By Peg Aloi
Spike Lee examines a number of racist stereotypes that illuminate the times these men lived through, the bigoted conditions of their service and sacrifice, and their continued struggle for respect and parity.
Spike Lee’s new film for Netflix packs a provocative premise and turns a no-holds-barred, worst-case scenario into a nostalgic adventure. It begins with archival footage, mostly from 1968, the year that social unrest and upheaval spewed fiery righteousness, generated by the Vietnam War alongside heated debates on racism and civil rights. There’s footage of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and crowds of people protesting. This historical backdrop is important because the film relies on the viewer having a sense of, and sensitivity to, history. Lee has never shied away from utilizing bricolage in films on political matters: BlacKkKlansman was a brilliant period piece based on a true story about a black man who managed to infiltrate the KKK in the 1970s. The movie ends with powerful footage of the real-life white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, VA, where protesters, standing up to the neo-Nazi marchers, were run down by a car driven by a young white supremacist. People were seriously injured and a young woman was killed.
It is not a surprise that Lee decided to finally tackle Vietnam with grave purpose. His vision of black genocide and oppression stretches over the decades, insisting that contemporary culture has been shaped by black history more than most of us are willing to admit. It is routine to compare the deaths during the current pandemic to those that were lost in America’s wars (the number of dead in Vietnam and World War I has recently been surpassed by the coronavirus). What is often overlooked is the disturbing parallel between excessive mortality of African Americans from Covid-19 and the excessive loss of African Americans during the Vietnam War. Black draftees were offered up as sacrificial bodies, cannon fodder in an era where cannons were extinct, replaced by land mines, trip wires, and mercenary brutality. Also, courtesy of our own government, defoliants were tossed into the mix. Horrific illness on both sides was the result. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was a term popularized after Vietnam (the symptoms of which were once called “shellshock” when referring to soldiers after WWI, and “hysteria” in women who’d been victimized in various ways). Lee tackles the lingering impact of the war on the lives of four soldiers who decide to return to the jungles they once fought in, to recover the remains of their fallen fifth.
After the short archival montage, the film opens in the present. Four friends, African American men in their late 60s, are meeting in a fancy hotel, en route to their planned mission in Vietnam. They joke about one friend (Eddie, played by Norm Lewis), who pays for it all on his “Black AmEx card.” There is genuine affection shared among Eddie, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), from the way they rib each other to their elaborate secret handshake. Paul’s son David (The Last Black Man in San Francisco’s Jonathan Majors) shows up suddenly; he plans to accompany the foursome because he is worried about his father. Later that night, the men dance in the hotel bar to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” It’s a delightful sequence in a film that is full of powerful music (both score and soundtrack). It is also a harbinger for an isolated vocal track that occurs later on, embellishing one of the most powerful film sequences Lee has ever created.
I wish I could say the entire film contains many such highlights, but the screenplay, a collaboration of four writers, has its weak spots, particularly in its occasionally contrived occurrences and forced dialogue. Lee also worked with a group of writers on BlacKkKlansman, one of whom, Kevin Willmott, is a co-writer on Da 5 Bloods, with Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo. But, despite the writing’s occasional lack of polish and an odd editing tic (sometimes it seems as if scenes are paused and picked up again a few seconds later), this is a consistently compelling movie. A suspenseful aura of doom and danger swells as the men move deeper into the jungle. Dropped off by a tour guide (Johnny Tri Nguyen) and told to meet him again in a few days, the four men are shown, via flashbacks, living through their tour of duty. There is no effort to make the cast members appear younger. It’s an intriguing conceit that hints at the lifelong impact of their war experience, a saga that began aging them immediately, that perpetually throws them back and forth in time, catapulting them back five decades at the mere pop of a firecracker. The character most affected by PTSD, Paul, is a complex study, played with gut-wrenching emotion and intense physicality by Lindo. It’s an incandescent performance, and sure to be one of the most talked-about of the year.
There are some unusual, even anachronistic, moments throughout, performed by an array of terrific actors in minor roles. There are stylized dispatches from a wartime radio announcer known as “Hanoi Hannah” played by Van Veronica Ngô. Tiên Luu (Y. Lan), a former lover of Otis, helps him navigate the financial details connected with a possible trove of treasure the men are seeking. Jean Reno plays a snooty French financier, garbed in white colonialist suit and straw hat. Lee trots out and examines a number of racist stereotypes: they are used to illuminate the times these men lived through, the bigoted conditions of their service and sacrifice, and their continued struggle for respect and parity.
I was reluctant to review this film. Not because I don’t admire Lee’s work or because I shy away from war films. But, like many white film critics, I’ve been made painfully aware in recent years of how our industry fails to elevate and feature voices of color. As a woman, I’m already bumping into the glass ceiling — but there is no question there is a difference. Black narratives and perspectives should be centered and celebrated, and that includes the active involvement of black critics. This is my way of getting the word out that this fine website, The Arts Fuse, is actively seeking to hire more critics of color to write for us about film, television, music, theater, books, and the fine arts. I see no point in making art, or arts criticism, that isn’t designed to provoke as wide an audience as possible. Thoughtful commentary about the arts must serve as a balm, a megaphone, and a sword — now and going forward.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.