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Spike Lee’s latest joint sees four US Army veterans, the Bloods, return to their former battlefields in Vietnam in search of two things: the body of their fallen comrade and leader, Stormin’ Norman, and a cache of gold bars, intended during the war to pay the Lahu people for their help fighting the Viet Cong, but taken and buried by the Bloods for themselves. Set in the modern day, exploring the history of black oppression and racism in the USA, and released on Netflix among a backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests around the world, Da 5 Bloods could hardly be more relevant. But is it successful?
No, argues José. Spike Lee is in full-on propagandist, pamphleteer mode here, delivering lessons about racism and class, warfare and imperialism, black martyrs and heroes, but inartfully and clunkily. Although his direct address is striking and powerful, the Rambo-esque action adventure story to which it’s married lacks imagination and intelligence, and really functions only as a frame from which to hang the film’s essays. Its representation of the Vietnamese is at best crude and even arrogant, a scene with a man selling oranges and chickens particularly egregious, and its characters are thinly drawn, their relationships and development unsatisfying. Mike argues for one or two things he likes, particularly the way in which Stormin’ Norman is integrated into the story and the flashbacks to the war are put together, but ultimately cannot but agree with José’s disappointment.
Da 5 Bloods is an overpraised film that promises more than it delivers. But someone has finally managed to make a Vietnam film without using “Fortunate Son”, so there’s that.
With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.
Unlike with most of our podcasts — in which Mike and I usually go blind to a movie, rush home, make a cup of coffee, and then just chat about our responses to the film and try to get each other to better articulate what we think and feel about it — Mike and I had already seen Black Panther before, separately, and we’d also read quite a bit about the film before hand. It was unavoidable, as so many of our friends had already begun discussing it, passionately and vociferously. I found Jelani Cobb’s piece in The New Yorker; Christopher Lebron’s article for the Boston Review; Kenan Malik’s op-ed for The Guardian; and Adam Serwer’s analysis of the character of Killmonger in The Atlantic to be particularly thought provoking.
Thus this is, unusually, a first discussion after our second screening. My first took place in Stockholm and it was fascinating to see it with a young, Swedish, mainly but not exclusively male audience, that responded avidly to all the jokes. The audience in Birmingham was worse behaved and rowdier, with many people confrontationally turning on their phones, texting, taking pictures — like they’d never been in a cinema before. A fight broke out at the back in the middle of all of it, though it seemed to be mainly verbal. It’s a film that seems to be bringing in a lot of people who don’t usually go to the cinema, probably because most of it doesn’t have much to offer them. In spite of the irritations, it felt great to be a part of it.
So this podcasts finds us in the midst of an already feverish conversation taking place online and amongst friends. So much to discuss! How does the film build compelling conflict between the characters, what are the nuances of its commentary on racism, colonialism and masculinity, what were our shared experiences with the audiences, what did we draw out of its costume and character design – and is really really really obviously the best Marvel film?
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José Arroyo and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.