Looking Back, Living Now

Eddie: Look what I found.
[they look at an old photo of Norman]
Melvin: Brotherman in all his glory.

SPOILERS throughout for Da 5 Bloods.

Memory is a specter. Our mind treats memory as a shadow only ever cast in the light of the now—grounding one’s self in the past can only be done with their present body and lens through which they capture, experience, and move through life. We see our childhoods not as we remember them, but as we want to remember them; great memories only grow warmer and more magnificent while trauma either expands and remains set deep in oneself or it fractures and breaks, hiding in the crevices of one’s mind.

Spike Lee’s new Netflix feature Da 5 Bloods is intimately concerned with memory and the consuming, near-religious power it can have. For some, it is a light worth holding onto, and for others, it is an unstable force just waiting for a moment to immolate the rememberer. Each of the protagonists in Da 5 Bloods holds onto and handles memories in different ways. And the memories that concern these men are memories of war—specifically of a war most people opposed and a war that saw far too many young black men be exploited from poverty into death in the jungles of Vietnam. Otis (played well by Clarke Peters) experiences memory as a tangible thing in a mixed Vietnamese daughter he never knew he had, Eddie (played with subtle brilliance by Clarke Peters) holds memory at a bay with money and drink until memory literally sneaks up on him and rips him apart, Melvin (played with comfortable stability by Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is comfortable with memory—he sees his demons at night, like most, but he has sought help. He’s talked. Other’s haven’t, in fact, one of the 5 Bloods refuses to talk about his time fighting in Vietnam. Paul (Delroy Lindo giving one of the best performances in recent memory) walks in the shadow of his past. His war never ended. His trauma is absolute.

As the men aged, so did their memories of the war. It grew distant, but for Paul, it was always there. He sees demons in the corners of his vision, he talks to his dead squad leader Stormin’ Norman every single night, and PTSD has frayed his nerves into oblivion. Paul is a live wire and returning to Vietnam to confront his past becomes the spark that finalizes his path to immolation. Life has failed him, his mind has failed him—a broken soul from a broken, damned conflict. Paul is a black veteran who knows that the flag he fought for failed him, does not belong to him, and those that fly it do not want it to belong to him. He and his brothers were expendable—they always have been. Fighting for a country that sees you as nothing cannot be anything but harrowing; a broken soul is but what remains. Paul finds solace in right-wing megalomania. He is an avid Trump supporter who even dons a “Make America Great Again Hat”—a tangible, wearable thing that stands for everything he should be against.

Everywhere he turns he sees Norman and the ghost of Norman sees him. All of these men see Norman, and they all remember him as their wise, brave, and loving squad leader. He was that. Nothing can take that away from him or the men that idolized—and in Paul’s case—still idolize him. When they see him, he is still young and snappy, but only because he was never given the opportunity to grow old, to have the war become a memory. For Norman, Vietnam only ever was the now. He died a young black man in a war that killed many young black men, but his squad grew old. They are afforded memory just through surviving.

The power of aged memory is spoken beyond the script. Lee uses film form to magnify the power and malleability of memory. Whenever Da 5 Bloods flashes back to the Vietnam war the aspect ratio squeezes from 2:39:1 to the boxier 1:33:1. The black lines close in, the moment in the small frame is all that there is. Their wartime memories are hyper-specific—they are not afforded the sweeping scale of fullscreen because time passes, memories fade. But what lingers are the most intimate, powerful moments and those are what plays out in the 1:33:1 frame. Furthermore, the film form itself shifts with time. The flashbacks are shot in 16mm, giving the scenes a grainy haze that makes them feel more malleable as if they change every time one of the 5 Bloods remembers them. It also shows how these specific memories are grounded in the late 1960s and early 1970s—16mm was a common film form, then. The film-grain adds to the grit and danger of the moment to emphasize just how violent these memories are, even beyond the simple fact that they are war-time memories. Trauma goes beyond an initial event, it takes hold and lingers. Memories age.

Spike Lee’s most daring (and evocative) choice with the flashback sequences is to have the 5 Bloods be played by their modern, older selves. Only Chadwick Boseman’s Norman is young in these flashbacks, and this is only because Norman never grew old. His only chance to know age was when his body decayed overtime in an unmarked grave—his skull and military garb now totem objects for his squad-cum-acolytes. The 5 Bloods huff and puff and throw their aged bodies through these combat flashbacks while everything around them remains as it was. The dead and dying never age. But for those who survived the war, it became a memory that was always with them, and the trauma shaped every crease and loss of hair as time sped ever on.

They aged and changed, but their memories stayed the same. It has shaped them, all of them, and it has done so in different ways. The 5 Bloods collective internalized trauma fractures and takes hold in each Blood in different ways. When looking back, They only do so with their eyes of the now. But for Paul, his eyes of the now are the same eyes that he looked through as he spent multiple tours in Vietnam. His past defines him, it is him, and it only changes him when he finally embraces it. PTSD has ruined his life and he’s cut a stubborn path into isolation. And in isolation Norman comes to him as a ghost, but still a brother. Norman embraces Paul and Paul weeps into his lost friend’s shoulder. In embracing the past, once and for all, Paul is freed from it. His internal liberation ascends past reality, but his reality—up to the very last moment—is defined by war, and it is war that kills him.

Memory is something that we look back on, but it defines us. No matter how memory changes and is forgotten over time, we can become defined by it, even confined by it. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is brutally concerned with memory, of the memories, experiences, traumas, and atrocities that America does its best to negate and forget. He begs for us to remember and thrusts us headlong into a whirlwind of masterful cinema that blends present and past, and shows that memory can only become memory when the present is reckoned with and the future dares to change. What of the plight of the black GI? Otis’s wartime Vietnamese partner describes it best when she describes how the Vietnamese grew to hurl racial slurs at black GI.s: “The white GI taught us that word.”

Words on games, death and stuff like that.

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