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Da 5 Bloods

The Vietnam War. Yeah, we all flinch at the words. As a Canadian, I actually didn’t learn about this in school as we were “non-belligerent” (what a term!) (also, we were busy learning about our contributions in WW2, a war America remembers fondly by screaming at random Europeans “we saved your asses!” but Canadians remember as the war we joined immediately because we “thought Nazis were bad” and America ignored for two whole years because “Nazis were maybe okay” and finally joined when “something bad happened to us, on our soil.” Ahem) and I was born long enough after it that there was already a hit Broadway musical about it. But we can’t help having absorbed quite a bit about it, through pop culture of course, and by sheer proximity to our war-mongering neighbours to the south. I knew that it was a tough war because many Americans came to oppose it, which was probably the right attitude, but it meant that a lot of returning vets didn’t get the respect they deserved or the help they needed – which is an American hallmark, actually, by no means exclusive to the Vietnam war. And I knew that bad shit had happened there: we called it the My Lai Massacre; the Vietnamese call it the Son My Massacre, but either way you slice, it meant that 500 unarmed civilians – men, women, children, babies – were slaughtered by U.S. soldiers. Women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated, as were children as young as 12. When their cover-up was eventually busted, 26 soldiers were charged with criminal offenses but only Lieutenant William Calley Jr. was convicted. Found guilty of killing 22 villagers, he was given a life sentence but served only three and a half years under house arrest. And for me, the Vietnam war was oddly muddled up with hippies and their peaceful sit-in protests and with civil rights and their peaceful marches. And historically, that’s correct. Some were putting daisies into guns for peace and others were being sent to war, and those things were happening concurrently but not equally. Young black men were being sent to Vietnam in disproportionate numbers while young white men could easily avoid it simply by attending college: Bill Clinton deferred once for college, Joe Biden and Dick Cheney each deferred 5 times. And if staying in school indefinitely wasn’t your bag, your wealth and privilege could work for you in other ways; Donald Trump avoided the draft 4 times with educational deferments but the 5th time Uncle Sam came calling he out and out dodged it – his father called in a favour from a Queens podiatrist who wrote up a false diagnosis of “bone spurs” even though he’d been found physically fit to fight just two years prior and has since said it just “healed up on its own” with no treatment necessary!

Anyway, black civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., were opposed to the war for exactly this reason. Once again, black men were being asked (well, told) to serve their country, and there weren’t any colleges or doctors writing bogus deferrals for them. They were asked to protect the freedoms of people in other countries when they still didn’t have that at home for themselves. They were called up in greater numbers of course, and were a higher proportion of combat casualties in Vietnam, and African American soldiers encountered bigots in their ranks, discrimination in the field, disadvantage when it came to promotions and decorations, and fewer services if and when they returned home. That’s a whole lot to untangle, but have no fear: Spike Lee is reaching back into the baggage of his righteous anger, and he’s not afraid to tackle these iniquities.

In Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, Norman (Chadwick Boseman), a soldier in 1970s Vietnam, tells us “War is about money. Money is about war. Every time I walk out my front door, I see cops patrolling my neighborhood like it’s some kind of police state. I can feel just how much I ain’t worth.” Spike Lee always ends up sounding prescient in his films, but his trick is simply having the temerity to acknowledge that the patterns in our shameful history march on today.

Many years later, four Vietnam vets, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) return to Vietnam to repatriate the body of their fallen comrade and 5th Blood, Norman…and also the pile of gold they stashed along with him. Now surely worth millions of dollars, you might guess that this buried treasure is not going to bring out the best in even the most devoted of brothers in arms. Greed, guilt, nostalgia, regret – these we understand, but Paul’s motivation is particularly murky. Unabashedly sporting a MAGA hat, prone to racist outbursts, he’s convinced himself that he’s doing this for Norman’s honour. But propelled by fury, by a barely-restrained rage for the many ways he and his African American servicemen were vilified for their role in Vietnam, that pile of gold bricks starts to feel like reparations. And this recovery mission starts to feel more like one of revenge – against an enemy that Paul can no longer distinguish.

Delroy Lindo’s performance is the sun around which all the other planets orbit, and like all bright balls of fury, Paul is flirting with supernova. And for his part, Spike Lee has of course never been known for his reticence. As a director, he’s prone to flourishes, allowing Paul’s stream-of-consciousness mutterings to morph into a rousing monologue, staring down the barrel of the camera, staring us down, charging us with his passion and urgency. Lee splices the story of his 5 Bloods with real life footage – Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objections, the Kent State massacre, the Black Lives Matter movement (yes, his film is once AGAIN that prescient, he’s taking the pulse of America right from the jugular, right from its crushed windpipe, his alarm and his agitation a perfect reflection of today simply by being unafraid to hold an honest mirror up to the ugliness of yesterday). His script stresses the cyclical nature of the violence without letting anyone off the hook. Spike Lee’s strength as a filmmaker has always been his point of view, his authorial voice resonating backwards and forwards through time, the immediacy of his plea undiminished.

Da 5 Bloods is as potent as anything Spike Lee has ever done, and possibly the boldest feather in Netflix’s cap. The film is visually arresting, the aspect ratio in constant flux as we travel through time (and our four main actors embody their characters in both timelines, a choice I can only assume is deliberate since Netflix has proven willing to splash out for de-aging, perhaps a nod to these men wanting and needing to believe they are still heroic, still capable, still virile, or a symptom of having glorified the time in their heads, and wanting to recapture that now, before it’s too late). But most of all I admire Da 5 Bloods as an allegory for reparations. Not even an allegory, really, but a template what financial amends might look like and how we can begin to take the next steps forward.

Oscars 2019 Recap

What to lead with?

a) The Oscars were boring as hell without a host.

b) Green Book is NOT my best picture.

Although the Oscars did see a modest bump in audience this year, it is not likely to 91st Annual Academy Awards - Showhave converted any of the first-time watchers as the show felt listless and low energy without a host or opening number. Many of the presenters were good – I like the John Mulaney-Awkwafina pairing, and of course Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Tina Fey, though I think the win goes to Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry who really went balls-out in paying tribute to costumers (and kudos to the costume designer in charge of her cape who actually got every single one of those bunnies to stand up).

It was a great night for women, and for women of colour in particular. Rachel Carter and Hannah Beachler became the first ever African American women to win in their categories – costume design for Carter and production design for Beachler. They’re the first African American women to win in a non-acting category since 1984, when91st Annual Academy Awards - Press Room Irene Cara won for cowriting Flashdance. Both wins come courtesy of juggernaut Black Panther, which may be the actual best picture of 2018, trophy or not. “Marvel may have created the first black superhero, but through costume design, we turned him into an African king,” Carter said in her speech. “It’s been my life’s honor to create costumes. Thank you to the academy. Thank you for honoring African royalty and the empowered way women can look and lead onscreen.” Beachler, meanwhile, paid it forward “I give the strength to all of those who come next, to keep going, to never give up. And when you think it’s impossible, just remember to say this piece of advice I got from a very wise woman: I did my best, and my best is good enough.”

Regina King, Mahershala Ali, and Rami Malek all earned the Oscars they were expected to in the top acting categories. I have trouble calling Ali’s performance a 91st Annual Academy Awards, Press Room, Los Angeles, USA - 24 Feb 2019supporting one since he has pretty equal screen time to Viggo, but his award is deserved – not only was it the best and only good thing in an otherwise shitty movie, he ran a very gracious and thoughtful campaign. So did Malek, which is probably what pulled him out ahead of Christian Bale, who probably turned in the more effortful performance as Dick Cheney in Vice but didn’t campaign at all. Olivia Colman pulled out the night’s biggest upset (well, one of them) with her best actress win over the favoured Glenn Close (clearly not The Favourite though, haha, movie puns). Close is great in The Wife, which is not a good movie. Colman is great in The Favourite, which is an exceptional movie. Again, you can’t and shouldn’t really call hers the leading performance above Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz when all 3 ladies get equal screen time, but thanks to wonderful editing, her story line acts as 91st Annual Academy Awards - Backstagethe emotional anchor. And oh boy is she emotional! It’s such a forceful, impassioned performance. Truly deserving, even if poor Close has now lost 7 times and won 0 – a dismal track record, and she’s the got the dubious title of most nominated but never winning actor – male or female.

Spike Lee finally won his Oscar, for BlackKklansman‘s best adapted screenplay. A tough category, which makes it exciting. You could have had heaps more in there spike-lee-1-1for sure. I think If Beale Street Could Talk and Can You Ever Forgive Me? were just as good (and so different!) but I’m glad Lee won, and super glad that pal Sam Jackson was there to tell him the good news. Their on-stage celebration was one of the highlights of the night. So, by the way, was Barbra Streisand telling the audience the many things she and Spike have in common – including (but not limited to) their love of hats. God bless her!

Alfonso Cuaron won best director, as he should, from great friend and last year’s winner, Guillermo del Toro, who got out of his sick bed to do so. And Cuaron accepted Roma‘s award for best foreign language film on behalf of Mexico. And he won best cinematography, the first DP to win who also directed the movie. 91st Annual Academy Awards - Governors BallInterestingly, the American Society of Cinematography gave its highest award to Cold War’s Łukasz Żal, but that’s because Cuaron, a director, is not a part of this guild. Cuaron is the first person to be personally nominated for 4 Oscars for a single film (best foreign language is not personal, but awarded to a country), the fourth being for his original screenplay, which he lost in a tragic incident I don’t even want to get into. Anyhow, in presenting the award for cinematography, Tyler Perry noted it was a pleasure to do so “live on 91st Annual Academy Awards, Governors Ball, Los Angeles, USA - 24 Feb 2019camera, not during the commercial break. Thank you, Academy.” You may recall that just a few weeks ago, the Academy said it would hand out several awards, including this one, during commercial breaks, but had to rescind its decision due to the wrath of nearly everyone.

It used to be that best director and best picture often went hand in hand, which makes sense. But in the past 10 years, since the Oscars opened up the best picture category to a potential 10 nominees, things changed. Now it uses a “preferential ballot” system, which means the most liked movie wins – but not necessary the most popular, which could explain the now 50% 91st Annual Academy Awards - Showdiscrepancy between best picture and best director wins. Members are asked to rank the best picture nominees from best to worst. This year there were 8 nominees, so the accountants made 8 piles and sorted all the ballots according to their #1 choices. If no movie has more than 50% of the votes, and with more than 5 nominees that’s practically impossible, then the smallest pile is removed. Let’s assume that Vice had the smallest pile. Now all the ballots that listed Vice #1 are re-sorted into piles according to who their #2 pick was. You can see why canny members are now voting strategically, and how the movie with the most #1 picks won’t necessarily be the winner. The win could easily go to the movie with the most #2 picks, which is weird, but that’s also how Americans pick their presidents, and we all know how well that turns out. So Green Book is the Donald Trump of best pictures.

Green Book shouldn’t have been nominated. At best, it’s a pretty pedestrian movie. At best. But it’s also a movie about race relations that’s written and directed by white ABC's Coverage Of The 91st Annual Academy Awards - Press Roommen. Solely by white men. Which is why so many of the Academy’s old white men felt comfortable voting for it. They could pat themselves on the back for being ‘diverse’ while still rewarding the status quo – for reframing the story of a black man’s experience into the perspective of his white driver. Never mind that director Peter Farrelly has a history of consulting his penis during meetings. And that writer Nick Vallelonga has said some weird Islamophobic shit, agreeing with Trump of all people, tweeting “100% correct. Muslims in Jersey City cheering when towers went down” – and that was still on his time line when he won the Golden Globe this year. Gross.

Meanwhile, Roma is a work of art from start to finish. I’m so proud that a black and white movie, with subtitles, with no stars or recognizable names, about society’s less visible women, is such a huge deal, so gorgeous and relatable. What a win for 91st Annual Academy Awards - Governors BallNetflix, and for taking chances. And If Beale Street Could Talk is also completely worthy. It’s visual poetry. I was electrified, from the colours to the dialogue’s flow, and the story’s timeliness and timelessness. Perfection. And there are many other terrific movies besides: The Favourite is funny and incisive and beautifully acted; BlackKlansman is galvanizing wizardry; Sorry To Bother You is risky and bold; Blindspotting is culturally significant; Spiderman: Into the Spider Verse is ground breaking; Eighth Grade distills a moment in time, taking us back while pinning us in place with its precise observation; Black Panther elevates the super hero game and asks more of us as an audience and a culture; Can You Ever Forgive Me? is funnier than almost any comedy released this year but the humour comes from a dark and interesting place, a true voice for society’s losers; Leave No Trace is heart breaking in its truth and simplicity; First Man is cold and wonderful and ambitious and intimate; Crazy Rich Asians is visually stunning and a cultural milestone. I’m going to stop there, but you get my point. 2018 was a great year for movies. I was moved, I cried in utter delight, I was horrified and invigorated. I think Green Book is a step back. I wish it didn’t win. But instead of complaining about Green Book, I’m going to keep pushing forward the movies I love, because that’s what’s so great about cinema. You don’t have to like them all, but if you keep watching, you will find something to love.

 

BlacKkKlansman

Ron Stallworth is a young black man, proud to be Colorado Springs’ first African-American police officer, in 1972 (or 1979 in real life, but from these parentheses forward, please understand that though this is based on his autobiography of real events, I’ll be discussing the events in the film). He’ll be the Jackie Robinson of the PD, and like Jackie, he’s the impossibly perfect, flawless, magical black man who will need to constantly turn his cheek – not just to the racist public, but to racist colleagues as well. Life might be difficult for Ron walking the beat but he’ll never know because he’s buried in the basement records office being abused by his own fellow officers. He’s desperate to get some real police work but I bet he got more than he bargained for. When he’s partnered with a Jewish officer named Flip, the two of them together make a single perfect Klansman.

Wait, what? Yeah, true story, though it sounds like the setup of a joke with a cringe-worthy punch-line. A black guy and a Jew teamed up together, undercover, to infiltrate the KKK. Ron (John David Washington) says all the right things on the phone, all the way up to the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke (Topher Grace). Flip (Adam Driver) provides the requisite white face and trucker caps. Together nothing can stop them, except possibly guys in hooded robes.

Spike Lee directs this thing, based on Stallworth’s memoir. But the spin that Lee and the other writers bring to the movie is fantastic. While this would have been a remarkable story at any time, setting it is amidst blaxploitation movies and Nixon’s reelection 03-blackkklansman-review.w1200.h630campaign gives it a crisp edge, and the constant allusions to Trump’s eventual win, thanks in part to his KKK ties, give it a sharp one. Damn it’s smart. And also depressing. And funny. Like, really funny. And so sad. Because as astutely-observed as this stuff is, it’s astonishing and disappointing to realize that 40 years on, we haven’t made much discernible progress. White people were horrified and baffled by 45’s election, which is funny because it was obviously white people who elected him. The two kinds obviously don’t talk. But nearly every black American I’ve spoken to was not overly surprised by the result (which is a far cry from being happy about it). They knew the country’s true temperature since they live with its consequences every day. And now those things have been outed, given permission to be voiced, and suddenly 2018 is resembling 1972 is some very uncomfortable ways.

John David Washington is really great in this role. He made his movie debut at just 6 years old, playing a school kid in a movie Spike Lee made with his father, Denzel called Malcolm X…maybe you’ve heard of it? If he’s getting acting lessons at home, they’re paying off. He’s subtle and natural and the movie’s success hinges on how well he underplays events that seem so impossible. Adam Driver does well too; he knows he’s second banana, but his character undergoes an interesting arc, from “it’s just a job” to really internalizing the hated for Jews that he constantly has to endorse as part of the klan. It has to mess you up to say things against your own people, to disavow yourself from a group that is part of your essential self – we feel that every time Flip denies his religion out loud to suspicious klansman, but it’s an interesting callback to Ron’s police department interview, where he basically had to do the same. And that should give us pause. And Topher Grace gets to play David Duke because Armie Hammer’s perfect Aryan face was presumably busy playing a slave owner in some other movie.

Ron spends the movie trying to prove to himself, to his potential girlfriend, and to his superior officers, that you can work from the inside to tear something down. His lady, the president of the black student union, is a proud agitator who doesn’t believe you should belong to the system you’re trying to destroy. “Black liberation!” she shouts at him. And we clearly see his own internal struggle because on the one hand he’s a first hand witness to the system being broken, and stacked against him, but he also believes he can be an agent for change. It takes guts to be the guy on the inside. I guess after being that guy for his whole life, joining the klan maybe didn’t seem so scary.

In fact, Lee does well subtly highlight the similarities between the two groups: kops and klan. Both seemed nearly identically racist in the 70s. But what got me is that in the film, both groups refer to themselves as “family.” Very recently I was telling Sean this theory of mine that any non-family member who refers to themselves as “family” is doing it for nefarious reasons. Work “families” tend to be abusive. It means, sure they’re internal fighting. It’s fine. It’s family. In the police department it means we don’t rat on each other. If some officers are abusing their position to harass people (spoiler alert: black people!) we turn a blind eye. There are so many clever, subversive little elements that they get under your skin incredibly effectively.

And just when you’re starting to feel cutesey about all the Nazi-salute foreplay and lynching pillow talk, Lee flips the script and reminds us of our present-day truth, where we cannot hide behind our smug sense of superiority. We are not better, and there’s no better way to remind us of that than with footage from last year’s white superemacist, neo-nazi, ‘white civil rights’ rally in Charlottesville. This weekend is actually the one-year anniversary, and tensions are high. This movie will likely never reach the hearts and minds of those who could really use it, but let it be both a balm and a rallying cry for the rest of us, perhaps even an emergency flare. We need movies like this to get us through these dark days.

Touched With Fire

We saw four movies on Friday at the New Hampshire Film Festival, and this was Sean’s favourite of the bunch. Starring Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby as two bipolar poets who meet in group therapy while unhappily committed to a psychiatric ward, they feed each other’s mania and explore the possibility that maybe their illness is actually a gift.

imagesCAVJ8VDGThe movie derives its name from the book that examines the relationship between bipolar disorder and creativity, citing lots of artistic minds assessed as probably having suffered this or a similar disorder: Ernest Hemingway, Edvard Munch, Jackson Pollock, and Vincent van Gogh, to name a few.

Two things about bipolar disorder:

  1. It’s a serious disease. But it is a disease, and like many diseases, it can be managed with lifestyle choices and medication. It used to be called manic-depression but those two moods are misleading because not everyone experiences them like they’re often depicted in the movies. The mania is not always energized3d Bipolar disorder backgroundfun – some people get very irritable and paranoid during their manic phases. And other people will be angry and violent during the down phase, rather than depressed and sad. Medication and psychotherapy help a lot, but just like a diabetes, it’s a hard illness to manage. It’s a life-long commitment, and they’ve got the disease actively working against them at times – often just when they’re doing well, it starts whispering that they’re fine, they can get off the meds. That’s not really the case, but since the medication can make people feel sluggish or not quite like themselves, it’s really difficult to battle against those thoughts. And just like someone with heart disease who knows darn well they should cut down on red meat and stress, people who suffer with bipolar disorder can relapse, but for some reason we’re always harder on people with mental illness compared to other bodily illnesses. Bipolar disorder doesn’t get cured, but I have known people to live happy lives with it. I really salute them because it takes a lot of care and diligence and support.
  2. There does seem to be some kind of link between bipolar disorder and genius\creativity. I can’t tell you what that means because science has no fucking clue what it means. I can tell you that it doesn’t guarantee anything, and it isn’t true of everyone with bipolar disorder, or even most. But during the manic episodes, people have racing thoughts that can lead to all kinds of ideas and links and thinking outside the box. If you are a writer or musician who gets inspired and does your best work during this phase, think about what it means to have to give it up in order to “get well.”

touchedwithfireSo that’s what this movie explores: that fine line between wanting to get well, but also wanting to keep the aspects of the disorder that make you unique. Carla and Marco, in the movie, are both poets of a sort, and are transfixed by this sacrifice they’re being asked to make.

I am happy to report that this movie was not reckless. It did place value on medication, but it did it within a questioning context, which I think is important.

Let’s consider, for a moment, Vincent van Gogh. He’s one of the most acclaimed and famous artists ever. Was he bipolar? His “diagnosis” is only in retrospect since the disorder wasn’t even named or classified during his time. He certainly showed many of its dispositions. You know that during one of his “episodes” he mutilated his own ear, after which he checked himself into an asylum and spent there a fruitful year during which he painted many of his most prominent pieces, including the irises, his blue self1280px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project-portrait, and this one, A Starry Night, which was the view from his asylum room (minus the bars on the window, of course). This is what a night sky looks like to a “sick” brain. Isn’t it something? The world, our culture, places great value on this remarkable painting, and yet it would not exist had he been “well.” Doesn’t that make you think?

On the other hand, manic episodes are often accompanied with impulsivity, and poor judgement; sometimes even psychosis. About half will experience delusions or hallucinations, which can lead to violence. And the higher the high, the lower the low. The depressive state can include feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger, guilt, self-loathing, helplessness, and morbid thoughts of suicide. You wouldn’t wish this part on  your worst enemy, and it makes it tough to maintain the relationships and support network so crucial to health. Half of those suffering with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide or self-harm.

I valued this movie for asking the right questions, even if we don’t have all the answers. It felt like a pretty honest look at the disorder, the good and the bad, and the fallout that hits those that love them (Christine Lahti contributes a solid performance as a mother constantly on the brink), and I can see it being enlightening for audiences, and a good conversation starter for a disorder that’s often misunderstood.

MV5BODY2MjUzNzQ2NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjk0MDc4NDE@__V1_SX640_SY720_This film was written and directed by Paul Dalio, who was going to school in the Graduate filmmaking program at NYU, where he was discovered by his professor, who just happened to be Spike Lee (Lee believed in the work so much that he’s the executive producer on this film). Dalio made this film after overcoming his own struggles with the disorder as a way of reconciling the beauty and horror that comes from it, and dedicated it his fellow suffering artists.