The word “subtlety” has never been a part of Spike Lee’s lexicon. The famed director has spent the majority of his film career beating his audience over the head with overt symbols that aren’t meant to placate their fears and sensibilities. From the burning of the American flag into the shape of an “X” laced over the background of a fiery Malcolm X speech to Radio Raheem blaring Public Enemy from a boombox in the Brooklyn streets. Spike Lee has made no qualms about dragging his audience to the water and forcing them to drink.
Da 5 Bloods, is not a deviation from Lee’s usual formula, but rather an entrenchment of the heavy-handed artistry that has stuck in the minds of white and black audiences for three decades now. It isn’t just a movie about Vietnam: it is a film concerned with telling the forgotten stories of one of the United States’ most unnecessary wars. The film centers on the adventure of four black Vietnam War veterans, played by Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Melvin), Norm Lewis (Eddie), Clarke (Otis) Peters, and Delroy Lindo (Paul), who return back to the country to retrieve the body of their leader Norman, played by Chadwick Boseman.
Lee uses history as a storytelling device with uncomfortable precision. He opens the movie with a supercut of speeches from black radicals like Angela Davis and Malcolm X lambasting the war, clips of black soldiers from the Vietnam War, protests in the US, and shots of the chaos in Vietnam. The montage is poignant and effortlessly translates to the same anger and exhaustion of the current slew of protests against police brutality. Coinciding with the brutal imagery of Vietnam and its black veterans, Lee elects to use Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” behind the montage.
This decision was the first of many elite music choices throughout the film to go with composer Terence Blanchard’s musical stylings. The movie employs six songs from Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece What’s Going On, as well as a number of other 60s and 70s vinyl treasures. Each moment that employs a track from the record acts as a double-edged sword: operating as a time capsule for the remaining 5 Bloods and as blistering commentary for the feelings of black people at this very moment. Take the aforementioned opening montage for example. The song is not just a beautiful song that pulls on the heartstrings and works sonically with the images at hand. Gaye bemoans sending black boys to die for a war they did not ask for, juxtaposing it with the economic disenfranchisement that urban areas faced on the daily. Running hand in hand with speeches from Bobby Seale and Muhammad Ali, Gaye’s voice rings though as he sings “Crime is increasing / Trigger happy policing / Panic is spreading / God knows where we’re heading.” Images of black pride and anger coexist with lyrics of black pain to create a whirlwind of memories for those who lived through it, and to give modern day radicals a sense of deja vu whilst watching.
It’s important to note that not usage of Marvin Gaye’s music in the film acts as a sobering reflection of the injustice and unrest we are experiencing right now. At one of the few optimistic moments in the movie, the reunion of the veterans takes them to a Vietnamese night club. It’s a prototypical party scene, with the four of them strolling through the club as Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” rings in the background. In that little shot, the four encapsulate the pure joy of watching your Uncle groove and jive to some inane 70s soul song and proudly exclaiming “What you know about this?!” Something about seeing each one of those distinguished actors dance their heart out as Gaye calls out the iconic line “I used to go out to parties” touched my soul. Melvin with the drink in hand, Paul grooving his goddamn heart out, and Otis and Eddie doing whatever the hell they were doing. That scene was it. There was no absolutely no acting. That short scene made everything feel alright, allowing me to picture a time where one can grow old and be black with their best friends.
Brief moments of brightness continue to arise before the plot wanders off into dangerous adventures violence and betrayal. At the onset of the trek towards Norman’s remains, Gaye’s “What’s Happening Brother” jaunts into the film as optimistic attitudes seep into the minds of our protagonists. They break out into song as Paul implores the rest of the vets to join as he belts the first verse, singing “Hey baby, what you know good / I’m just getting back, but you knew I would / War is hell, when will it end / When will people start getting together again?” It’s a spontaneous moment of comradery in which we see the characters revel in each others’ company, bonding over the shared memories of both happiness and pain. The group trails off into a chorus of refrains, slowly chanting “What’s happening, brother.” At this moment, we see a slight look wistful reservation and confusion pass onto their faces as they trudge on. It’s fleeting but significant. Gaye’s uncertainty in 1971 directly translates to the current crux of black people who lived in both eras. That wondering if things will ever get better has never dissipated.
In a film that is ridiculously high in emotionally charged climaxes, Lee unanimously decides to attach Marvin Gaye to each high powered moment. That’s no coincidence either. Lee obviously realized the emotional power of Gaye’s music and the pressing commentary that his lyrics held should be applied to the most artistically powerful parts of the film. When the Bloods find Norman’s dog tags and remains, Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” trickles on in the background as they tearfully deliver a sermon to their fallen leader. The hymn’s delicate jazz production meshes perfectly as Paul promises to bring Norman back home. As the group splits up after a firefight, with Paul going one way while the rest of the group goes the other, “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” rings off as the scene unfolds. Paul’s paranoia ratchets up with every second as the drums kick in and Gaye sings “So stupid minded / But I go crazy when I can’t find it.” The group’s fracture is paired with Gaye’s autobiographical foray into drug use, translating easily to the chaos in Paul’s psyche as he splits off into the jungle alone.
The most powerful usage of Gaye’s album comes with “What’s Going On.” Lee, who had been using cuts to past to push the story forward, brings in a clip of the Viet radio personality Hanoi Hannah dedicating the track to the battalion of black soldiers in the country. What follows is a stripped-down, raw acapella version of the song as the camera tracks Paul making his way through the jungle while the others set up camp at a ruined temple. It made my heart sink, as Gaye’s voice pierced my ears with reckless abandon as I watched Paul stray farther and farther away from his band of brothers. Gaye’s beckoning for peace and understanding in society echoed in my brain far after the scene ended. His words “Don’t punish me with brutality / Come on, talk to me, so you can see / What’s going on” rattled me to the soul as my mind wandered to the anger that surrounds the black existence right now. Each call for the end of police brutality and racist policing stems from exhaustion from systemic oppression. Half of the battle is getting ignorant people to understand the realities of those affected by racism.
Each musical decision was flawlessly executed to fit Lee’s vision and agenda. Lee masterfully brought Gaye’s philosophy of black pride and love for peace to the modern avenue of cinema. It didn’t just sound nice, it was necessary. For far too often, white audiences and society had ignored the black experience and refused to listen to their actual words and stories. Gaye’s commentary was salient then, and even more precise now. As the film closes out, Lee employs the acapella version once again with a beautiful dolly shot with the last surviving Blood and his daughter and young versions of the regiment. Gaye sings “Everybody thinks we’re wrong / But who are they to judge us / Simply our hair is long,” echoing the frustrations of millions of black Americans and citizens across the world. Much like in 1971, it’s well past the time for the world to recognize who’s really wrong.