CW: Mentions of sexual assault
Intro: Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you, we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We recognize that this is a super stressful time for a lot of people, and that many of you are being impacted by the pandemic in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully help lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published (roughly) every week on Wednesdays. We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch.
“City of God” (Released in 2002; watched by us on June 8, 2020)
A movie about crime in a Rio de Janeiro slum, co-directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund. We watched it on Hoopla Digital! You can get access to Hoopla using a public library card, which you can most likely register for online, depending on your location.
In my sophomore year of college, I bought myself a poster with a list of 100 movies to see for my new dorm room. The intent was for me to take a coin and scratch at the slots of the ones that I’ve seen, revealing a little picture underneath. Unfortunately, as it turns out, I had not seen a lot of movies, so the poster looked rather drab. One day, Nitish (who you might know from somewhere) saw my lack of cinema experience and shook his head in disappointment. He dedicated his life to helping me fill that poster up. One can think of this as a sort of origin story to this column!
But, that is besides the point. The list has an array of different kinds of movies. There are the typical picks, such as “Ghostbusters” and “Toy Story” (though I admit, I actually haven’t seen “Ghostbusters” yet), but there are also some more obscure selections, which from experience I’ve found to be the best ones. An example of said obscure pick was “City of God.” If it weren’t for the list, I would have never thought of seeing this movie — and if I knew it wasn’t on Netflix like I thought it was, I probably wouldn’t have suggested it at all. But Nitish found a way and the movie poster gods demanded it… lo and behold, I’m glad that I saw it. “City of God” helped scratch my mobster movie itch, with a new perspective. And in case you happen to be curious, the image underneath this slot on the poster was a mobile camera. It makes sense in context.
Based on the novel of the same name, “City of God” follows the crime scene of Rio de Janeiro, depicting the rise and fall of its various mob organizations and gangsters. Notable figures include the ruthless and darkly ambitious Li’l Zé, his loyal comrade Benny, the rival dealer Carrot, a formerly peaceful man named Knockout Ned who eventually lets the mob scene consume him and Rocket, a photographer who grew up alongside gangsters yet manages to live an honest life. This eventually builds up to a massive gang war that coats the city’s slums in crimson. It is a tough premise to describe, as there is not necessarily a singular arc (or, looking back, even a protagonist) to tie everything together neatly — it feels strangely realistic in its narrative messiness. On the other hand, this movie can feel very zany and over-the-top, as though it takes place in its own world. I’m undecided on what to make of it… but I think I have decided that it’s good.
Meirelles and Lund as co-directors have clearly taken inspiration from Scorsese’s work… and I mean, very clearly. Mirroring “Goodfellas,” we begin in media res, we follow the lives of our main characters from childhood, we get plenty of montages of casual violence over chill music and we get narration. While I don’t know enough to specifically describe Scorsese’s cinematography and editing style, I cannot help but feel that those, too, are embodied here. I do not like constantly comparing directors to each other, but with so many similarities, I cannot help but think that it is inevitable. (Granted, I haven’t seen many crime films — maybe they’re all like this.)
Yet, while the two movies are indeed alike, the differences between “City of God” and “Goodfellas” are practically screaming at me. For starters, while I mentioned earlier that “City of God” has a rather non-linear and unconventional storytelling structure, I’ve noticed that Scorsese very much likes to follow a singular protagonist and depict the crime world through their perspective. While Rocket does act as our narrator, he is also not given that much screen time, and I struggle to call him the singular main character. Meirelles and Lund, instead, seem to treat the setting — the city of god itself — as its own protagonist. As the audience, we see the movie’s events more through the perspective of the streets; more than any other one figure, it is the city that changes, and its everyday masses and media circuits that seem to react. It gets to the point where there is even a montage detailing the history of a single apartment room which just so happens to reveal some character insights on Carrot and another gangster named Blacky.
I would also argue that “Goodfellas” and “The Irishman” take a more nurture-centric philosophy to their characters. Scorsese emphasizes how much the environment has molded its characters into being who they are, taking a (comparatively) more sympathetic approach to its protagonists. “City of God,” on the other hand, seems very nurture-centric to me. Li’l Zé, this film’s ruthless yet arguably most central figure, is shown to delight in his killings, even as a child. Benny similarly feels like he was always a part of this life, and though he later in the movie tries to escape, this proves to be fruitless. Through the cinema lens, our mobsters appear far more like born monsters. To be fair, this could also be that “City of God” has Rocket; somebody who was able to break away from the gangster scene and make a living as a reporter. Scorsese’s works (from what I’ve seen so far) lacks any such optimism.
In “Goodfellas” and “The Irishman,” the mobsters are trapped in the lives they’ve made for themselves — and that’s the point of the movies. In “City of God,” the city itself appears doomed to repeat this cycle of gang violence, but the city’s people are not. I’m not sure if I would say any one approach is better than the other. I just found it interesting to consider. Though, I will still say that I generally prefer Scorsese’s movies.
But, let me break away from the comparison spiel. In its own right, “City of God” is a brilliantly put together work of cinema, stitched with steady, beautiful precision and experimental strokes of madness. I was captivated from front and back, and I am very glad my movie bucket list forwarded this experience to me. And plus, the ultimate gang war is triggered by a runaway chicken… If that doesn’t sell you, I don’t know what will.
Before I start this review proper, I want to give a shout out to the public library system. We were able to watch this movie by renting it through Hoopla Digital, which we had access to through our library cards. Mark didn’t have a library card before we watched it, but he was able to very quickly apply to get a card online and use it to log in. It’s all totally free. You can get a bunch of resources through your local library, such as research help or even assistance on some sensitive issues. If you haven’t made use of your library before, now is as good a time as any, as many libraries have great online resources that you can use even as you responsibly socially distance.
“City of God” is a great movie. It’s a gripping and insightful interrogation of the cycle of violence in a slum in Rio de Janeiro. The “Goodfellas” parallels are glaring: “City of God”’s director Meirelles has Scorsese’s penchant for playful direction of crime, the voice overs, and the ostensible glamorization of a violent lifestyle while undermining its allure. But I think Meirelles has surpassed “Goodfellas.” “City of God” is a dark, engrossing tale, and it might just be the best crime movie I’ve ever seen.
“City of God” starts off with the ending, with our protagonist and narrator Rocket (played by Alexandre Rodrigues) trying to catch a chicken in the middle of a standoff between the police and the gangs. The story of “City of God” is less of a character study than it is a history of a particular era of the slum and its civil wars; there are empires that rise and fall, kingpins that are betrayed. The storytelling in this movie is top-notch, and Meirelles flits around the narrative so as to constantly keep our attention. The plot is built like a series of vignettes in loose chronological order, with characters moving from one narrative into the next. This style makes full use of the conversational narration, and it feels a bit like he’s an old friend who I’m catching up with. And I echo Mark’s observation that Rocket is actually a relatively minor character in his own retelling of the story. We instead deal with a whole cast of other characters like the diabolical Li’l Zé and the charismatic Knockout Ned. It’s a fascinating choice, one that I think works really well.
One of the things that I admire about this movie is how much life there is around the violence: we attend parties, we watch Rocket try to hit on a girl, we admire Benny’s taste in fashion. All of the characters in the movie are brilliantly characterized too. The cast is pretty sprawling, but the viewer manages to form a connection with each member. We feel it every time someone dies — and lots of people die. This is one of the ways that I think Meirelles surpasses Scorsese, as there’s a lot of violence in “Goodfellas” that happens to people we aren’t really acquainted with, and it isn’t as effective as a result.
But where I think Meirelles’ greatest achievement in “City of God” lies is the way he pulls violence apart, trying to explain it. A major cause is poverty. We are introduced very early on to the ‘Tender Trio,’ a group of charismatic teenage robbers who serve as a triumvirate of Robin Hoods, making sure that the children have cash in their pockets and the adults have gas beneath their stoves. The most profitable jobs are in the drug trade, and children are weaned into it from early ages as lookouts. A few characters try to go straight and escape that life, but opportunities are too scarce and the promises of easy payouts are too alluring.
But the scariest cause of violence in “City of God” is other violence. Knockout Ned is a handsome, charismatic veteran who scrapes by for a living by collecting bus fares and keeping at arm’s length from the gangs. But then Li’l Zé, played by Leandro Firmino, rapes and murders his girlfriend, and then shoots his brother. The police are useless, of course. In “City of God,” the police have been good for framing children who they kill by accident or on purpose, for taking bribes, and for supplying the various gangs with guns. So what’s Ned to do, other than take up arms against the man who took everything from him? He tries to be a pacifist at first, pledging not to kill any innocents. But Meirelles shows us soon that such lofty ideals are incompatible with trying to stay alive. In the City of God, violence begets violence, and there is little you can do to escape the cycle. Peace is fleeting. Rocket explains to us that the only times killings have declined are when one gang leader successfully kills his rivals. But new rivals will emerge eventually, and the war will break out anew.
“City of God” is a masterful look into the causes and effects of violence. It’s a brilliant movie, and I recommend it highly. If you’re interested in learning more about the violence in Rio de Janeiro, I’d recommend this paper, or taking a class like Latin American Politics by Professor Alberto Díaz-Cayeros where you can learn about that and so much more.
“Knives Out” (Released in 2019; watched by us on June 10, 2020)
A murder mystery film by Rian Johnson, which we watched on Amazon Prime!
This movie, dear reader, is exactly my cup of tea. So forgive me for doing the unprecedented (for me anyway) and getting straight to the point — I recommend “Knives Out.”
I usually care not to make my opinions known straight away. It’s a power thing, I must admit. By holding off my recommendation, I get some much needed leverage in this reader and writer relationship, and you have that extra incentive to keep on tolerating my many, many ramblings. But, let it be said that I adore this movie that much… Now, if you care to stick around, I shall explain why.
“Knives Out” follows the murder of mystery writer, Harlan Thrombey, during his birthday party. While the authorities believe this is the result of suicide, the prodigous detective (and based off his accent, Floridan man) Benoit Blanc believes these circumstances are suspicious. So, he looks at the many estranged familial relationships of the Thrombey family, as well as his manor’s staff.
Rian Johnson (yes, the “Last Jedi” director) gives us a wild, zany and delightfully dorky love letter to the Agatha Christie murder mystery. This is a whodunit tale made for whodunit fans, by a whodunit fan. If that sounds like your thing, I can guarantee that it is a match made in heaven. Because that is without a doubt my thing.
And to my frustration, “Knives Out” is incredibly difficult to talk about without revealing its best twists, which as a morally decent human being I refuse to do. But this movie does so much not only to satisfy the mystery reader in me (I’ve been craving a movie like this for a long time), but it also forced me to reconsider the genre itself.
Everything here feels like a living, breathing “Clue” board. Each character feels distinct and appropriately suspicious. The set design, which is of course a huge mansion (how could it not be?) is littered in Christie-esque aesthetics with plenty of possibilities for subtle clues. The mystery itself has plenty of wild but logical twists, making for a well thought out sequence of events. I would argue this is the whodunit fully realized, but “Knives Out” truly shines because of its subversions and its self-awareness.
A normal detective story is expected to play with its reader, but when you’ve seen enough of them, you begin to notice some rhymes that make the experience a lot more predictable. Just try watching more than 5 episodes of “Scooby Doo” – you will get bored fast (well more than usual because “Scooby Doo” is a bad show, CHANGE MY MIND!). Yet, “Knives Out” cleverly evades these pitfalls by toying with genre conventions.
I dare not spoil the specifics, but the typical flow of reveals is chopped up and swapped about in a sort of murder frappe. While Rian Johnson’s love of subversion is not for everyone – again, see “The Last Jedi” — I think it works perfectly here. I mean, of course it does… What is a whodunit tale without twists and turns? (Well, the movie also kind of answers that… turns out, it can be a pretty good movie too, but I’m getting well ahead of myself.) “Knives Out” takes a typical detective tale and tells it in a very unconventional way – a new coat of paint to make the tried and true formula feel new.
Put me out of my misery, dear reader… and not in the murder way. I cannot go on with this review! Just see it for yourself. Even if you are not anywhere near a whodunit connoisseur, there is enough new — and just plain fun — in this movie to welcome anybody into its murder mystery party.
Rian Johnson has recently been a divisive director. He has the incredible distinction of having directed “Breaking Bad”’s two best episodes, in “The Fly” and “Ozymandias.” But to my eyes, he’s found a little less success in mainstream movies than a director of his talents should be able to. His brilliant “The Last Jedi” was widely panned by fairweather Star Wars fans who cling to memories of the original trilogy like maladjusted children to safety blankets who would be incapable of recognizing good art even if it cut them in half. (In fairness, Canto Bight was pretty boring.) So he’s retreated back to more familiar fare, with a quiet little murder mystery that has James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Captain America (Chris Evans) in starring roles.
And I have to say, this is the movie we’ve been waiting for Rian Johnson to make. The cast is fantastic, and Johnson manages to get excellent performances out of everyone. The direction is clever, and the costumes and sets are phenomenal. But the real star here is the writing. “Knives Out” is an intricate, instantly classic murder mystery with plenty of perfectly navigated twists and turns. It’s an immensely satisfying watch, and it’s a ton of fun both to watch the different parts of the puzzle reveal themselves and to try to piece it together yourself.
There’s a lot that makes “Knives Out” work, so I want to start with the part that’s present in every scene: the costumes and the sets. Costume designer Jenny Eagan gives the characters the obvious trappings of wealth without making it too ostentatious. Set designer David Crank puts together the Trombey estate with secret passageways, sculptures, weird widgets, and so many knives. At one point, a character remarks that it’s like walking into a Clue board, and I can’t help but think it’s a line Johnson threw in to praise the impressive work of those behind the scenes. The color palette is fantastic. The dim New England lighting (seriously, do people enjoy living there?) works great with the deep hues of brown and blue that saturate the screen. The mise-en-scene is routinely perfect.
Johnson’s direction has a bunch of great quirks. Shot composition is great, with plenty of information on the screen at once without keeping it too cluttered. Check out this scene (don’t worry it’s really early on the film and contains pretty minimal spoilers) where Johnson uses the negative space to the left of the frame to frame Daniel Craig’s head. The camera frequently moves with the motion of characters or key objects as well. The way that the camera moves up at the end of the scene, moving from one point of interest to another with a quick jerk, is a fun little trait that seems particular to Johnson’s directing. Check out the opening shot of Rey’s hand and then Rey from this Last Jedi trailer. Some of Johnson’s best moments in the film come when the camera is handheld and we can see the shot quaver a little, like in this scene where Johnson breaks a steadicam to get a wonderful little transition. Again, we see similar usage of the camera in this climactic scene from “Breaking Bad” (super heavy on spoilers, so watch at your own risk). Johnson’s style is distinctive, but it’s not distracting (I’m looking at you Quentin Tarantino).
The performances are great too. Chris Evans plays an asshole well, and it feels a bit like a toned down version of his Lucas Lee from “Scott Pilgrim.” Daniel Craig is fantastic as a southern-gentleman-sleuth, with a smooth drawl and plenty of great tics like “Sweet beans!” interpolated into his deductions. The criminally underrated Michael Shannon gives a mostly sympathetic performance, but his best moments are when he breaks into his trademark menace. But while she doesn’t receive top billing, Ana de Armas’ Marta Cabrera is the heart and soul of the film, and she plays the nurse with impressive empathy. There’s a heartbreaking moment early on that she executes very well.
Murder mystery movies live and die on the plots though, and Rian Johnson has written a very good one. A huge part of the draw of whodunits is trying to figure out for yourself who has done it, and Johnson tucks important clues into every moment. It’s a complex tale, and don’t expect to figure out the details right away, but it’s not too complex to require you to have the deduction skills of Benoit Blanc in order to play ball. Johnson makes aggressive use of the Chekhov’s gun principle, and it seems that every stray shot or line manages to find its way into the conclusion of the mystery. I loved it, and it took me back to the days where I had a Hardy boys or Agatha Christie novel propped up as I tried to outpace the detectives at solving the crime.
Watch “Knives Out”! This is probably the most fun I’ve had watching a movie for this column, and it will keep your attention the whole way through.
Also, Mark’s review of Scooby Doo is horrendous and thoroughly anti-American.
“Da 5 Bloods” (Released in 2020; watched by us on June 12, 2020)
A Vietnam war drama by Spike Lee, which we watched on Netflix!
I remembered really liking Spike Lee’s earlier masterpiece, “Do The Right Thing,” when I saw it for a class back on campus. And, in the midst of scouting out potential Oscar winners for 2021, his newest work, “Da 5 Bloods,” came up a lot. When I looked more into the film, the premise began to excite my imagination, and with current events, this movie had seemed to become increasingly necessary. “Da 5 Bloods” became my most anticipated film of 2020, and to my surprise, I suddenly found out that it is available for streaming. I knew I was in for something great.
Yet, in this present moment, I find myself mixed on this movie — more than I’ve felt with any film in a while. I fear I may have somehow formed the wrong opinion! Of course, no such thing exists (when it comes to art and storytelling, anyway), but these doubts do make writing a review pretty difficult. [Note from Nitish: wrong opinions do in fact exist, look no further than that time Mark thought that “Scooby-Doo” was bad]
“Da 5 Bloods” follows a band of four veterans: Paul, Otis, Eddie and Melvin. They, and their fallen squad leader, Norman, served in the Vietnam War and called themselves the “Bloods.” During one mission, they come across a chest of pure gold. Feeling frustrated with the treatment of African Americans in the war (and the nation as a whole) they opt to bury the treasure then come back to split the prize. Shortly afterward, Norman dies. Now, in the present day, the remaining Bloods reunite in Vietnam to find that buried treasure and bring back Norman’s remains. This story feels equal parts war drama, race drama, and escapist adventure flick, which is a combo of things that I loved on paper. But I am not so sure about the execution.
Here is a basic breakdown of where I’m at with this movie. The film’s race drama, as expected of Spike Lee, is as poignant as it is nuanced. The commentary is lingering and urgent. Lee examines many questions about reparations, the sins of war (and the role it plays with the nation’s minority populations) and general criticisms of how African Americans are treated in the U.S. And the movie ends not with a particularly sound conclusion, but with a lot of heavy, important thoughts. It’s all well done (though the bad guy randomly slapping on the ‘Make America Great Again’ hat was pretty stupid).
The war drama, for the most part, takes a back seat throughout “Da 5 Bloods,” and I don’t have as many things to say about that. In some senses, this is not a bad thing — it is actually a refreshing take to look at a war primarily through the veterans’ perspective, as opposed to the active soldiers’ perspective during the war. While I have mixed opinions on the role our characters’ PTSD plays in the overall story, I also thought its overall portrayal was relatively sound, and certainly portrays the scars of war in an unflinching way.
My problems lie in the adventure flick part of “Da 5 Bloods.” While Spike Lee usually does a great job portraying his characters as morally grey, I feel he goes a little too far here, at times making me feel as though I would rather root against our main characters. And I have a feeling that wasn’t supposed to happen. For instance, there is one scene in which the Bloods, enlisting help from some volunteers from an organization dedicated to diffusing buried land mines, save one of their sons who tagged along. But immediately afterward, they kidnap the volunteers, fearing they will call the authorities on them and take away their gold. Furthermore, one of the Bloods threatens constantly to outright kill them, antagonizes said son for feeling this might not be a really morally sound thing to do, and even indirectly leads to one of the volunteers dying. At a certain point, backstory does not matter – when your protagonists have transgressed to such a level, I will lose my ability to empathize.
“Da 5 Blood” shifts from, in my opinion, primarily a race and war drama at the first half of the movie, to primarily an adventure flick in the second. This means the film suddenly goes from a poignant and seemingly grounded story to a dumb action flick, like two entirely different flicks pasted haphazardly together. You can probably tell that I liked the first half of the movie way better than the second. That’s not to say that the second half is entirely irredeemable, or that the first half is flawless… there are brilliant revelations, especially with Paul, my most confusing character. It’s just how these pieces work together as a whole… I’m not sure that they do.
Of course, I will not ignore the brilliant aspects of the movie. Spike Lee’s filmmaking, as usual, is on point. While this is not exactly his most stylistic flick, it is littered with unique and seamless editing decisions (smoothly changing even the filters and aspect ratios) and brilliant use of soundtrack – perfectly on brand with a phenomenal director. While I am not so sure about the writing, the filmmaking can do no wrong.
Now, I have felt similarly mixed on other movies in the past. “Shape of Water,” any Tarantino film and (mood shift incoming) “Kung Fu Panda 3” had all given me very complicated feelings when I first saw them. My opinions seemed to stray from everybody else, and I felt like I had watched something good. But, something about those experiences felt off. With time, these opinions have gone different places. In some instances, I feel embarrassed about my previous criticisms, feeling as though they don’t hold water anymore. Other times, I double down on my gripes and conclude I was simply being apologetic for opinions I genuinely hold. In some cases, I remain mixed, and just sort of stew in that sort of acceptance. It is too soon to tell where “Da 5 Bloods” will fall for me. These are simply my first impressions.
I am genuinely curious to get your thoughts on the movie, dear reader – this is not just another, generic platitude! Help me sort out this jungle of opinion! I would like to know if anybody else feels similarly to me, and if not, why? Until then, I shall commence my inevitable obsession in trying to understand “Da 5 Bloods” and where it falls on my personal artistic tastes. I dare say I will not come out of the journey the same.
For next week, we will DEFINITELY review some “Scooby Doo.” I got some hot takes that need to be served.
“Da 5 Bloods” is a challenging, unique story about race, war, faith, greed, redemption, and forgiveness. I like to try and pick out major thematic pieces when I review movies, but this film is too sprawling for me to do justice to it in a few pages. This is maybe the first movie that I’ve reviewed where I just feel inadequate, too small to describe what I’ve just seen. I can offer two preliminary conclusions though: first, this movie is a bit too much. The script is messy, sometimes too predictable, and it just bites off more than it can chew. “Da 5 Bloods” is a little less than the sum of its admirable parts. But second, and far more importantly, this movie is an incredible achievement, and although we’re only a few days out from its release, I feel confident that Spike Lee’s new work will earn its place as a quintessential movie in the American canon.
Nominally, “Da 5 Bloods” is a heist movie. The frame tale involves four Black Vietnam War veterans returning in order to exhume their former leader’s remains as well as some $17 billion in gold. But Lee’s choice of the Vietnam War as the setting is what makes this story so rich. Black Americans in Vietnam, as one propagandist reveals to our viewers over the radio, were disproportionately punished and killed with respect to their share of the population and held fewer positions in military leadership. And the Vietnam War itself is a very complicated part of the American historical memory. For starters, we lost. But Vietnam also came at a time of racial upheaval in the U.S., and it was the background for some of the most profound social transformations our country has seen.
Spike Lee starts the movie with a montage showing the complexities of the world in the era, replete with tear gas and napalm. The war, referred to as the “American War” in Vietnam, was more profound in its changes and far more deadly there. Millions of Vietnamese died, and it still leaves an indelible mark on the country.
There’s a lot for a filmmaker to discuss here. Ken Burns’ documentary on Vietnam is eighteen hours long (on Netflix!), and there’s still significant criticism that it omitted a lot. On this note, I think that the primary criticism of this movie is that it attempts to do way too much, and this movie has several subplots that could each be the basis of a Ken Burns-level documentary. One subplot features a child that one of our ‘Bloods’ has with a Vietnamese woman during the war—barely any time is devoted to it. This is definitely an issue that deserves attention, and it feels undercooked in this movie. Similarly, there’s a subplot of removal of landmines. Dealing with landmines from forgotten wars is a tragically live issue for those who live in former combat zones — the body count for these wars has not finished tallying. But again, aside from the occasional use of landmines as a plot device, it feels underdeveloped. I don’t want to say that Lee doesn’t treat these issues with the respect that they deserve, because, as far as I can tell, he does. But I don’t think he’s able to devote the time that he would have liked to in a movie that’s already jam-packed.
And while I admire Lee’s herculean feat of wrangling all of these inexhaustible threads together, “Da 5 Bloods” can feel unevenly paced. Parts can feel weirdly slow, and occasionally clumsy dialogue or predictable twists don’t help in this. So, while I love “Da 5 Bloods,” it has its flaws.
But now I get to talk about the good stuff. This movie is incredibly good, and it has a lot of interesting things to say. The main character of interest is Paul, played by Delroy Lindo. Paul is a fantastic character, dealing with returning to a country that took from him Stormin’ Norman (played by Chadwick Boseman in flashbacks), a man he revered as a god. He cries out in his sleep, and reacts with violence to threats. Paul’s PTSD is agonizing to watch. His fellow Bloods attempt to break through to him, to help him deal with the ghosts of his past, but they have mixed success. Lee films flashbacks with the main actors reprising their roles, without any de-aging. It’s a clever tool to show us the way that Paul is still walking through the motions of a decades-old gunfight. I have to commend Delroy Lindo for an extraordinary performance. Lindo delivers two extended monologues directly to the camera at the climax of the movie, and it’s utterly engrossing. There’s already a legion of fans clamoring for Lindo to win an Oscar, and you can count me among them.
Lee uses the character of Paul to interrogate what I perceive to be the central puzzle of the movie: how the present deals with the wounds of the past. One of the Bloods informs their Vietnamese guide that Washington, the father of the U.S., owned 123 slaves. Two former Viet Cong soldiers buy the Bloods a drink in a crowded Vietnamese bar, and Paul hesitates to raise his glass, murmuring that they could have been the ones who killed Norman. These wounds are not limited to memories or history. We see a young Vietnamese boy come to the table where the Bloods are drinking to beg for change, and we can see that his leg is taken by a landmine. After they step outside, the same boy tosses a few firecrackers to the ground and the Bloods hit the ground, taking cover with and from long engrained reflexes. When the violence starts again in the present day (over the piles of gold), Paul reacts by retreating inside himself, giving in to his most selfish instincts. “Da 5 Bloods” takes dark turns.
But I think Lee’s film is fundamentally optimistic, about the human character, about America, and about the world. The wounds of the past are repaired, slowly but surely. One character we meet, Hedy, is a French heiress whose ill-begotten riches derived from the French colonial rule of Vietnam. She has used this money to set up a non-profit to find and remove landmines, crawling through the lush jungles with two teammates and a metal detector. Otis, the Blood who had fathered a child with a Vietnamese woman, manages to reconnect with his daughter. I want to tread lightly with spoilers, but the greatest redemption story in the film is undoubtedly Paul’s. “Da 5 Bloods” deals with a myriad of historical wrongs, but Lee’s most important contribution is his vision of progress. By dealing with the past honestly and openly, we can become something better than we are. “Da 5 Bloods” ends with Martin Luther King Jr. quoting a line from Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America be America Again”: “America never was America to me, / And yet I swear this oath— / America will be!”
As I hope I’ve managed to convey to you, “Da 5 Bloods” is a masterpiece (boy I’ve been using that word a lot recently). I have problems with some of the filmmaking, but Lee’s voice in this film is impressive and commanding. You would do yourself a disservice if you don’t watch it. In the midst of a nationwide reckoning with the history of racism in the United States, this movie seems essential. If you’d like to learn more, I’ve heard that “Bloods” is an engrossing read about Black Americans who served in the Vietnam war. Ken Burns’ documentary on the Vietnam war is also on Netflix.
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.