Da 5 Bloods, and the outrage of Spike Lee's missing Oscar
The director's new film is radically inventive, and exemplifies his immense and under-appreciated talent
When Green Book beat BlacKkKlansman for the Best Picture Oscar in 2019, Spike Lee took it with his characteristic sardonicism. "I'm snakebit," he explained to the press. "Every time someone's driving somebody, I lose."
Lee's bitterness was warranted. In the three decades since his masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, was snubbed at the Oscars (the chauffeur movie that won that year was Driving Miss Daisy), the director has produced a body of work practically unrivaled in American filmmaking. His latest feature, Da 5 Bloods, is on Netflix today, and is further testament to his skill as a director, which as of yet remains unrecognized by his industry's most prestigious deliberative body. Da 5 Bloods underscores how egregious it is that Lee has been perennially overlooked for the Academy's top prizes; even as one of this year's most radically inventive films, it merely exemplifies Lee's immense and under-appreciated talent.
That's not to say Lee's career, which now includes 31 feature films, hasn't been uneven at times. Nor is it to say it's been in some way monotonous; Lee is nothing if not both prolific and artistically restless. He's directed documentaries, biopics, war movies, horror films, remakes, and shorts, both within and without the studio system. But the through-line for his filmography can still be found back in 1989's Do the Right Thing. In the film, the character Buggin' Out walks into Sal's Pizzeria, which, despite being in the majority-black neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, has a "wall of fame" adorned only with images of Italian-Americans like Joe DiMaggio, Perry Como, and Frank Sinatra. Buggin' Out demands to know, "Why ain't there no brothers on the wall?" His agitation over the lack of representation becomes a flashpoint, and the movie ends with the pizzeria burned down, and a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X hung on the ash-streaked wall. Lee's filmmaking has also, functionally, served to put "brothers on the wall," with the majority of his films heavily referential to black culture and history while being shown in the overwhelmingly white space of the cinema.
Da 5 Bloods is a magnificent example of this. The film tells the story of four Vietnam veterans who go back to recover a chest of gold they'd buried during the war, as well as to collect the remains of their friend, who died during a firefight in the jungle. With the narrative, Lee twins the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement as ongoing traumatic histories that have not been left in the past, and repositions both through the lens of the African-American experience. Da 5 Bloods opens with archival footage, including snippets of Muhammad Ali and Angela Davis, and throughout the film the characters cite both greater- and lesser-known figures of U.S. history, like Crispus Attucks, the black man regarded as the first victim in the Revolutionary War, and Milton Olive, who was the first African-American to win the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War when, at the age of 18, he smothered a grenade with his body to save his comrades. References to such figures are almost always accompanied by a still image on a dark screen, creating a sort of "wall of fame" of Spike Lee's own.
It's clever editing, but also classic Lee. 2018's BlacKkKlansman — which gave Lee his only competitive Oscar to date, for screenwriting — similarly put black history and art at the forefront of the film, with ample reference to the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s, including Shaft, Super Fly, and Coffy. The film likewise used archival footage to link the feature to the present; BlacKkKlansman shockingly ends with footage of the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. It is a testament to Lee's abilities as a director and writer that such parallels between fiction and current events don't feel contrived, but mesh so seamlessly into his scripts that by the time we're watching in a cinema, they're an inextricable part of the narrative.
Many of Lee's other great films have gone entirely unacknowledged by the Academy. His first film, She's Gotta Have It, "revolutionized black sexuality onscreen" in 1986 and features a scene-stealing Lee as Mars Blackmon. 2006's Inside Man — which, if you catch me in the right mood, I'll argue is his best film — brilliantly flips the script on the classic heist drama. Lee's Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke, also from 2006, was made-for-TV and therefore not eligible for the Oscars, but nevertheless is a provocative, essential work of nonfiction filmmaking. 2014's Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, a remake of Bill Gunn's 1973 Ganja and Hess, was Kickstarted and shot in less than three weeks, but still is better than many more widely celebrated movies from that same year. It quickly becomes nearly impossible to argue that Lee has been shut out due to a deficit of talent or achievement.
Lee has not been shy about expressing his irritation with the Academy, either. Fair enough: at this point, it's almost personal. Even in as weak a film year as 2020, a bold and unconventional film like Da 5 Bloods seems to be consigned to dark horse status in the race already. But Lee's films being somewhat challenging isn't a good enough answer. The fact that Lee has only been nominated for Best Director once, for BlacKkKlansman, is a glaring, decades-long embarrassment, worsened when you consider the category's wider history — Lee was only the sixth-ever black director to be nominated, and none have ever won. Even the Academy seems chagrined, sort of; in 2015, they awarded Spike Lee an honorary Oscar, although it in no way lets the majority-white voting body off the hook for their record.
In this strange way, life has come to mirror art. Lee has made a career of elevating black history and culture in his movies, Da 5 Bloods included, but even when they earn rave reviews from critics, his films haven't been celebrated by the surrounding institutions in the same way. The Oscars are the "wall of fame" that Lee's films remain conspicuously absent from. The one solace might be that history will be kinder to him than the Academy. "Nobody's talking about motherf--kin' Driving Miss Daisy," is how Lee put it to The Daily Beast several years ago. "That film is not being taught in film schools all across the world like Do the Right Thing is."
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