I was a little late to the Spike Lee game. My first time seeing a joint was in February 2019, when I attended a screening of BlacKkKlansman with my dad and next-door neighbors. Spike Lee himself was there in conversation with TV anchor Lawrence O’Donnell before the movie began. Seeing him in the flesh and hearing him speak is a memory I will never forget, but when I look back on that night now, I especially remember what he said.
A brief silence followed by a long, deep breath brought Lee to words that immediately stayed inside my head: “I’m a storyteller. It’s not a burden, but it’s not easy, but there are stories I gotta tell.” Right then and there, I started to get a sense of the kind of filmmaker Lee is––above all, an essayist. While his films are plot-heavy and feature incredibly memorable characters, the progression of his themes and ideas is what makes his work so uniquely profound. Some moments later, BlacKkKlansman began, and I watched with shock, laughs, and tears. I left with both an emptiness inside and a desire to do something. That “something” I did was text five friends telling them to go see BlacKkKlansman before the Oscars the following week. But really, that something I had to do was educate myself. I scoured the internet for free copies of Do The Right Thing and Crooklyn; I made my way to Netflix to watch She’s Gotta Have It, and I went back to BlacKkKlansman. My deep dive taught me a lot, brought up a lot of emotions, and answered a few questions. I’m still learning.
On June 12th, 2020, Lee’s latest joint, Da 5 Bloods, arrived on Netflix. The film follows four veterans––Paul, Otis, Melvin, and Eddie—reuniting in Vietnam. Their primary intention is to find the remains of their squad leader (and some gold, with the help of French businessman Desroche), but they try to make the most of their time together and of Vietnam itself. They spend their first night dancing at an Apocalypse Now-themed nightclub, offering perhaps the happiest scene in the film. As it progresses, there are interspersed cuts to flashbacks of the war. One of Da 5 Bloods’ most prominent details is how the men confront the past. Paul’s private battle with PTSD haunts him, and a clash with a merchant leads to very public intervention. Upon visiting an ex-lover from his time serving, Otis discovers he has a long-lost daughter, and toward the end, we see them connecting instantly.
In many Spike Lee joints, music serves as a plot factor. In BlacKkKlansman, one beautiful moment features ‘70s gem “Too Late To Turn Back Now” while Ron and Patrice dance at a bar. Before they join the dancing, Patrice recalls having been pulled over and groped by a white police officer to Ron. The joy in the lyrics of the song—“I believe, I believe, I believe I’m falling in love”—counters that incident, and the dancing feels like an escape from their brutal reality. One of the most distinctive characters in Do The Right Thing is Radio Raheem, who preaches love and carries a boombox blaring Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power.” Viewers first hear the song when Radio Raheem “fights the power” (Sal, the pizzeria owner), culminating in Sal himself destroying Raheem’s boombox. The words seem even more meaningful during Raheem’s last moments on screen; rather than dying completely powerless, he dies having fought the power. Music in Spike Lee joints adds another layer of meaning to his films. The music is a character in Spike Lee joints; the songs develop with the story, and viewers hold onto them even after watching. When Da 5 Bloods opens, Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” floods the viewer’s ears. Later, at the nightclub, the men dance the night away to “Got To Give It Up”––also by Marvin Gaye. Toward the end of the film, an acapella version of “What’s Going On” plays after moments of climatic tragedy and violence. “What’s Going On” feels different from the other songs in the film. In 1984, Gaye’s father shot him following an argument, killing him immediately. This strange parallel illuminates the power of Gaye’s words: “Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying.” Even today, these words ring an unsettling truth.
The Spike Lee joint is unique because there is a visual beauty immediately contrasted by an ugly but almost always brutal truth. One of Da 5 Bloods’ most striking visual elements is the ratio and equipment shift when going back and forth between war flashbacks and the present day. The flashbacks, shot on 16mm film, have both a vivid chrome aesthetic and truly archival quality. They feel like an authentic part of history, and that is part of Lee’s beauty as a filmmaker––everything he creates seems historical.
Upon finishing Da 5 Bloods, I immediately acknowledged that it had arrived at a crucial moment in American history. After weeks of protesting, learning, and unlearning, it’s grown increasingly clear to me that we are in the midst of a war. While Lee didn’t intend for Da 5 Bloods to come out during a time of worldwide race-related protests preemptively, the film evokes a crucial fact of today: the Vietnam War is far behind us in time, but our Black peers are still fighting a civil war. Turbulent interactions between white people and people of color are present in many Spike Lee joints. In Do The Right Thing, a conversation-turned-argument between a white character and a Black character ends with police arriving to break up the fight. The most heart-wrenching moment of this scene is seeing a police officer refuse to release Radio Raheem from a chokehold, ultimately killing him. Da 5 Bloods has a similar moment toward its end when Desroche’s men attack Paul while calling him racial slurs. But as the film comes to a close, clips of prominent intersectional civil rights activists like Angela Davis and Martin Luther King Jr. reminded me that above all, Da 5 Bloods is a story of Black liberation.
When I go back to that night at the BlacKkKlansman screening, I realize Lee’s sense of obligation to tell stories alone is a reason to view a Spike Lee joint. Perhaps a viewing of Da 5 Bloods will open up our eyes to this war. But this battle shouldn’t be a wake-up call––if anything, Da 5 Bloods and Spike Lee’s entire filmography should serve as a reminder of it. So tonight, I propose that you sit with a Spike Lee joint. Maybe Da 5 Bloods might feel the most current, but past joints hold up just as well, and while we’re all still learning from home, Spike Lee just might be one of the greatest teachers you’ll have.
By Colette Bernheim