When I was in the inpatient psychiatric facility (which we lovingly called the 9th floor because it is on the 9th floor of the Durham VA) after my suicide attempt, I spent a lot of time talking to Deon, one of my fellow patients. Deon lived most of the time in Franklinton, NC, a small rural town northeast of Raleigh where he grew up. Deon is black, schizophrenic, and has struggled with addiction issues most of his life. He was a high school sports star who decided to join the Army instead of going to college and ended up deploying to Afghanistan multiple times, each time seeing heavy combat.
Deon loved to tell me that when he was on his meds that he was very funny and very wise. And that when he was off his meds, he was still those things, but he just couldn’t show people in a way that they understood. So when he was at the point where he realized that the people around him couldn’t understand him anymore, he would come to Durham, check himself in and stay until he “got his meds right” and people started understanding him again.
I asked him why he didn’t just take his meds all the time. Deon told me that he always had to make a choice. “The thing is man,” he said, “that when I take them it makes everyone else feel better, and I know that in their eyes I seem ‘normal’ or as normal as a brother like me is gonna seem, but I am not me. I am the me they need me to be. But I am only me when I don’t take my meds. So I have to make a choice between me and someone else’s feelings. And because I am black I had to do that my whole life. And I am tired, man. Tired.”
I thought about Deon several times as I watched Spike Lee’s movie Da 5 Bloods on Friday.
Lee is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. 3 of his movies - School Daze, Do The Right Thing, and Malcolm X are among my all time top 10. The Hurricane Katrina documentary When The Levees Broke is one of the most powerful films I have ever seen and is - to me - the defining work of art from one of the defining events of my adult life. The “Fuck You, New York” monologue by Ed Norton in 25 Hours may be my favorite movie scene of all time because only when you truly love a place deeply are you able to be so hurt by it that you can think of one million ways to hate it. Spike Lee’s whole career - from She’s Gotta Have It to BlacKkKlansman - has been full of ups and downs, but has also represented the unique vision of a great artist.
One Lee film that didn’t work for me was The Miracle at St. Anna. Despite brilliant source material, fantastic young actors and an evocative location, something about the movie was just... off. It was like a meal where every individual component is good and a few are even great. But all together it is just kind of messy and unsatisfying and you are left wondering what could be. It was knowing that Lee was capable of so much more - especially with this material - that made me look forward so much to Da 5 Bloods.
And I wasn’t disappointed. At all. Da 5 Bloods is a masterpiece of filmmaking and a masterclass in acting and directing. And it explores a story that is not told nearly often enough. The story that Deon told me on the 9th floor. The story about being black and fighting for a country that doesn’t fight for you. The story Deon told me about having to always make a choice between who you are, and who people need you to be because of their fear and their insecurity.
It is a story that Spike Lee has been telling, in one way or another, for 35 years.
There is a deep history of African American military service. A black man - Crispus Attucks - was the very first American to shed his blood for what would become America. Attucks was killed by British troops during the Boston Massacre. It may have been better for the Brits that Attucks was killed. His sister would later say that if they hadn’t killed Cris, he most certainly would have killed them.
From Cris Attucks to the 1st Kansas and 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiments in the Civil War to the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalry, to the 92d and 93d Infantry Divisions in World War I and the Triple Nickels of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II, black soldiers fought bravely and died consistently for a country that continued to deny them the most basic of rights. Black units and black soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines won every award for bravery that the military offers - from the Medal of Honor to the Distinguished Service Cross to the Purple Heart - while being denied even something as basic as the right to vote.
This conflict between what has been demanded of black servicemen and women in combat and what has been taken from them in “the world” back home in the states has never been more apparent than in Vietnam. In a country where 11% of the population was black, a full 1/3 of the Americans sent to Vietnam - 32% - were black. Black men especially were asked to fight and die for a country torn by racial upheaval at home. Most went to Vietnam at the height of the Ciivil Rights movement. Many never came home.
Da 5 Bloods is at its best when it explores the impacts that this kind of sacrifice takes on the men who make it. Lee, for all his gifts as a storyteller, truly shines when he is telling the stories of men and the demands that we as a society make of men and maleness, especially in the black community. What does it mean to be a good man? A good father? How do you do that when you have carry societal expectations that you didn’t ask for? One of my very favorite Lee movies is He Got Game, which Lee called “a love letter to basketball” which it is, while also being an exquisite exploration of what it means to be a black father in America. Another very good (and far too often overlooked) Lee film is Get On The Bus, a quiet character driven film about a diverse group of black men traveling to the Million Man March. Lee is at his best when he is exploring these questions about what it means to be a black man in America, and breaking it down into it’s constituent parts - what does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be an American?
As for the movie itself, I won’t get into all the technical details or spoil anything. The movie is about 4 older black men who go back to Vietnam to do two things. To find the body of their fallen squad leader Norman, and also recover the millions in gold they buried with him. As with most Lee movies, the performances are excellent. Delroy Lindo should be nominated for ALL the awards. His performance was brilliant and moving and heartbreaking. There was one scene in particular (we can talk about it after you see the movie) where he portrayed what it *feels* like to have a PTSD episode triggered and a harmless interaction metastasize into something horrible in just a few moments better than just about anything I have ever seen on film. It was like looking into a very horrible mirror. I know that guy. I am that guy. And I never for one moment thought I was watching an actor. I was feeling all the feelings. Brilliant.
The other performances are just as good in their own way. And every character is answering the questions about what it means to be a black man who serves a country that doesn’t serve back in their own way.
The movie was, quite simply, one of Lee’s best. And the apex - so far - in a career spent exploring some of these fundamental questions about what it means to be a black man in America. About choosing, as Deon put it on the 9th floor, between being yourself, or adjusting who you are and how you express that to fit what other people expect of you.
I hope Deon gets to see it.