I have watched two films in the last week that tie in with the Black Lives Matter movement, not because I thought I should (although I most certainly should) but because I was keen to catch up with both of them anyway.
The first was Queen & Slim, which having been in cinemas in January, back when cinemas were a thing, was released for home viewing on Monday. The second was this, Spike Lee’s new joint, which came out on Netflix on Friday.
Clearly the timings of these movies could not have been better and I hope they raise wide awareness of the issues and of the experiences of black people around the world and across history. For no other reason than that everyone should watch them, they certainly opened my eyes wider.
Even aside of this connection though, these two films felt like a good double bill. Queen & Slim tells the story of a young couple, played by Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya, who kill a racist police officer in self defence and have to go on the run. It brilliantly examines what this means for the two of them as black people in this particular situation, as well as almost entirely separately showing what it means to black people across America after the two of them become unwitting cultural heroes. The film is made with such skill and has power, pride and confidence coming out of every frame. In this sense it strongly mirrors Lee’s Do the Right Thing but it hasn’t come from Spike Lee, it is written and directed, amazingly as her first feature, by Melina Matsoukas.
Then we’ve got Da 5 Bloods which highlights the awful things that happened to young GIs in the Vietnam War. It captures the atrocities, the chaos and the senselessness of this in a way that is also reminiscent of movies that have come before it but it hasn’t come from Francis Ford Coppola or Oliver Stone, it is co-written and directed by Spike Lee. Both films build on two very different cinematic legacies but to similar purposes.
Interestingly though, whereas Melina Matsoukas’ movie is honouring what has come before, it feels like Lee might be parodying ‘Nam films. The flashback scenes that show his contemporary characters fighting in the war match the style of things like Apocalypse Now and Platoon but with the overblown orchestral music, the sun bleached angle shots of descending helicopters and the shouting and the firefights it is possible he is mocking these tropes just a little. This is arguable but there is no denying that his film is consciously post modern. Certainly he is highlighting what those other movies didn’t; the treatment of black Americans during and after the conflict and how this links to two hundred and thirty years of racial prejudice in the US.
This being a Spike Lee film, it also isn’t afraid to make some bold creative choices in other places either. Lee is known as a major voice in black cinema but people forget that he is also one of the America’s smartest directors when it comes to toying with filmic conventions and refusing to be restricted by the fourth wall. Here he has a moment where Delroy Lindo’s Paul is talking to himself, something the narrative has established that he does, but slowly it becomes clear that he is actually talking to us and you’re not sure when it started but you realise that he is looking right into the camera. More significantly though, the actors who play the four vets, returning to Vietnam in their sixties, also play their younger selves in the seventies set scenes with no de-ageing attempted. This is a nice touch and is actually less distracting than Pacino and DeNiro’s CGI make overs in The Irishman. It really brings home how these are exactly the same men now as they were then, no matter what has happened since, and it means that they are never marginalised in their own story.
Also on this, it is good to have older men in a major movie that isn’t all about being older men. All of the actors, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters and Lindo are all excellent, particularly the last two. Chadwick Boseman is also great as the fifth blood who didn’t get to grow old and it’s nice to see Jean Reno in a high profile film again.
Da 5 Bloods shows that after some smaller projects, some misfires (Oldboy) and some honourable but flawed artistic experiments (Chi-Raq), Spike Lee is once again at the top of his game. I don’t think it mixes the small story and the big picture together as well as BlackKklansman and some of the plot developments are too heavily signposted (Chekov’s gun is a different type of weapon in this film and it is over used). I also think that the notion that for these men the war never ended plays out too literally, for both sides.
On this very last point though I have to say, what do I know? What position am I in to judge or dismiss what other people’s lives are like or to comment on how things have developed in other countries and in other cultures.
In the end isn’t that the exactly the question that this film (and Queen & Slim) should make me ask myself?