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RACE EXAMINATIONS: Anghus looks at two flicks surrounding discussions of racism

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8:46
😀
Available on YouTube
27 min
Starring Dave Chappelle

One of the most troubling aspects of this turbulent time is dealing with the countless voices offering various perspectives on the anger and frustration over the injustices perpetrated against people of color. There’s an important conversation happening right now, one of the most vital in my lifetime, and the volume of noise out there is monumental. It’s a time when trusted voices are needed and are, sadly, in short supply. For me, Dave Chappelle is a trusted voice—a performer who seeks truth and pushes the envelope in productive ways.

His latest special is a lo-fi sermon on the death of George Floyd and the variety of topics stemming from Floyd’s execution at the hands of police. Racism is a topic Chappelle has discussed at great length over the course of his career. His most recent stand-up special on Netflix, “Sticks & Stones,” includes dissertations on race that are honest and fearless in a way few stand-up specials are. There’s depth to Chappelle that eludes his contemporaries—a balance between getting laughs and getting real that elevates him to a height few performers achieve.

“8:46” is a very candid performance—a socially distanced set done at an amphitheater with very little polish. It’s by far Chappelle’s most serious piece of work and lacks the cavalier cadence of his previous specials. In a 25-minute breakdown, the comedian calls out a culture that has denigrated and deprived the black community of dignity, finding unique insights into a troubling topic. He also eviscerates several narratives around the “responsibility” of celebrities to contribute to the narrative.

This is not your typical stand-up set or an escape from the difficulties we’re currently wading through. It is, however, work from a trusted voice—someone whose experience and perspective is desperately needed.

Da 5 Bloods
😀
Available on Netflix
Rated R, 2 hrs 34 min
Directed by Spike Lee
Starring Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters

There’s a quote from Muhammad Ali, who famously stood up for his beliefs, even when it cost him everything. When asked why he refused to serve the American military during the Vietnam War, he said, “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me n*****, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. . . . Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people?”

How indeed.

There’s a lot of questions presented in Spike Lee’s new film “Da 5 Bloods.” It’s a fascinating examination of the difficulties surrounding race, war and the conflicts that continue to challenge American society.

Last week I wrote about my unflinching admiration for Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” Arguably, it’s one of the 10 best American movies ever made. I could spend countless columns discussing Lee’s masterpiece and its invaluable contributions to cinema and black culture. Like most filmmakers, Lee has a filmography that contains some great films, some good films and some less-than-stellar efforts. I liked his 2018 film, “BlacKKKlansman,” for which he won an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. I also found it to be bloated and blunt.

“Da 5 Bloods” is an interesting endeavor. There are invaluable truths woven into a more bombastic storytelling narrative. Lee sets up the story using real-life incidents of racial brutality and injustices perpetrated against those who stood up for racial equality and against the Vietnam War. He peppers the film with moments and monoliths of the time, blending his brutal fiction with even more brutal facts. There’s a brilliant moment early on in the film where the propaganda mouthpiece of the Communists, “Hanoi Hannah,” reveals the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and presents the idea that black American soldiers are no different than the North Vietnamese they are at war with; both are expendable and viewed as less-than human by a racist society and an American government who doesn’t care about anyone who isn’t white.

The movie’s central story revolves around four Vietnam vets who have headed back to Vietnam to try to locate the body of a fallen comrade, as well as a treasure of buried gold.  The cast, led by the exceptional Delroy Lindo, does a good job of making these characters feel like genuine, life-long friends, which works well in the film’s first half as they relive “the good olds days.” This dynamic is even more effective in the film’s second half, when the plan goes off the rails and alliances become fractured.

There are elements of this film I really enjoyed. The central question of “What are we fighting for’” weighs heavily in the film’s first half and comes back like a boomerang in the second half, as greed threatens to take everything from the vets. I also appreciate how Lee isn’t afraid of wading through deep, dark waters, cinematically speaking. Violence is unflinchingly portrayed, and the brutality of war seeps through every scene. Man’s inhumanity toward fellow man has rarely been portrayed with such horror.

I also have criticisms. At times, “Da 5 Bloods” feels like two completely different movies: a  traditional action-thriller and a drama about dealing with racism and the horrors of war. Sometimes these two divergent aspects blend well together. Other times, they’re wildly disconnected. Still, I admire Lee for taking passionate swings.

Having senior-citizen actors play their younger selves was … interesting. Nowadays, everyone is looking for a computer-generated solutions or bold creative choices instead of just finding younger actors with some resemblance to their counterparts. The payoff isn’t always there.

Regardless, “Da 5 Bloods” is a worthwhile experience. It’s a unique cinematic experience and an emotional journey  into the heart of darkness.

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