S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership. The following podcast contains explicit language like.
S2: Charlotte grading paper. What’s in the box?
S3: Hello and welcome to the Slate Spoiler special podcast. I’m Dana Stevens, Slate’s movie critic. Today we are talking about the Five Bloods, the new Spike Lee movie that unfortunately has been released digitally rather than on the big screen where it was really born to be seen, but happily. Here to talk about it with me is Aisha Harris, who I think of as a slate person still because I knew you when. But now you are culture editor at the Opinion Page of The New York Times.
S1: Yes. Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to return.
S3: Yeah. We haven’t spoiled anything for a long time. And I think it is possible that the last time we spoil something, it was a spike thing. Didn’t we talk about. She’s got a habit. The TV version.
S4: Maybe it’s either that or maybe black clansman. I can’t remember.
S3: We may have done both. Yeah. Anyway, I know we’ve talked Spike before. This is a great one to talk about with you. This is one of those movies I was saying before we started rolling that sort of demands almost an immediate rewash because there’s so much in it. It’s two and a half hours long, a little bit over two and a half hours. And as we’ll get into, as you know, had a huge sprawling cast of characters, it has multiple time frames. It’s something that really begs to be unpacked. So I’m excited to get into it with you. But as I always like to do at the beginning of these, I just sort of want to get your your basic thumbs up, thumbs down reaction. Like, I know you’re sort of a Spike Lee completist. Where do you think this stands among his recent work or all his work?
S1: I definitely think that among his most recent work in the last like five to 10 years, this is by far the best. I think that it will stand the test of time more than black clansman, which I really liked the first time around when I saw it. But I think after subsequent criticisms from other critics at the time, I’ve come to realize that it does add a little bit to neatly in terms of the way it treats its police officers and cops in general. And so I feel like this movie, it’s doing so much and is really good at doing almost every different facet that it attempts, whether it’s calling from many different styles and references of filmmakers before and also news clippings and statistics. And then the performances are just really, really spectacular. And I’m sure we will get into Delroy Lindo, who is on top of everyone’s minds that I know who’s seen the movie. But overall, I really, really enjoyed it. What did you think of it, Dana?
S3: I loved it. Yeah. I mean, I had some, I guess, criticisms, reservations, doubts about it that we can get into in the conversation. But, I mean, they were all just swept away in the tide of feeling that this movie creates. It’s so emotional. And as you say, Delroy Lindo. It’s just staggering. I mean, he’s I would say he’s sort of the lead. I was thinking about him in awards. And I’m so sorry to start off this conversation with awards. That’s always the last thing I want to get into. But he is just so obviously a sort of standout in this role. But it wouldn’t really be a lead role, right? I mean, it’s such an ensemble piece, this picture that everybody is really sort of supporting.
S1: I mean, it’s definitely ensemble piece, but by far and away like Delroy Lindo. And we’ll talk about this, I’m sure. But he has a couple of pretty big monologues, one of which happens towards the very end in ways that other characters don’t. So let’s put it this way. Spike names all of us, a few of the characters after Temptation’s members, and they are Paul, Melvin, David, Eddie and Otis. And so Paul is Orlando’s character. And while Paul was never the lead singer or like seen as the frontman of The Temptations, I think it’s fair to say that like like the Temptations. There’s one who’s at the front. And then everyone else does their part and doesn’t really, really well.
S3: Yeah. Backup singers. I did not know that fact about the Temptations, and that’s one of the many. As you said, this is an extremely referential movie. Right. It’s packed with references to other movies and obviously lots and lots of historical documentation. And I didn’t even get that. There were temptation’s references in there, too. But since we keep on talking about that, let’s talk about how this movie starts off formally, because it’s a very remarkable cold open before you even see any credits or realize that you’re in a Spike Lee movie at all. You hear the voice of Muhammad Ali and you start off with a clip of him that sort of leads into this almost news montage about Vietnam.
S1: This is quintessential Spike. I feel like, as well as us being one of his best films in recent memory, this is also just one of his spiciest. And I think that the clips of Muhammad Ali and what we know about him and the fact that he was one of the people who did not want to be drafted and was vocal about it because of the way that black Americans were treated at home. And it really lays the foundation for everything we’re going to see in the movie, as well as the way that it ends. And Spike does this all the time, right? He’s frequently quoting or featuring images and news clips of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Junior. He did this also a lot. And by clansman. So it’s just like a perfect setup crossing between here and the five bloods. This montage of Muhammad Ali. Yes, but also Black Panthers and and Malcolm X and sort of really laying the context for the time period what it was like to be a black American in the U.S. while they were also fighting abroad.
S3: And if I remember right, that opening montage you scored to a Marvin Gaye song, right?
S4: Yes. Inner City Blues, which was from the West going on album. And this was actually one of my absolute favorite parts of the entire movie, is that basically this is sort of the unofficial soundtrack of the movie, along with Terence Blanchard score. Terence Blanchard, you know, has been working Spike from pretty much the beginning. But what’s going on plays such a huge role in this movie and in ways that I haven’t seen done before.
S1: I feel like the opening sequence is kind of similar to things I’ve seen in other Vietnam or documentary related films where you have inner city blues, which is like really soulful RB song that is talking about all of the injustices that people of color are facing in urban cities in the late 60s and early 70s. And you see all these montages of like civil unrest and, you know, people in different cities across the U.S. And then later on, he uses what’s going on now, though, and like many different ways, different songs that you don’t always hear in Vietnam, related movies. And one of the best parts we’ll probably get to later is like when he uses a vocal track of the song, What’s Going On? And it’s just Marvin Gaye’s voice. And it’s just a reminder of how rich his his tone is, how beautiful his voice was.
S3: Yeah, that is an incredible idea. Whoever had the idea. Spike his Terrence Blancher, their music director, to lift only the vocal track out because it also completely changes the quality of the song where you recognize it, of course. But it also sounds almost like a gospel version, like you singing in church or something. It’s really quite beautiful. So after this montage that is really also should mention pretty disturbing and has a lot of pretty graphic war footage from, you know, I believe Kent State comes in there, but definitely Vietnam. We get introduced to the five bloods themselves. And the tone of the movie completely shifts as this movie is always doing. I mean, it’s a very capacious kind of film and it keeps on changing to a different setting, a different mood, focusing on a different character. And so we really abruptly shift from that newsy and dark beginning to a pretty long segment where we’ve just kind of warmly getting to know these four guys, four Vietnam veterans, black men who haven’t seen each other, it seems like, or at least have not been in close touch in the decades since the war and are now going back to Vietnam altogether. And we should introduce them, although I’m sure to get their various temptation character names mixed up. I may end up calling them by their actor names just to keep them straight. But we have, as you say, Paul Delroy Lindo. Otis is played by Clark Peters. Melvin is Isaiah Whitlock Jr. and Eddie is played by Norm Lewis. And so we should also mention that these are all I think all of them, except maybe Norm Lewis are old hands at Spike Lee. Right. And they’ve all done plenty of work with him in the past.
S1: Yeah. I try to remember if Normalises ever worked with him before, but yeah, they definitely all work together. Daryl Lindow was an Crooklyn, one of my other favorite Spike Lee movies, as well as Clockers and Clark Peters, and as a wheel of Junior had worked with him as well several times, especially in recent years. Clark Peters was in Red Hook Summer, which is a movie I didn’t love. You know, as a white Whitlock pops up very often and many of his other films.
S4: So it’s kind of a little reunion of sorts, which is cool.
S3: That feeling of sort of it’s old home week kind of stretches through the first 15, 20 minutes of the movie where you really see the warmth and the connection that these guys have, even though in the decades between they’ve obviously drifted apart and become very different people, as indicated by the presence of a Make America Great again cap on the Delroy Lindo character’s head, which will become this big theme. This this hat makes a lot of journeys throughout the movie to different characters. And when I talk about this tone of comradeship that Spike spends quite a bit of time on at the beginning, which really pays off later. Right. I mean, as you start to see the conflicts emerge among the men, you want to know that they have that past and that history together. But they go out dancing to this club called Apocalypse Now, one of the many cinematic references throughout the movie to that movie specifically. We’ll get more Apocalypse Now in the future. But the first that we hear of it is that they go to a nightclub called Apocalypse Now, which seems completely plausible that such a thing would exist right in Vietnam today.
S4: I think Spike actually said that it does exist.
S3: Oh, so it wasn’t a sign that they stuck in an existing nightclub. That’s amazing. Yeah. Yeah. And so there’s just this great feeling of freedom to that dance sequence. I mean, if the rest of this movie didn’t exist and we only had a music video of those four guys dancing together at Apocalypse Now, I think that would already be a great little summer movie on its own.
S1: Yeah, it’s it’s a really great moment. And I think it also sets up, even though Paul Delroy Landos character. There is this sort of Magga hat wearing Trump supporter, ostensibly. They’re still like accepting of him. And I think they sort of chalk it up in some ways to all of the pain he’s like still harboring from what happens in ways that, you know, hasn’t manifested in them in quite the same way. And I think that really speaks to their relationship and how those opening Cedar’s is so crucial for what we see going forward.
S3: Yeah. And it makes us accept him, too. I mean, I think in a way we’ll get more into, you know, Paul and all of the things going on with him. But I think it’s almost established that it’s a symptom of his PTSD, that he said that he’s a Trump supporter. Right. I mean, it seems like the primary thing about him that they know and that we’re meant to know is that he is the most damaged of all of them. Right. They’re all carrying these internal wounds from the war. But he seems to be the one whose life has been the most put off track because of it. And who has the most kind of rage to resolve. So to me, it seems clear that whatever it was that drove him to wear that hat and be a Trump supporter and be vocal about it was related to, you know, the anger that he’s obviously mastered less than the other three guys. Yeah, for sure. But the four bloods that we meet have not just come back to Vietnam to dance in Apocalypse Now. They have a couple of other goals for their trip. Do you want to talk about the idea of what they’re there for?
S1: Yeah. So it’s kind of two fold or there’s a lot of moving parts there. But part of the reason they’ve come back is to to retrieve the body of their fifth blood, who is played by Chadwick Bozeman. And his name is Norman. And you see Norman in flashbacks and really interesting flashbacks because unlike the Irish man, there is no aging techniques happening in this film.
S4: Apparently, you know, Spike has said we didn’t have the money for it, which I honestly don’t find surprising because spike in and having a great high budget is like a constant tension and struggle throughout his career. But I think it actually kind of works in a way.
S1: You know, I always found the Irishman, the DG techniques in that movie to be kind of off-putting. And to see them kind of looking the same age that they are now. And then Jarrard Bozeman, who is like a good 20 years younger, at least than most of the actors, really, really was effective in that way.
S3: Yeah, I mean, that like the idea of lifting Marvin Gaye’s vocal track off of the album, what’s going On? It’s just such a simple but brilliant choice on Spike Lee’s part. I mean, to me, it did not at all seem like something born of privation, like, gee, I wish we could afford prosthetics or digital aging, digital d aging rather. It was just a really profound way of showing, you know, the time that’s passed for them and the time that never got to pass for Norman, for Chadwick Postman’s character. And the fact that there’s no comment on it, you know, there’s not even wigs or, you know, hair dye. There’s no kind of attempt to create that image of them being younger. And it’s just it becomes almost an avant garde kind of gesture. I loved that.
S1: Yeah. Yeah. And I guess the other reason they are there as well is to retrieve some gold bars that are apparently scattered around near where Norman’s body supposedly is. So they have to go like deep in to, you know, the woods in the jungle to retrieve that. And so they’re there to get rich, but also honor their fallen brother and, you know, give them a proper burial.
S3: We were talking about this being a big, jumbled, overstuffed trunk of a movie. And to me, the way the gold bars came into it was a little bit confusing. There’s actually a flashback to exactly what the gold bars are doing there. And I think the idea is that the CIA at the time of the war flew them into the country to pay off, basically to pay off Vietnamese sort of, you know, spies or inside tip people that that they were working with the Americans. It was not super clear to me exactly why the gold bars were there, how they knew about them. But it’s not really that crucial to the plot that, you know, the background. It’s more that these gold bars symbolize something really important to all of them. Right. I mean, they want to get the treasure. Here’s where we get into the references to Treasure of the Sierra Madre, apparently one of Spike Lee’s favorite movies that he again and again references here because it’s a similar idea, right, of these men on a journey being sort of driven mad by their desire to find this gold. But as you say, combined with this even more important desire to find the remains of their fifth blood friend and former commander. Right. But the gold bar start to symbolize more than just wealth for them as well. And there’s arguments, you know, throughout about, first of all, how to find them, but also what will they do with the money if they find it. And the idea that, as Norman says in flashbacks, he wants this money to go for black liberation causes. He wants it to go for essentially kind of reparations. Right. But, of course, the other four bloods having had different degrees of fortune in life, some of them have done well financially, some of them not done well, are arguing about whether it’s a personal fortune or, you know, something to sort of give back to the people. And so that becomes another ongoing thread among them.
S1: Right. And in order to do all this, they can’t just go by themselves, so. The story also brings in a few other characters outside to help them get to the money and also to his body. One of the first people we meet is Dan, who is a tour guide, local tour guide, who is there to help guide them to the forest. He was an interesting character because obviously I don’t think either of us can really speak to or speak with authority to the relations between the Vietnamese and Vietnam War vets. But it was very interesting to see this tour guide along with the other Asian characters who were included in the film.
S3: This movie is definitely something that a lot of Vietnam movies have not done, although I think more recent ones are trying to, which is, you know, have Vietnamese characters that are not just faceless enemies, you know, or people in a nightmare. PTSD, flashbacks or something, but real living Vietnamese people who are also coming out of decades of having been affected by the war. And I thought that that scene early on where I think that the guide is with them, then when they’re going down the river, there’s that sort of ironic playing of Vonda’s Ride of the Valkyries, right. Of the Apocalypse Now. Helicopter theme. Then there’s that moment that a merchant starts to sort of pick a fight with them from a passing boat. Remember that they don’t want to buy anything from him. And then he starts to yell, You killed my parents, you know, and there’s this moment that they’re kind of confronted with their own guilt and an image of themselves as having been colonialists in this country where they’re coming back to.
S1: Yeah. I mean, that was one of the one of the first moments where I was like, oh, this is DeLara Lando’s movie, because it really does a great job of just showing his slow building anxiety from being here and being present and just what it’s like to have experienced PTSD in that moment. It’s a really effectives scene. And Spike handles it really well.
S3: I think there’s a lot of layering of sort of who’s colonizing whom. And these opening scenes and one other character worth introducing is the French character played by John Renaud, who’s sort of, again, seems like a throwback to an old movie and his white suit. You know, he seems to be this sort of older French colonialist who’s made a living off of like basically black market exchange and sort of, you know, the seamier side of life.
S1: Yeah. Yeah. Again, the way in which spike layers so many different international interests in this film speaks to how I think Thawra. He’s trying to be with layering in the history and weaving it in in a way that’s dramatic. And I’m not sure all of it quite worked. But I think that, you know, it was important to have a character like John Renault in this film because it wasn’t just Americans who were involved in this.
S3: I mean, this gives you a bit of a sense of how far back the, you know, the colonial relationship between France and Vietnam goes. You know, that basically Vietnam did not begin with the Vietnam War as a lot of. I won’t name them by title, but a lot of Vietnam War epics in the past may have kind of presumed. Right. I mean, he’s he’s sort of rooting it in a separate national conflict from the one between the U.S. and Vietnam. There’s one more major character that we have to introduce who heads out into the jungle with the four bloods that we’ve already met. And that’s David, played by Jonathan Majors.
S1: So David is Paul’s son, his son, who went to Morehouse, as we know, because he’s constantly wearing Morehouse attire, just like Spike Lee. And he arrives unannounced because he wants to look after his dad. He knows that his dad has severe PTSD and he wants to make sure that he is going to be OK. And they also have a very strained relationship. Later on, we realize that there’s a lot of resentment that Paul holds towards his son over the fact that his mother died in childbirth. And so you see that kind of dole down in that tension doled out throughout the film and the way in which they interact. But I think it was also really just fascinating to see how, even though Paul Dana does have some resentment towards him and was dealing with PTSD at the same time, there’s so much love there and so much affection and appreciation. And it was just a really interesting like on top of the, you know, Conrads relationships happening and the like, international cultural interests happening. There was also this father son relationship that was really at the heart of the entire story.
S3: Yeah. And a really complex one that goes back and forth a lot. I mean, it’s not one of those simple father son arcs where it’s sort of like we’re estranged. And then we had a heart to heart and now we’re fine. Right? I mean, they’re constantly getting into it. But, you know, then expressing affection, but then getting into it again. And that was just a great relationship, I thought. And Jonathan Meijers is is fantastic. He really belongs in a Spike Lee movie. I hope he’ll do more of them in the future. Yeah. So this is a long movie. We better get these guys into the jungle or we’re going to be talking for as long as this movie last. But before they head out into the jungle with now the son David in tow. They go out for one last night and they meet some more crucial characters and. Big, sprawling narrative.
S1: Right. So they encounter three other foreign people and one of the bars. One of them is named Hetty. She’s played by Amani Terry. I’m probably saying that name correctly. My Frenches is terrible. But she and David struck up a conversation at the bar. And she reveals that she is part of this group, this organization called Lambe. And they are trying to deactivate and clear landmines throughout Vietnam. And it spent inspired by the fact that her family made a fortune off of rubber and rice plantations off of the war. And so she’s kind of like this character, sort of the the white guilt character, I would say. Sure, she is trying to make up for the horrible things that her family did. So they strike up a conversation. They kind of flirt a little bit, and then those characters come back a little bit later and very crucial ways. But it’s heady. And then she’s also with two other guys.
S4: One of them is an American played by Paul Walter Houser, who I remember mostly for I told you he played like, you know, that guy who actually tried to do that at Nancy’s knees.
S3: Hasn’t he also? And I think he played one of the white supremacist and black Klansmen as well.
S1: Oh, you’re right. Yeah. So it was another reunion of sorts. He was also in Black Klansman Swank’s other movie. And then there’s also Seppo, who I can’t remember what country he is from, but it looks like he’s finish. Finish, OK. So the three of them will show up later. And then after that, they I think actually one of the other guys gets into like a fight at the bar. And so they all have to like leave the bar. And then the next morning they make their way to the jungle. So they head into the jungle. And actually, this is another great scene where they incorporate Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album. This time it’s a song called What’s Happening Brother. And so the five of them, Paul, David, Otis, Eddie and Melvin are all walking and trekking in the woods and singing What’s happening, brother? And it’s a great scene. So they make it through the woods. And then this was a part that I found kind of a way to believable and too easy of like a plot point. But so they make it to the woods. And David. Jonathan Meijers character, the sun winds up having to go and like, use the bathroom. Number two and sort of number one. So he, like, takes a long track off the path that they’re taking and goes down into the woods. And while he’s doing that, he, like, stumbles upon one of the gold bars. So that’s how they find them. And then so they all go down, they find the bars, and then they also find what is presumably Norman’s body, Chidlow Bushman’s body, like the skeleton remains of it, because they find his tag, the tag that he wore around his neck. So then they argue about what they’re going to do with the money. And as you mentioned already, Dana, there’s a lot of back and forth about like, you know, Norman wanted it to go to, like, go to the community and go to causes. And then a few of them were like, no, we can’t do that. Like, I have bills to pay. Blah, blah, blah. So at one point, while they’re camped out in the woods, they’re arguing about the gold bars again. And while Eddie is arguing about them, he stands up, starts kind of flying into to a very impassioned speech. And while he’s waving a gold bar, he steps on a landmine and is blown up basically, and then dies in their arms. It was unexpected to me. So until literally seconds before, as he was stepping back, I was like, oh, God, he’s going to several left mine. Going to happen. Just what is going to happen? And then it does happen.
S4: And it was it was it was a moment and, Dana, that it gets like really, really crazy after this.
S3: Yeah. I mean, I guess I have to say for me, it was a pretty big shock or maybe not the idea that one of them would step on a landmine, especially after you meet the heady character in the bar. And she says, you know, I work on defusing landmines. You know, that’s going to come into the picture at some point. But it happened so abruptly in the midst of a scene where so much else is happening. Right between finding both of the two things they were looking for within minutes and then getting into this lively argument. And there’s this bantering and thought suddenly to turn into really a classic war movie scene where someone is just Gawley blown to bits. And we should say, hey, it’s a really graphic how he’s blown to bits. I mean, basically all of his limbs are blown off. Right. So he’s just like a torso and a head as he’s saying his last words to his brothers. And you kind of suddenly realize, OK, we’re not in Kansas anymore. This is not the bucket list. In Vietnam, you know, and a bunch of, like, old guys having fun in a bar. Suddenly the stakes have have raised and we’re in a really dangerous place where you could die violently at any minute.
S1: Yeah. And then right after this happens, like things happen very quickly. And so they’re all trying to figure out, like, what do we do about this? And then David winds up stepping on a landmine, but stepping on it and noticing that he does and doesn’t really says. And so at this time, coincidentally, very coincidentally, the three landmine deactivator is who they met in the bar the night before arrive and see them. And this prompts, you know, Joe Orlando’s character to, you know, rope them into helping save David so that he doesn’t get blown up like he was.
S3: Right. And basically, the idea right is that if when he takes his weight off, the landmine is when it’s going to blow up. So it’s one of those suspense scenes where everything depends on stillness and quiet for a long time rather than action as they arrange to, you know, basically almost set up a tug of war style rope and just yank him away really quickly so that they can get him out of the way, the explosion. And I mean, as you say, is jumbled in with so much other stuff. I think this might be a flaw of the movie. This section is that there’s so much important and suspenseful stuff that happens in a very short period of time that it does have to rely on coincidence, as you say, the fact that the landmine people would be showing up right then. I mean, in general, this movie makes it look as if the jungle in Vietnam is like two square city blocks. Right. Everything everything is happening right in the same spot. It’s sort of the opposite of Apocalypse Now, where there’s this endless journey into this, you know, infinite jungle. But it’s one of those things that you sort of have to forgive the contrivance for the sake of the movie. And I will say that the scene where they pull David off the landmine, even though it may seem like how are we already here and how is this happening, is really well shot and extremely effectively suspenseful.
S1: Definitely, yeah. I was holding my breath the entire time, and it was it was a lot to do it.
S3: Well, because you just lost a major character, right. To a landmine. So you think like who knows what could happen? We actually could lose this character as well. But they do manage to yank him off in time. And now the movie has changed because they’re sort of traveling with this group of white do gooders, you know, the landmine diffusers and they have something to hide from them, which is the fact that they have just found this treasure. And also, I guess that their their friend has blown up. I don’t think that that comes up. Then another major plot twist happens, which is that the do gooder gang gets essentially taken hostage by the vets end. And their son. Right. How did we get there all of a sudden, if I recall correctly?
S1: Paul, again, is like these sort of paranoid, also rageful, you know, member of the group. And he’s the one who sort of is the one who is spearheading this idea. Well, now they know about this and we can’t trust them. So we have to hold them hostage. And so, you know, the other men around are like, no, we we don’t have to do this. But he, you know, forces his son. And that’s another sort of bone of contention between them. Is that like he also I think why sort of tie up David as well? Because he thinks that he’s going to betray him. And so, yeah, they wound up being held hostage and they eventually, like they they camp out overnight. Then they eventually make it out to the woods with all of them. And that’s where they are reunited with then. The tour guide who had helped them at the beginning, who they met at the bar, and they at first tried to lie about what happened to Eddie. But then I think eventually one of them was like, OK, he stepped on a landmine. And this is where they encounter a group of armed locals who know that they’re there and why they’re there and demand that they get the gold bars right.
S3: And here’s another one of those places where Spike’s thinking about the complexity of colonialism and sort of who is occupying, who becomes really big because the grievances that this group of Vietnamese locals have are really similar to, in a way, what Muhammad Ali is articulating at the beginning or what the guys are talking about when they’re debating about what to do with the gold bars. Right. I mean, their idea is sort of this is ah, is he you know, your country sent this to our country decades ago and and we’re keeping it here. And so it’s not just force against force. There is actually a moral argument for both sides.
S1: Right. Oh, I forgot to mention that one of the three land folks actually runs away in the middle of the night. And so but then he gets captured. And I think that’s how the gunmen find them, because they greet them after they come out of the woods and they demand some money in exchange for the landmine people.
S3: Yeah, they have their own hostage situation and they they will hand him over in exchange. And then he is the one who ends up getting shot in the melee afterwards. Right. Because then there’s one of the first of many firefights in a moment when there’s kind of a shootout as the gold bars guys are taking off. Right. And one of the three do gooder landmine guys dies in that exchange of fire.
S1: Yeah, that was supposed the finish one. And then David also gets shot and then a bunch of the gunmen get shot. But like, I think at least one of the gunmen gets away and they realize that they’re going to come back and they can’t stay there.
S5: So the next kind of story beat that we get to that starts a different chapter of the narrative is that Paul, who at this point has really you know, he’s really. Reactivated his PTSD, like being back in the jungle, has been harder on him than on anyone else. And we’re going to find out more about why. But he sets off on his own. He’s just now disgusted with the rest of the five bloods. And he goes off hacking his way through the jungle on his own and has what I think is really maybe his most incredible acting moment in the movie. I mean, this is a very Spike Lee thing, right, to break the fourth wall and not to necessarily respect the bounds of this self-contained narrative and the way Delroy Lindo delivers that speech, where he at first seems to be sort of talking to himself and ranting to himself angrily as he’s hacking through this forest. But then as he approaches the camera closer and closer, he starts talking to us directly. There’s a really extraordinary moment where, you know, the audience is kind of implicated. You know that we become the culture, the society to which Paul is addressing his rage and his anger and sorrow.
S1: What I love about that moment as well was just the way in which, you know, one of the themes of a lot of Vietnam War movies, and I think part of what Spike is also getting out here is the descent into madness. Like, the longer you’re out there, the more crazy and paranoid and and just, like, upsetting it becomes for the character. But while this this monologue, Abdullah Windows, is very much that happening, it’s also an arrival at clarity by the end of it. And, you know, I think even at one point, he says with along the lines of like, I’ve never been more sober, this is a moment where we realize or we learn. And this is another flashback that happens where we see each chapter of Bozeman and Norman in the war. And we find out that, in fact, part of the reason why Paul has been going through this guilt and this anger and rage is because he accidentally killed Norman in like an episode of like friendly fire, I guess, where someone was entering their space. And Paul just had a reaction.
S5: I think it was the shot. Like the shell of a shot down.
S1: Yeah. Yeah. And then he turns around and asks gently, like the dying, just like it’s like a machine gun. It just goes off and hits both the person who is entering and Norman. And so he has accidentally killed one of his brothers. And so this is like a for me, like a really, really touching moment where we see Norman approaching Delroy Lindo in the jungle in the present. So it’s like the ghost of Norman. And he, you know, says, you know, it’s okay. Like, I forgive you. And they hug and embrace. And it’s like Paul’s chance to finally, like, let go. Oh, I should also note that at one point, like, Paul gets stuck in a trap and a goal that he’s carrying actually wise up, getting stuck, like thrown up and hung off of a tree. Right. Right off the track. And so he’s like, that’s Norman that it means like, I’m not meant to have this money. That’s that’s from Norman. And so it’s like a very touching connection there, that moment where the gold goes up the tree.
S5: And he almost laughs and then sort of, you know, walks away is I mean, yet another moment that I think Spike was really thinking of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Right. Which in the back not that exact thing does not happen in that movie. But the idea that the gold is kind of Kirst and that it’s something that it’s almost like the Gollum’s ring in the Lord of the Rings. Right. Is something that corrupts by their desire for it. And so this idea that the jungle has kind of taken it back has this sort of poetic rightness to it. But to go back to the moment, the flashback where Chadwick Bozeman as Norman embraces the present day Paul and asks you, forgive him. This is what I was thinking of when I said, you know, this movie just sweeps you away. And this tide of emotion that makes you forget about, you know, whatever bumps may have occurred along the way. That scene is just extraordinary. And again, is so simple and certainly not the first time that there’s been a flashback in a movie where, you know, a character who’s long been dead. Forgive someone else for something like that. Almost sounds like a cliche on paper, but it’s just done so simply and beautifully in that movie that I just challenge you to watch that without breaking down. But meanwhile. So while we have Paul, as you say, he’s almost like Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now in reverse. Right. I mean, he’s he’s wandering off further into the forest. But as you say, he’s gaining more and more clarity and sanity as he goes rather than kind of losing it. But while he’s off doing that, the rest of the gang has decided to hide out in a Vietnamese temple in the woods. It’s abandoned from the gold bar dudes that they are going to assume are still out looking for them. And this is a moment that could be in an old Hollywood Western or something, right? It’s the moment that after a firefight, you kind of retire to some sort of abandoned space and take care of your wounds.
S1: It reminded me of the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where they hide out and they’re just like, yeah, we know that there’s a chance we might not come out of this. But this is like the final frontier, I guess.
S5: Yeah, you’re right. It actually, I that was probably the very scene I was thinking of when I said it felt like a Western. I think that may even be a church or at least it sort of in a little town square with churches that they’re hiding out. It has a similar feeling. Yeah, but in this little moment of a break from a narrative, this is something that I wanted to talk about that I don’t think works in this movie and that I think we’ve talked about this. With previous Spike Lee movies as well. But it’s just this this romance that’s implied between Heddy, the dreamy French bomb diffuser and David the Jonathan Meijers character. And there was something going on here that I actually thought at some point this is so cliched that I’m sure that Spike is going to overturn it in some way or Hoylake head. He’s going to get canceled. I sort of thought I saw that there was going to be some sort of complication in the future, but it never really happened, like she really sort of is. As Steve Metcalf, the host of the Cold Slate Culture Gabfest, we talked about this. This movie this week, he called her a manic pixie bomb diffuser. I feel like that’s sort of that’s sort of all she is. And then it made me think about look, maybe at the end of the movie you mentioned this character, but it made me think about the Vietnamese woman that Clarke Peters is established as having had an affair with decades ago, who now has a his child and every woman in this movie. I gotta say, it is basically beautiful, supportive and smiling. There’s not really a lot of characterization of any of the female characters. And I realize it’s a war movie. It’s about dudes. Not every movie has to be about everyone, but it’s just something that I wanted to flag because I don’t think that Spike has always handled female characters with the complexity. He has men.
S1: Yeah. I mean, that’s been a long running issue, going back all the way to his first feature film. She’s got to have it. And like for some of that, he has atoned and said, you know, in later interviews about how he could have handled things better with certain characters. I mean, there’s one female character who has a little bit of complexity, and that’s Hanoi Hannah, who is based on a real woman who in during the Vietnam War was speaking to American guys. And I actually read up a little bit about her because I’d heard of her, but I had forgotten what her story was. But essentially, she told the soldiers, the American soldiers, like it was considered by many of them to be propaganda against the Vietnam War. And she was trying to tell us G.I. soldiers like you’re fighting a losing war, you are fighting for nothing. Like, look at all these injustices you have back home. A lot of them were apparently directed specifically to black soldiers in and relaying what was happening, whether it was riots. And, you know, in Detroit and elsewhere that were happening at the same time that they were over there fighting. And so Henry Hanah sort of serves as like the different version of Senior Love Daddy from do the Right Thing. Sam Jackson’s character, where she kind of sometimes narrates the story, comments on the story in between all the action that’s happening, but never interact with any of the other characters. She had some bite to her. But again, she’s like a failure as opposed to like a full on character. Right. Like, we never really see her do anything besides make announcements over the radio.
S5: Right. I mean, those are very effective, little as a way of getting exposition in without it being boring. It also provides some context of the relationship between Vietnamese natives and the occupying soldiers during the war. But I wouldn’t quite call her a character. I feel like those little moments where she is cut in have more to do with the news clips that appear throughout that we haven’t really talked about, or these really explicitly didactic moments that Spike Lee likes to engage in where, you know, for example, one of them we’ll be talking about. I don’t know the role of black soldiers throughout U.S. history. And you suddenly get an inset shot of Christmas Attucks, who is the first person to die at the Boston Tea Party massacre, a black man. You see this old engraving of him being shot. And, you know, there’s just these moments of really almost, you know, pulling down the blackboard and giving us a little history lesson in the middle of this story. And I think Hannah Hannah is sort of part of that. And, you know, because I’m talking at this moment about the different formal techniques that Spike Lee uses to take us in and out of the story in different periods of history and sort of go in between fiction and non-fiction. It seems worth mentioning as well that this movie is really playful with its aspect ratios, with the, you know, the dimensions of the frame being shown on the screen. And again, this is a moment where you really, really wish you could see it in it in a theater, because he not only switches aspect ratios, which is something that a few directors have done in recent years, to sort of establish different time frames or make something look like it happened in the past as opposed to now. But he points up that he’s doing that when he shifts from, you know, that the widescreen that he shows, for example, the kind of modern present day scenes in into this more squared off academy style, I think, ratio for the flashbacks. He points it up by sort of having these different black frames around the edges of the picture expand and contract. I mean, there’s a real moment of saying, look what I’m doing here, you know, rather than trying to to blend it in. And again, I think that’s just all part of his everything but the kitchen sink kind of style of of agitprop, you know, where he’ll throw in commentary and commentary on the commentary and point out when he is playing with convention.
S1: Yeah. He also does that early on in the present day as well, where he’s switch switching in between when they’re on the boats, where Paul has his sort of first breakdown. With the guy who’s trying to sell him the chicken, but it switches every few seconds at four hours, and it wasn’t just that aspect ratio, but also the the look of it, the aesthetic of it, the filter of it. Looks like someone was shooting on an eight millimeter camera.
S5: Yeah, I think that was supposed to be a home movie. Right. I think that they were supposed to be playing with a separate camera, a boat.
S1: And so it would flip a switch between that and then, like looking like a normal film. And I thought that was just really a really cool way of doing it, because I’m not sure if he’s done that much lately in terms of switching aspect ratio. So, yeah, I liked it.
S5: It’s all part of the nimbleness of this movie where I feel like whatever category it it’s in, it’s in it for that moment. You know, it’s like it’s a full on suspense movie. Then suddenly it’s a full on sort of formal experiment. And I appreciated that very heterodox nature of how things were presented. So I think that maybe the next big action scene we have to get to is the second firefight, which is even Gourrier than the first one. The first one having happened, you know, at the moment of the handoff of the gold bars to the Vietnamese kind of gang that descends on them. But then we get a whole bunch of people converging on the hideout, including John Renault, the French colonialist who we met earlier on, still wearing his white suit. He shows up presumably to get some of the gold bars for himself. And so do is it the same gang that they encounter on the street or are they bringing more people with them? Like who exactly is converging on that hideout?
S1: It wasn’t clear to me, but I got the sense that we were supposed to think that, like, in some ways the genre, no character was all right. Always involved with, like, that group of men. Yeah. That it was a setup, right? Yeah. But then at the same time, it’s like switching between that and then Paul being like captured by other locals, the like. It wasn’t clear to me if they were all together or if they were separate because it’s a little bit confusing right away. Jon Renaults character, clearly, even though they met with him early on, he clearly had other interests in mind and was not someone to be trusted. And that’s when we see how do you sort of trying to negotiate with him as like the person who can speak French and they speak in French to each other and eventually the shootout just happens. And unfortunately, Melvin, we have another casualty, which is Melvin, played by Isaiah Whitlock Jr. His character actually sacrifices himself and jumps on top of one of the grenades that are thrown before I can blow up.
S5: But meanwhile, simultaneously, with all of this carnage happening at the temple, we see the end of Paul’s journey after he’s had the gold bars taken away by the trap. Right. He has essentially arrived at some sort of peace with his kind of vision of being embraced and forgiven by Storeman Norman, his onetime commander. And he’s wandering on through the forest and then he comes up against a bunch of Vietnamese locals.
S1: Yes. And so they I think I’m pretty sure they’re the same ones that he they encountered earlier on. Or like at least one of them was. And they ask him, where’s the gold? He’s like, it’s gone. Like, I don’t have it. Norman has it, referring to the fact that it’s hanging over a trap that he can’t reach. And he’s digging his grave. And my seniors, Graham, we have another Marvin Gaye song moment where he starts singing the song God is Love. And eventually they shoot him. And all of this is very violent and very shocking. And he cut he just like they riddle him with bullets. And that is his his ending. And it was either go again. There’s another really powerful moment, the image of him doing digging his own grave and singing that song about God and just being at peace and knowing what awaits him was really, really moving.
S5: Yeah. I mean, in a strange way, I mean, it’s awful to say when, you know, he’s just horribly murdered, but that character gets a better ending than you might have thought he would have gotten because he did have a moment of redemption, of forgiving himself. He did find something that he came to Vietnam to find. And you have the sense that he was such a tormented person with such a potential of violence that he would not have ruled out that possibility as a death for himself. I mean, it feels different than Eddie’s death, which feels like just a complete random, shocking accident that shouldn’t have happened. There’s a little bit more of a tragic sense that, you know, he’s literally digging his own grave. Right. That he has has found his way to this place. So it’s around this point that the Vietnam portion of the movie comes to an end and we get a little coda that sort of follows up on what happens to all of the remaining living characters as they either head back to the U.S. or in the case of Clark Peters character. Don’t let’s start with Clark Peters.
S1: Yeah, so Otis. He stays at. And as we’ve seen in an earlier scene, he has been reunited with a woman he had a relationship with while he was back at Vietnam as soldier. And he’s now learns that the daughter that she has introduced into earlier on is their daughter. And so they’re reunited. And if you were waiting for that signature, a Spike Lee moments, that is in every movie. I’m back with the Dolly shot that is that shot. It’s him and his daughter looking happy to be reunited and going for it, like in the hallway.
S5: How is that effect achieved? I’ve read about it, but I can’t remember now. It’s like zooming out while dollying in or something. It’s sort of to two different movements at once.
S4: I don’t know if it’s that. It’s so like it’s just them going forward.
S1: Sitting on a dolly and like, you can tell they’re they’re not moving. They’re just like in Dallas. Right. Right. Right, right.
S5: So the visual trick is essentially that they seem to be floating or something like tends to use it at moments when when people are experiencing some sort of exuberance or. Right. Some sort of excessive experience.
S4: Exactly. Exactly.
S1: So that’s how his story, more or less wraps up.
S5: Again, I would say there. And, you know, I don’t want to just trash everything about women that’s happening in this movie. But, you know, there’s not really a sense that there’s any conflict in the daughter that, you know, this dad who’s been no part of her life has suddenly returned and she gives him this really warm hug like, I’m so happy you’re here. I’m so happy to meet you. And there’s sort of a sense that now we’re just going to pick up as a happy family. Not that it would be impossible that such a thing would happen, but in a movie that in a father son relationship, for example, has seen so many complexities, that relationship seemed a little a little too easy and comforting for me.
S1: Yeah, I would I would agree.
S5: But still, who can wish Clarke Peters ill, right? I mean, let him let it have a happy life in Vietnam with his his long lost family. And so akin to the beginning of the movie where before we met the characters, we heard from Muhammad Ali and saw a montage of Vietnam. Now we start to see what happens in the social context after they get back to the U.S., including a Black Lives Matter meeting, which it’s implied they donated at least some of the proceeds from the one gold bar they got back. Is that all they had in the end is the one that Clarke Peters got handed?
S1: I think they might have had Eddie shared, too, somehow. You know, Eddie was Nahm Lewis’s character who died. I think they were able to keep some of it.
S5: Yeah, it’s not quite clear how many gold bars they had, but they had enough of a fortune that they donate, some of it apparently to Black Lives Matter. And we get this footage again that that mixes fiction and nonfiction because Spike Lee seems to have gone to an actual neighborhood meeting and just taped some of the footage from it and incorporates that into the end of the film.
S1: Yeah. And then Melvin Isiah Whitlock, Junior’s character, his family gets his share and Heddy and Simon, the two landmine people donate their shares and suppose name the the one who was killed with them. Oh, and then David gets he reads a letter from his dad that Paul left for him and it’s telling him how much he loves him and is proud of him and all that.
S5: And I think one other thing that happens in this montage, which really is quite a bit being thrown at us at the very end, is that we see Norman’s remains arriving from Vietnam and we see them being taken out of a plane, you know, in a sort of a military funeral with some of his relatives, two women following with portraits of him. So there’s a sense that there is some sort of closure on that story as well. And now we’re really reaching the end of this extremely jampacked movie. But is there something else that I’m missing from the end? I know that the ending has a feeling like the beginning, that it’s sort of bookended by this historical context. But what does the movie actually end on?
S1: Right. So, you know, Ashley is sort of echoing the way he did do the right thing with a Martin Luther King quote, except we see Martin Luther King giving a speech and it’s him giving a speech about the Vietnam War and the atrocities it has brought and will in will rot. Right. Right. Yes. Will wreak. And then after a few seconds of that clip of MLK, Spike has a text scrolling tax come up that says that MLK was in was an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War, American involvement in the war. And this clip that you just saw was from a year to the day that he was assassinated. So it’s from a clip on April 4th, 1967. And it’s kind of like dropping McGartland there, right? It’s like, you know, one of the people who at a time when not everyone felt the same way. Who is descender against the war? Like, it wasn’t just the fact that he was a civil rights leader and was fighting for a black American rights. But also there were so many other facets. OK. Especially the fact that he opposed the war that, you know, made him a target. And I thought, you know, as far as endings go. You know, Spike is that is his thing is ending on a very powerful note from do the right thing. To his last movie, Black Clansman, for all the issues I had with it. I think the fact that he ended with Heather Hyers death and the Charlottesville riots, I thought was really powerful in black clansman. So I think he does it again here.
S5: Yeah. I mean, it has that thing. And Spike Lee has said this in all the interviews about this movie. And it’s so true is that when he sort of asked, you know, this is so prescient and, you know, obviously this was all planned before that Big George Floyd protests of this spring. You know, his response invariably is this is stuff is not new. It’s an ongoing history of violence that’s repeated over and over and over again. So, you know, if I keep on addressing these issues, it’s going to keep feeling new, unfortunately, because, you know, the same historical conditions obtain. And this movie, I agree, it ends on that same note of of ambiguity. I mean, it’s not a feelgood MLK moment, right? It’s an MLK moment. It leaves you with this this feeling of him as a radical figure and a figure who was always in danger because of that radicality. Well, I guess as the listener has been able to tell from this really long and jumbled conversation where two people who have, you know, recently seen this movie more than once or, you know, at least revisited it over the last month, still at a hard time, putting together everything that happened in it. But I will say that, I mean, even if you’re someone who is not a Spike Lee completist and has had moments with his movies in the past where you’re impatient or you feel to preach to, I feel like this movie, this movie is important. You know, it’s an important moment in his career. And just a very 20/20 adjacent movie that kind of needs to be seen right now. I really hope that in spite of the length and the violence and thinks about it, that might be off putting that people give it a chance.
S4: Yeah, I mean, I think that Spike has really made an uninteresting movie, even if they don’t always work.
S1: And I think this is the fact that he was able to make this film so late in his career shows that he still has a lot to say and a lot of interesting things to do. And it’s great to see that he is still, you know, excited about filmmaking in the same way that he was 30 years ago.
S5: Yeah, I mean, he’s treading new ground for sure. I see him doing playful experiments with this that I haven’t seen him do before. And just even just the simple idea, as I said, of not aging veterans as they return. I mean, stuff like that is just it’s kind of visionary. I really, really love this movie, and I’m really glad we got to talk about it.
S6: Thanks so much, Dana. It was a pleasure. I hope you’ll join me again for another Spolar specials. Laughter. All right. Our producer today was Rosemary Nelson. Our engineers were ourselves in our little setup’s in our room. So apologies in our sound was strange or we sounded like we were in two different spaces, which we were. As always, you can write us at spoilers at Seacom. If you have any feedback or suggestions on movies or TV shows or even podcasts that you would like. A special feature for Aisha Harris from New York Times. I am Dana Stevens from Slate. Thank you so much for listening. And please join us in two weeks for another Slate spoiler special.