If there is a problem with Spike Lee’s new film, Da Five Bloods, is that it doesn’t know what it it is. Which genre is it? Action adventure? Politico-historic drama? War film? Buddy movie? Or just a plain Spike Lee caper, which means it is slightly bonkers. The movie starts with clips of Mohammed Ali, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the latter stating, ‘when you take 20 million black people and make them fight all your wars and pick all your cotton . . . sooner or later their allegiance towards you is going to wear thin’. Of all enlisted men who died in Vietnam, blacks made up 25% of the total killed in combat. This came at a time when they made up 11.0% of the young male population nationwide. During the early years of the Vietnam War, thousands of young African-American men eagerly enlisted in the armed forces because they believed the military afforded them educational and vocational opportunities in supposedly the most integrated institution in the United States. By the end of the 1960s, however, reports of the inherent racial bias in the draft, discriminatory treatment in the armed forces, and institutional racism in all branches of the services enraged and shocked African-Americans by their longstanding belief that military service was a civil rights imperative. Anger over the second-class treatment of blacks in the military was a major reason for Martin Luther King’s, and other civil rights organisations break with the Johnson administration over the Vietnam War.
In September 1969, The New York Time’s Wallace Terry, who had spent more time with black soldiers than any other journalist and had previously reported on the positive nature of black-white relations, came out with a decidedly bleaker assessment. There was, he said, ‘another war being fought in Vietnam, the one between black and white Americans.’
The drama follows four Vietnam veterans, ‘the Bloods’, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who return to the country with a dual purpose, to recover the remains of their fallen comrade and to retrieve the gold they buried. Paul’s estranged son David also turns up in Vietnam to join the four on their quest. Spike Lee makes cinematic references to Apocalypse Now, with some rousing Wagnerian Valkeries riding overhead as they set off upstream in boat from Ho Chi Minh City, and also the large sign in an Apocalyse Now nightclub. The Treasure of Sierra Madre, a film about gold, greed and paranoia, set in Mexico, is cited when Paul asks a gun-toting bandit, who claims to be a Vietnamese officer, for his credentials, he replies, ‘We don’t need no stinking official badges,’ referencing a famous line from John Huston’s 1948 adventure about gold prospectors in Mexico, uttered by a Mexican bandit, in response to a similar request from Fred C. Dobbs, played by Humphrey Bogart, who, like Paul, grows paranoid that his buddies might rip him off. This is a puzzling movie, with some droll lines and serious points being made about race. The action jumps all over the screen like a firecracker, with preposterous explosions and gunfights breaking out in both the Vietnam of the 1960s and the present day, which Lee directs like a kid in a toy shop.
An award-wing documentary entitled 13th was shown recently on television courtesy of Netflix, which could not have been better timed. It tells the shocking story of the incarceration of Afro-Americans in the US, made by Ava DuVernay, who also directed Selma, which was about Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights Movement. The film was written by DuVernay and Spencer Averick, who also edited it. Produced and filmed in secrecy, 13th was revealed only after it was announced as the opening film for the 2016 New York Film Festival, the first documentary ever to open the festival. The film explores the ‘intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States;’ and it is titled after the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1865, which abolished slavery throughout the United States and ended involuntary servitude except as a punishment for conviction of a crime. The film opens with an audio clip of President Barack Obama stating that the US had 5% percent of the world’s population, had but 25%of the world’s prisoners. This film also features several activists, academics, political figures from both major US political parties, and public figures, such as Angela Davis, Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich and Cory Booker.
It explores the economic history of slavery and post-Civil War racist legislation and practices that replaced it. DuVernay contends as ‘systems of racial control’ and forced labor from the years after the abolition of slavery to the present. Southern states criminalized minor offenses, arresting freedmen and forcing them to work when they could not pay fines; institutionalizing this approach as convict leasing which created an incentive to criminalize more behaviour. She contends they disenfranchised most blacks across the South at the turn of the 20th century, excluding them from the political system, including juries, at the same time that lynching of blacks by white mobs was all too common. Corruption, lack of accountability, and racial violence resulted in ‘one of the harshest and most exploitative labour systems known in American history’. Slavery, effectively, never went away.
Essentially, the criminal justice system colluded with private plantation owners, logging companies and other business owners to entrap, convict, and lease blacks as prison labourers. The constitutional basis for convict leasing is that the 1865 Thirteenth Amendment, while abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude generally, permits it as a punishment for crime. The film throws up a truly shocking indictment of just how backward America is, particularly in the South, in terms of bigotry, racial hatred and disenfranchisement. In 1970, there were about 200,000 prisoners in American jails, but when the film was made in 2016, the prison population was more than 2 million, the majority being black. Bryan Stevenson quotes the Bureau of Justice, which reported that ‘one in three young black males is expected to go to prison during his lifetime, which is an unbelievably shocking statistic.’ She ends the film with graphic videos of fatal shootings of blacks by police, which Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, Manohla Dargis, describes as, having the effect of ‘a piercing, keening cry’. Amongst the dozens of awards it attracted, 13th won a BAFTA for Best Documentary, which it well and truly deserved.