If you threw Spike Lee’s filmography into a pot and cooked it down, stirring occasionally such that all of the ingredients are thoroughly intermingled, you’d be left with Da 5 Bloods. Lee’s new Netflix joint is nothing if not ambitious, and at its shakiest it does feel composed of variations on ideas he’s had in previous films. Take the war-never-ends framing device of Miracle at St. Anna, the style-and-substance mentality of BlacKkKlansman, the epic scope of Malcolm X, a pinch of the melancholy soul-searching of 25th Hour, a dash of the motley cast of Get on the Bus, and Spike’s secret sauce, of course, that blunt intrusion of American history into an otherwise routine narrative. The last ingredient is always a tough one to swallow, but in Da 5 Bloods its sourness is even more noticeable. As with the final scene of BlacKkKlansman, the dark American past we’re witnessing is often only a few months old.
Bloods as a melting pot of ideas mostly works in its favor, giving heft to a story in which four black veterans of the Vietnam War return to country to retrieve a cache of gold they’d buried decades ago. The changes brought about in those decades have affected each man differently, particularly Paul (Delroy Lindo) and Otis (Clarke Peters). Paul’s now a MAGA-hat-sporting Republican, and from the jump the group’s return to Vietnam sparks radical thoughts in his volatile soul. Otis is still the picture of collectedness he was in wartime, but he’s obviously wearied by how the American political climate seems to be regressing. Flashbacks to Vietnam center around the fifth Blood, unit leader Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who unites the crew under the idea that its time for black Americans to collect what they’re owed. With the U.S. government’s eternal refusal to pay out, a few million dollars in gold will do in the meantime.
Continue reading Da 5 Bloods (2020)
One of the best collections available on the Criterion Channel is one called Film Plays Itself, a self-reflexive assemblage of movies about movies. Here you’ve got your classics, like Sunset Boulevard and 8½. You’ve got your “out-there” stuff, like the experimental Symbiopsychotaxiplasm or Godard’s New-Wave Contempt. And you’ve got some modern triumphs like The Player and Adaptation. Each of these sort of screams CINEMA! in a not-so-subtle way, which is not a knock against them so much as a bit of a prerequisite for inclusion on the Criterion Channel in the first place. But the highbrow reek of such an overly-academic, carefully-cultivated program of thinkfilms threatens to become overbearing without any deviance — or at least it would, if not for Hollywood Shuffle.
In the mid-1980s, Robert Townsend saw the same problem that every black actor saw in Tinseltown: you either play a criminal, a convict, a slave or some combination of the three. Moreover, depictions of those figures were by and large stereotyped approximations rather than actual characters. Shuffle sparked when a white casting director turned Townsend down for a role because he “wasn’t black enough,” and Townsend recognized this as a brand of systematic racism baked into Hollywood itself. He only had to look to the local cinema at the time for evidence: the sole major studio production with black leads in the 1985-’86 movie season was The Color Purple, written and directed and produced by white men and a clear-cut case of overly-sentimental, stereotypical depictions of black men and women on the silver screen.
Continue reading Hollywood Shuffle (1987)
We’ve all been there before: it’s Christmas Eve and you’ve just been released from jail to discover your pimp has been cheating on you so you flip out and hunt him down. It’s a pretty universal conundrum. That was what Pilgrim’s Progress was about, right? Or doesn’t Plato have some allegorical yarn about emerging from a darkened prison, reaching upward toward the light, finally beginning to perceive the true form of reality, and then bitch-slapping your pimp? The Parable of the Donut Shop, I think. Basic universal plots like Rags to Riches, Voyage and Return, The Quest, and Christmas Eve Pimp Hunting have a certain inherent comfort to them because we’ve all been there before.
Tangerine is fresh, though, even if you somehow don’t have a real-life parallel to the above scenario. I’d love to tell you that the freshest thing about it is the story, and admittedly broad aspects of it are rare in modern multiplexes. The primary cast members are transgender and transsexual individuals, led by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (as Sin-Dee Rella, the newly-freed pimp-hunter) and Mya Taylor (as Alexandra, the Sundance Kid to Sin-Dee’s Butch Cassidy); the film is rounded out by Karren Karagulian’s Razmik, a cabbie with a penchant for rolling the streets where working girls Sin-Dee and Alexandra “ply their trade”. These aren’t your typical heroes, and that sentiment has little to do with their sexuality or gender. These people are the kinds of people that mothers-in-law everywhere are disgusted by, because the activities they engage in seem supremely self-serving, petty, deviant, etc. Indeed, Razmik’s mother-in-law makes all of this explicit when she shows up and harshly disapproves of what she sees.
Continue reading Tangerine (2015)