Newark’s Shortest Cameo: Da 5 Bloods (2020)

Spike Lee is America’s greatest working filmmaker, but Da 5 Bloods opens with a jumbled montage of historical footage that feels like a strangely sequenced Vietnam War Era Greatest Hits (Muhammad Ali! Neil Armstrong! Nixon! Etc.), and then it never really finds a footing but just sort of throws themes, ideas, and gunfire at you for the next two and a half hours.

Still, it mostly works; Chaotic Good is a familiar Lee register, and I’m okay with these slapdash efforts that feel both bloated and also fragmentary, the still-overlong shards of some would-be fifteen-hour epic where he actually sees it all through. He’d never forgive me for saying this, but Bloods is at its best when it’s at its most Tarantinoesque, letting some great actors do their thing and then making some of their bodies explode. There’s a cheap and rushed quality to some of it, but I loved the fuck-CGI flashbacks where aged performers just carry their age fifty years back into flashbacks (I’d take this over computerized, airbrushed, or even just made-up actors any day—lookin’ at you, Irishman), and I also loved the bad-CGI blood squibs in the action scenes, which look as chintzy as local no-budget Newark filmmakers like Bobby Guions shooting fifteen years ago in Dinner with an Assassin.


Newark appears in Da 5 Bloods for about one second, some stock footage buried under a superimposition, but I checked the bylaws of my Newark film blog and that qualifies. (I don’t know how to get good screenshots from a Roku-connected tv, so apologies for the phone shots)


It’s a great scene, playing to Lee’s maximalist strengths in building montage through layering. Our titular heroes are back in Vietnam, April 1968. They’re listening to Hanoi Hannah on the radio, as she tries to foment discord by highlighting American racism, a longtime tactic of the communist side of the cold war and one, of course, based on accurate reporting about the hypocrisies of an ostensibly democratic society that in fact operated through violent racist apartheid. (Indeed, historian Mary Dudziak has shown how much of the US federal commitment to civil rights stemmed more from cold war PR concerns than actual care for Black lives).

As Hannah speaks, announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., her smoky voice softly woos Black soldiers to lay down their arms and stop fighting for a racist nation that hates them. “Your soul brothers and soul sisters are enraged in over 122 cities,” she notes, but “Black GIs, your government sends 6000 troops to crush the rebellion.” While 11% of the population is Black, 32% of troops deployed are.


Lee shows us the recording studio, the pain on our protagonists’ faces, and American cities burning in the face of racist police/military repression. Unlike the opening scene, this powerfully interweaves the macrohistorical forces that structure our lived experiences and the individual encounters with history that fuel engaging narratives. Newark barely flickers in; we never even see it clearly, only under a superimposition of Hannah speaking, but it deftly captures the mediated way Black soldiers experienced King’s loss nearly 9000 miles from Memphis. I can’t quite place the shot (and it might not even be Newark, though I assume Lee’s research team probably pulled reliable stock footage).



The scene ends on an emotionally powerful but politically incoherent note, not unusual for Lee. Our four surviving heroes, infuriated, advocate “an eye for eye”—time to stop fighting for the racist US, time for revenge by fragging. Stormin’ Norman, beloved squad leader, insists they stand down, with a slightly confusing explanation of King as a man of peace and the need to own their own Black rage rather than let it be directed from afar. After a tense standoff, they bump fists in solidarity and fire their guns into the sky screaming in catharsis. The fact that Hanoi Hannah’s analysis is correct, and in sync with that of Muhammad Ali’s and other Black critics of imperialism, is elided. We’re moved, but not sure what Lee is trying to say here.



It’s generally a trite reduction to offer Newark as A City Burning, but Lee deploys it effectively in Da 5 Bloods. At least it’s 1968 rather than the usual 1967, and Newark was in fact one of the final places King visited before his awful death. There’s a powerful exhibit of images from his final Newark appearance inside city hall, but I can’t find my own photos from it so will crib this from the Star-Ledger as a placeholder:


Ultimately, I don’t share Bilge Ebiri’s assessment that Da 5 Bloods is “one of the greatest films Spike Lee has ever made,” nor am I convinced by its critics who find it a flailing failure. The flailing part, yeah, but it’s a film whose loose ends and rushed, ragged composition feel uniquely suited to this year of freefall collapse.

Newark hasn’t figured very prominently in Lee’s own cinematic cosmos. This is stock footage here, and the only time I know of that he shot anything here was some prison scenes for Malcolm X, which I’ll eventually revisit for this blog (and review his debate with our local cultural luminary Amiri Baraka, who hated the film). Lee was set to shoot the pilot for an HBO series, Da Brick, “based in Newark and on the early life of Mike Tyson,” in 2011, but the channel pulled the plug before it came together. He did executive produce New Jersey Drive, the 1995 Newark carjacking drama, and there was talk of him doing the same for a fictional adaptation of the great documentary Revolution ’67 by Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno. 

Da 5 Bloods might not add much to Newark’s cinematic legacy beyond another urban-unrest image, but I do believe it holds the title for the shortest filmic depiction the city has ever received, and so in the spirit of that brevity let me end here, short of 1000 words for once!



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