Spike Lee's latest is one of his best. Plus: A film reflecting on the legacy of Juneteenth, and a documentary about Civil Rights Movement icon John Lewis.

By Marc Bernardin
June 12, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT
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David Lee/Netflix

Black cinema — at least the Black cinema that gets funneled through a Hollywood system still controlled, for the most part, by white men — tends to fall into two categories. There are the small stories about people struggling to find their own personal states of grace. And then there are the big stories about the Struggle and the resulting pain that comes from trying to endure it. Lowercase story vs. uppercase History. Love & Basketball vs. 12 Years A Slave.

Three movies will be hitting streamers near you in the next month, each from African-American filmmakers, that run gamut of the Black cinematic experience, from story to history to a little bit of both: the documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble, writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ feature debut Miss Juneteenth, and Spike Lee’s Vietnam elegy Da 5 Bloods.

Tom Lankford/© Alabama Department of Archives and History/Alabama Media Group/Magnolia Pictures

It’s easy to look at John Lewis: Good Trouble (theatrical/VOD, July 3) and be in awe of this statesman’s deeds, of what the octogenarian survived to advance civil rights in an America that fought him — and still fights him — at every turn. And it’s easy to be moved by the testimonials from Hilary Clinton, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nancy Pelosi, and Ayanna Pressley — all of which are interspersed among current scenes of him hitting Southern churches and stumping for young candidates — as well as archival footage of his work alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the beginning of the American Civil Rights Movement.

But as I found myself charmed by Lewis himself and, again, blown away by his footprints on history — on his inauguration day, Barack Obama gave Lewis a note that said, “It’s because of you, John” — I found myself asking a question the documentary’s director, Dawn Porter, never answered. What made him this person? From whence came the seed of greatness? “There was something deep down within me, moving me, that I could no longer be satisfied,” said a baby-faced Lewis in some old interview footage. But what is that something? John Lewis: Good Trouble is absolutely inspiring — but it stops a bit short of being illuminating.

Miss Juneteenth (VOD/theatrical, June 19), on the other hand, isn’t interested in history at large. Instead, Peoples’ debut focuses on the personal history of Turquoise Jones (Little Fires Everywhere’s Nicole Beharie), a single mother who used to hold the local beauty pageant crown of Miss Juneteenth, named after the day when the last slaves, in Texas, learned they were free months after the Civil War. Now, one teenager named Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) later, Turquoise wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps while doing more with the pageant’s scholarship-to-any-HBCU prize that she did. It’s a “how much can a single black mother endure” story, between the rebellious daughter, trouble-prone love interest (Insecure’s Kendrick Sampson), judgmental you-need-Jesus mother, thankless job as a waitress-bartender at a down-home Texas lounge, and casual Karen racism. Beharie remains a powerful performer, able to convey multitudes with subtlety, even if Miss Juneteenth never makes a move you didn’t see coming a mile down that country road.

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Of the many terms a cineaste could use to describe a Spike Lee joint, be it one of his best or one of his worst, subtle likely wouldn’t be among them. As is the case with Da 5 Bloods (Now streaming), which follows four combat veterans — played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Norm Lewis, all outstanding — as they return to Vietnam decades after the war. Ostensibly, they’re there to recover the remains of their fallen squad leader (Chadwick Boseman). Truthfully, they’re on a hunt for the fortune in gold they found in a downed CIA plane and then buried before rotating home. And spiritually, they’re all on a quest to heal from the wounds they got in ‘Nam — none moreso than Lindo’s Paul, whose PTSD is never far from the surface.

Da 5 Bloods manages to be both an intimate drama about four men trying to come to terms with the carnage that detonated their collective emotional landscapes and a big-picture treatise on race in the America of the 1970s and the interventionist footprint of the U.S. in Vietnam. (And Lee deploys a lot of newsreel footage to back that treatise up.)

When it’s the latter, Da 5 Bloods is a film that doesn’t trust its audience to get The Point, so it all but slaps you in the face with it. But when it’s the former, Lee’s latest is a crackerjack drama, directed by a filmmaker who remains in total control of his once-in-a-generation gifts and utilizes them to synthesize story and history into something new.

John Lewis: Good Trouble: B

Miss Juneteenth: B-

Da 5 Bloods: A-

**

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