood. The scene, in isolation, means nothing more than an introduction between these characters. But in totality, it bears the weight of systemic racism that has so pervaded every inch of American society that you can always find a connection somewhere. And we don't need to go as far back as antebellum with the family trees.
Two of the major films Spike Lee borrows from are Apocalypse Now and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. A direct reference is couched in the name of the bar the four — Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clark Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) — visit the night they arrive in Vietnam, not to mention the shot of a helicopter against the sun. During the boat ride along the narrow rivers, Lee is predictably cheeky to play Ride of the Valkyrie, not only used in Coppola's film but also in The Birth of the Nation.
Da 5 Bloods works as a repartee to white-heavy war films made by Hollywood, even as a large number of the black population served everywhere from World War II to Vietnam and other instances of continuing American interventionism. There are both plot level and direct references ("stinkin' badges!") to John Huston’s classic. Closest to the old Academy 1.37:1 aspect ratio used by Huston's film, Lee deploys the 16mm 1.33:1 ratio for the flashback sequences featuring the war, to resemble existing news and war footage, the film opening with a plethora of them, showing the war and the brutality on the black population of the mid to late 60s side by side, set to Marvin Gaye's music. Stormin' Norm (Chadwick Boseman), their member KIA, is somewhat of a messiah/MLK figure for the four even as MLK is fighting for civil rights back in the country during the war's timeline. Once again like Huston's film, Norman's remains are not the only one the Bloods are after. They are here for gold, USA's gold that was used as an incentive for the local population to help fight against the Viet Cong.
This is the moment where the parallels between Huston's film and Lee's film run deeper than ever. Otis' past Vietnamese lover Tien hands him before their trip begins and says, "Gold does strange things to people. Even old friends." Fred C Dobbs smiles from above. The audacity of Da 5 Bloods is that it is not only an indictment of the white population, it is also a film calling for self-reflection at the black community (the Bloods have a MAGA hat-wearing Paul among them). In Sierra Madre, Howard talks about the worth of gold and why it costs the amount it costs when it is actually good for nothing but jewellery and teeth. He says a thousand men go in search of gold and one out of a thousand is lucky enough to find it. The labour of finding is not just the finder's but also that of the nine hundred and ninety-nine that came before him. "That's six thousand months, five hundred years, scrambling over a mountain, going hungry and thirsty. An ounce of gold, mister, is worth what it is because of the human labour that went into the finding and the getting of it." Howard makes these arguments sitting in a flophouse called El Oso Negro (The Black Bear). By invoking Huston's film, Lee's central argument is clear, even in sheer numbers. In a powerful scene, when the Bloods find the gold in 1968-69, Norman makes a plan to repossess that gold as reparations for everything that has happened since 1619, counting Crispus Attuckus, a man of African descent killed in the Boston massacre and regarded as the first casualty of the American revolution. "The USA owes us. We built this b****."
Howard's treatise is of course inspired from John Locke, who had considerable influence on the Declaration of Independence, and Marx's labour theory of value expands on it. Da 5 Bloods on its surface might not come across as recondite because it is also a vintage Spike Lee fashioning a swashbuckling adventure film. The aspect ratio once again switches to a wide 16:9 as we, along with the Bloods, go into the forest in search of Norm and the gold. It gives more room for Lee to showcase the effects it has on the four veterans and also to take in the minefield they are stepping onto, both the surroundings and the self, for whom the war is still on. Earlier in the cafe, two former Viet Cong members, family of Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyễn) their guide, buy them drinks and they all raise their glasses together. Otis asks Vinh if he isn't from the north and he replies how the American war divided Vietnamese families against each other. It's a moment of reckoning in the film, the self-reflection that Lee is going for with the help of Paul's character and his PTSD in full display; Lindo, without any supervision, speeding up the ticking time bomb with every scene he is in.
Using America's interventionism as a device, Lee crystallises a stylised score calling for further solidification of the black community in America. To love each other unconditionally so that they could light up the immense darkness created by centuries of systemic oppression. And he festoons it with the swaggering waltz of his own Hanoi Hannah (Ngô Thanh Vân), who dedicates Marvin Gaye's What's Going On to the black troops, with a light perched delicately between her fingers.