Director Spike Lee
Milton L. Olive III, the war’s first black Medal of Honor recipient
James Anderson Jr. the first black Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor
DA 5 BLOODS B+
USA (156 mi) 2020 d: Spike Lee
Spike Lee has forever had his finger on the pulse of the nation, firing off warning shots to remind us that our history is fraught with peril, often using voices of the voiceless to provide direction, like Larry Fishburne’s college educated and socially conscious Dap in SCHOOL DAZE (1988) being reminded by a group of unemployed blacks led by Samuel L. Jackson that in the eyes of white society he’s “always going to be a nigger,” or Samuel L. Jackson’s DJ, Mister Señor Love Daddy urging us on the radio to “Wake up!” in Do the Right Thing (1989), or Denzel Washington in MALCOLM X (1992) reminding his black brethren that they’ve been “Bamboozled! Led astray! Run amok!” His previous film, Blackkklansman (2018), was released shortly after the deadly riots occurring at the torch-wielding white supremacist and neo-Nazi march through the center of downtown Charlottesville, Virginia in their organized Unite the Right rally, a sign of resurfaced racism and white nationalism under President Trump, while this film comes on the heels of the George Floyd murder at the hands of the police, spawning the most explosive civil rights protests since 1968. Shooting in ‘Scope but changing aspect ratios for newsreel footage or flashbacks, Lee sets the tone right at the opening with a superb historical montage, easily the best thing in the film, set to the 1971 music of Marvin Gaye from his socially conscious concept album What’s Going On, reminding viewers that the 60’s was a battle on two fronts, “the war at home and the war abroad.” Newsreel footage from 1963 to 1975 reveals a steady build-up of social protest demanding change, starting with footage of Muhammad Ali, a devout Muslim, refusing to serve in the Vietnam War, claiming the Vietcong “never lynched me, they never put their dogs on me, they never robbed me of my nationality,” convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his title and suspended from boxing until the Supreme Court overturned that decision four years later, moving to the voice of Malcolm X who states eloquently, “When you take twenty million black people and make them fight all your wars and pick all your cotton and you don’t give them any real recompense, sooner or later their allegiance towards you is going to wear thin,” with Stokely Carmichael (now Kwame Ture) acknowledging, “America has declared war on black people.” This sets the stage for a rise of Black Power within the Civil Rights movement, with foreshadowing footage of Angela Davis and Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale reminding us of the promise of freedom made to blacks serving in the Civil War and WWII, only to have that promise broken when the war supposedly ended. As for non-violent protesters, Lee reminds us that the Ohio National Guard opened fire on white students protesting the war during the Kent State shootings of 1970, killing four and wounding 9 others, while less than two weeks later, two black students participating in an on-campus protest were shot dead by police in the Jackson State killings, where no one was held accountable afterwards, with no arrests, yet these murders stirred anger across the nation, triggering an immediate and massive outrage, including 100,000 protesters descending upon the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C., leading to the student strike of 1970 when more than 4 million students on campuses around the country participated in organized walk-outs at hundreds of universities, colleges and high schools, the largest such strike in the history of the United States. These events from half a century ago mirror the outpouring of rage filling the streets today with protests challenging the entire history of racist police violence and the long-standing nationwide policies that support it, as 99 percent of killings by police officers since 2013 have resulted in no convictions, where the struggle for racial justice has again become headline news.
If only the rest of the film was as incisive as the opening, which may be studied in film studies classes by future generations, instead becoming a delirious retelling of John Huston’s THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948) mixed into the war film genre, colonial misadventures that are inextricably linked, with a group of former 1st Infantry Division Viet Nam soldiers returning the site of their wartime experiences to complete some unfinished business, retrieving the body of one who was lost, finally bringing him home, with a few other issues playing out as well, mixing the present with flashbacks of the past, including infamous atrocity footage, as these men, now in their senior years, relive their pasts, still haunted and affected by the war, with Lee revealing the severity of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) among black soldiers who were largely sent to the front lines. Each curiously named after the Motown group The Temptations (Eddie Kendricks, Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, and David Ruffin, while the name of their writer/producer was Norman Whitfield), the four survivors meet in the hotel lobby in Ho Chi Minh City, including Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), with Paul’s son David, Jonathan Majors from The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019), surprising him at the hotel, worried that he needs someone looking after him as he hasn’t been himself. Even more baffling, they visit a nightclub called “Apocalypse Now,” decorated with posters of the film (an actual place according to Lee), all of which feels extremely surreal. While their stated goal is to officially retrieve the remains of a fallen comrade, their former squad leader Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), whose profile enlarges during the flashbacks, as he was a revered figure, literally the conscience of the group, becoming the moral centerpiece of the film, educating them on ideas that matter, suggesting “War is about money. Money is about war,” with blacks exploited on both fronts, “Every time I walk out my front door, I see cops patrolling my neighborhood like it’s some kind of police state. I can feel just how much I ain’t worth,” insisting they remain in solidarity as a group, a fighting team that always has each other’s backs, suggesting in union there is strength. Lee takes issue with prior war films and their whitewashing of history, as they largely exclude the presence of black soldiers, specifically films like John Wayne in THE GREEN BERETS (1968), the only Viet Nam war film made “during” the war, Sylvester Stallone in his RAMBO franchise (five films from 1982 to 2019), and Chuck Norris in MISSING IN ACTION (1984), generating a prequel and a sequel, all hugely popular films, also publicly taking issue with Clint Eastwood’s recent foray into the genre, FLAGS FROM OUR FATHERS and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (2006). None of the Hollywood films feature the grueling combat experience from the perspective of the black men sent over to fight, openly mocking these films in a heated discussion about trying to “win the war” back home by literally changing the outcome, Lee is bringing to light just how “white” these movies were, telling a mythic feelgood story of victory, while omitting the fact that 32% of the combat troops fighting on the front lines were black, with Melvin acknowledging, “They put our poor blackasses on the front line, killing us off like flies,” mowed down with impunity, making the ultimate sacrifice, but receiving no recognition in Hollywood. Lee pays tribute to Milton L. Olive III, an 18-year-old soldier who died in combat and the first black soldier awarded a Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam, jumping on a grenade to save the lives of others in his unit (who were present during the posthumous award ceremony), and James Anderson Jr. the first black Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor, both making the identical sacrifice. Rather humorously, Lee starts their journey down the river with the surreal, over-the-top musical reference from Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” The Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now (1979) – YouTube (4:50). Rather interestingly, what starts out as a seemingly relaxing boat ride grows more intensely out of control the farther they get down the river, growing apoplectic in short order from a persistent food vendor.
Once they reach the nearest site of newly discovered plane wreckage unearthed from a recent mudslide, they hike into the jungle on their own, carrying with them a lifetime of repressed memories, growing more incendiary as the film develops. Their solidarity is continually tested and fractured from unfolding events, where Paul in particular seems to be falling apart psychologically, losing his bearings, growing more violently paranoid, where he’s unable to separate his war trauma from reality, perfectly expressed by the mere fact he’s a black man wearing a MAGA hat and supports Trump, revealing his pervasive anger and already damaged state of mind, yet he has the group’s unflagging support, but recurring flashbacks continually take him backwards in time, obsessed with losing Norman, the one he was closest to, blaming himself for his death, even after the passage of time. The war footage, however, takes us back to an era when the Vietcong were viewed as the bad guys, which resurfaces again here, as they have violent encounters with a modern era Vietnam militia who blame them for killing their parents and uncles. Let’s remember, from their perspective, this was the American War, as Americans came from afar to kill as many of them as possible with a steady stream of bombs, poisoning the jungle foliage with napalm and Agent Orange, causing a myriad of health problems for future generations, including birth defects, skin diseases, and cancer, not to mention the social stigma attached to the mixed race children left behind who were a constant reminder of that horrible war, clearly ostracized and dehumanized and left to fend for themselves. Lee attempts to blend together all points of view, even bringing in a few French holdovers from a colonial era preceding the arrival of the Americans, where he attempts to achieve an artistic transcendence, but the results are mixed, as Americans are continually perceived as the heroes in an American film, once again creating negative stereotypes of Vietnamese, who always get devalued and misconstrued. There is verbal dialogue making reference to former American atrocities, such as the My Lai Massacre where hundreds of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians, including women, children, infants, and babies, were assaulted and murdered by dozens of American soldiers, yet only one of the participants, Second Lt. William Calley, was convicted of a crime, found guilty of murdering 22 civilians, serving only three-and-a-half years, all of them under house arrest (The Ghosts of My Lai | History | Smithsonian Magazine). It’s a cliché to say war is madness, but that clearly is an example of unmitigated madness. As the film plays out, it veers into that psychologically deranged territory, with Delroy Lindo providing an especially off-the-edge, excruciatingly agonizing experience, basically reliving the Vietnam War through a tortuous, modern era lens, still plagued by ghosts of the past which are literally eating him alive, speaking directly to the camera at one point, still finding no relief. An underwritten character in American history, fighting on the front lines, but earning no respect at home. How do you reaffirm faith in a country that has pledged equality but sent firehoses and dogs on you as a reminder of just exactly where you stand? While it’s a marked improvement upon MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA (2008), Lee’s previous war film, this spends too much time with guns blazing and literally creating new massacres, which hardly feels acceptable, as audiences may grow numb to this military overkill. Much better is the intricate crafting of the characters, where the acting is superb, with each having a moment to shine, including the presence of Hanoi Hannah (Veronica Ngô Thanh Vân), a Vietnamese voice on the radio speaking to American troops in English during the war, informing them of the death of Martin Luther King, taunting them by questioning why they’re fighting for a country that discriminates against them at home and exploits them abroad, with the war ultimately pitting poor Vietnamese children against poor American kids who have no reason to dislike each other, or view one another as enemies, suggesting there’s nothing worse than dying for no reason, proclaiming the war immoral. While the psychological aspect of the film is fertile territory for exploration, and Lee is to be commended as one of the few to reassess history in this way, yet the overlong imagery of soldiers meandering through the jungle bickering among themselves just doesn’t carry the same weight or generate the same enthusiasm as that scintillating opening montage, getting bogged down after a while, where the early intensity level becomes diluted and mainstreamed, yet closes with the eloquence of Martin Luther King quoting Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes - Poems ...).