Photographed by: Sabine Villiard | Open Space, Paris
There's perhaps snakebites, landmines, trauma, and psychological cluster bombs to consider, but first, actor Melanie Thierry, who features in Spike Lee’s latest, Da 5 Bloods (Netflix), is talking about birdsong. And while the phenomena of birdsong round the world in a time of isolation and quarantine has become something of conversational de réserve, Thierry’s relationship to this uncanny candor from our avian pals in surrounds is unusual: her witness borne has been elective, not circumstantial. We had the opportunity to go to our house by the sea,” she says, thinking over the past several months, “but we preferred to stay in our apartment in Paris, just to be witnesses to what was happening in our town. It was a unique experience, and it was much stronger to live it in actuality.”
This is not a surprising stance for the French actor, who for the better of 20 years, has immersed herself in an acutely elective profession, a wealth of roles that demanded participation over observation. “It’s been very oppressive: one day you need a certificate in your pocket to go outside, you cannot bury your dead, and I was very worried for my parents, of course. But I was lucky, because I wasn’t in extreme solitude. I didn’t have to confront myself without people around me. And so, from my point of view, quarantine was tenderness with my family, and Paris without any planes. No motorhomes, no crowds of tourists, and it was like the pigeons of the city had taken control. The city became theirs.”
The reclamation of our cities by our cosmopolitan feathered friend—as the lion’s share of anxiety-inducing, metropolitan noise, exhaust, trappings, and hustle was suspended—serves an apropos pivot point for a prevailing theme in Da 5 Bloods: going back to get what’s yours. And it’s a Spike Lee Joint we’re talking about: a signature, prismatic blend of self-mythologizing, rawness, banter, wounds physical and metaphoric, and pride. As such, the reclamation in question is of the heavy-duty, no holds barred, fuck the history books variety, all set atop a postmodern, postcolonial, postwar jungle stage, that endeavors to reconcile the puppeteering strings of its past as much as it does the M-16 toting grandchildren of former Vietnamese soldiers, hot on Da Bloods’ trail, and hungry for a taste of that shimmering gold (more on that in a moment) as much as the next guy.
Spike is completely devoted to his art,” Thierry remarks when asked how the director’s rule-bending world amassed in telling and on set, “During all these years, he’s made films that were always a variation of his expression, and the Black question, with a treatment that was very exuberant. It feels like, for years and years, he’s filmed the youth from the inside, and now he wants to film these older men, shattered by war. And in this way to re-establish the truth, and give them a voice in their fate.”
Thierry continues after my alluding to the shameful, and yet not surprising, statistical subtext in the film concerning Black soldiers in Vietnam [25% of all combat deaths in 1965; 16% of all draftees and 23% of all combat troops, despite an 11% civilian population, in 1967], “There is something in his films where you always have a political aspect, and this journey of memory, and something important about teaching our own history to the youngest. It’s a life statement, full of ghosts and full of memories, and coming back to this land, where people are completely shattered and broken. His storytelling is always the multiplied effects of trauma.”
The story, then, features four Black American males, Da Bloods, whose Vietnam War platoon saw the loss of its fifth member decades ago in combat. In the course of the tragedy—which haunts one Blood, Paul (brilliantly played by Delroy Lindo) more than the others, causality of which is later revealed—Da Bloods came into possession of a massive trove of gold, only to be forsaken “in country” by circumstances superseded by survival. So, the search for Stormin’ Norman’s remains so that proper burial might occur is the chief reason the gents are back in fallen Saigon, and rucking out 100 pounds of gold a piece might sweeten the sojourn, especially to the a cappella overlay of Marvin Gaye. Above all, though, as the danger scales and trauma rears its ugly head, Da Bloods’ mission remains backboned by love—in its elusive and illusory incantations—by solidarity in the struggle, a struggle that evolves yet doesn’t cease.
“It’s completely metaphoric,” Thierry laughs, when asked if the gold represents reclamation by men who were drafted and made to fight in the US-backed war for the supposed salvation of freedoms they weren’t allowed back home, “because otherwise we don’t give a shit about the gold. It’s completely symbolic. Of more importance is their going back to this mysterious land that changed their lives, and broke their lives. After sharing an experience like that, the complicity is evident. And Spike likes to gather people, and create this magical circle around him. He likes to create a relationship, friendships, he’s very loyal to his team, and the team is really bonded. And of course this behavior helps to influence the relationships on screen.”
Thierry’s character, Hedy, plays a French expat who introduces herself to David, the son of Lindo’s Paul—played by Jonathan Majors, in what will likely be billed a breakout roll—as a product of colonial “bourgeoise.” Hedy has founded an NGO in Vietnam that seeks to eradicate active mines in the country and support those impacted by their decades-long presence there. “She can’t bear to see amputees everywhere, and is very affected by the children’s fate,” Thierry remarks when asked how her character’s charitable mission transformed into that of aiding Da Bloods, “She’s an activist. She created this NGO to remove mines, and she has a beautiful, adventurous nature, and this boldness of spirit. And because she grew up seeing terrible injustice, she wants to escape herself, and she wants to be useful in their journey and in her own way. ì She also smokes cigarettes in a way only a Parisian might, and seems to meet the fancy of Paul, its own landmine of sorts as the story unfurls, albeit in more of a cuddle towards the end than an explosion.
Thierry carefully considers the idealistically indefatigable, but influential, role Hedy plays as the buddy trip, which kicks off in a bar featuring one of the better dance sequences on film in recent years, into an all-out kill or be killed, 24 karat jungle romp. “Because she is full of guilt,” Thierry explains of her psychology in the drama, with a French-colonial past to boot, “and she has this sense of duty. And you know what? My character, she comes from a bourgeoise family, and sometimes the bourgeoise parents also make the best punks, who want to free themselves from a model of life, in a way... because she just wants to get rid of her guilt, and this feeling of guilt is unbearable for her. And so she wants to feel that her life is useful for people. And to be open to the world. And be open to others, and to trust people, and to have a hope, and that’s why this Black Lives Matter movement of hope, one-ness, and unity, and indignation, and anger is something so necessary and justified.”
We’ve arrived, as one would hope, on the Black Lives Matter movement, which reached an unprecedented, global amassing of protests and media following the murders by police of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in Minneapolis and Louisville, respectively, only days before Da 5 Bloods’ release in early June. Thierry frames this astonishing social upheaval—and with it a deepening, and hopefully unrelenting, structural critique of society—with what happened to Da Bloods in Vietnam, while protests, assassinations, riots, and the battle for Civil Rights waged on at home, “What happened to these men led them to something decisive, in their feelings, their faith, their beliefs, and their madness. And when we see current events, this movement around the whole world, it feels that it’s the same thing. It will lead us to something decisive. Spike talks about the rehabilitation of Da Bloods’ memories in Vietnam, their courage, the heroism of these guys. Sometimes we have a short memory, and we should be grateful for these sacrifices.”
Indeed, sacrifice in Da 5 Bloods does resonate and is bored into, as snippets of sourced documentary or news footage, laced with violence and hate and passion, intersects with the filmic narrative, quintessentially Spike Lee. Thierry concludes with remarks on her character, when asked about its atypical minoritization in the story, “I was the only white woman, yes,” she remarks, “and the only French, in the middle of the jungle, and sometimes this posed an obstacle with a foreign language, and at times I felt very vulnerable. I’m someone kind of very shy, and very reserved, and I think that in the shooting I had to get rid of my shyness very, very quickly, and I learned how to be autonomous, and responsible for my character. You have to be responsible for your character. The character belongs to you and you have to work on your intuition, and push your limits.”
It could perhaps be said we’re all being tasked to take greater responsibility for our character at this moment in time. Fists up, then, to the persons that have made the freedom to do so a reality, to the artists helping to tell the unknown stories deserving equal, if not more searing influence and impact on a world, that frankly, deserves better.