“What’s Going On”- Da 5 Bloods (2020) Pays Double Tribute

“Mother, mother, There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother, There’s far too many of you dying”

There are many memorable moments in Spike Lee‘s 2020 film Da 5 Bloods. From Delroy Lindo‘s performance- hell, the entire cast’s performance- to the cinematography and the story line, the film held me awestruck, tearful, and contemplative through its entirety. But perhaps the most compelling aspect of this film for me was Lee’s incorporation of Marvin Gaye‘s 1971 album What’s Going On. It was such a minor, yet monumentally, moving choice that etched this film into my brain and sent my thoughts soaring.

Crispus Attucks. The first man- the first American- to die for the American Revolution was a Black man. On March 5, 1776 he was murdered by British soldiers during the Boston Massacre. An estimate of between 5,000 and 8,000 Black slaves served in the American Revolution alongside the Patriots.

“Well I know I’m hooked, my friend, To the boy who makes slaves out of men.”

Still, it wasn’t until 1865 with the passing and ratification of the 13th Amendment that those soldier’s great-great-great grandchildren were finally free from involuntary servitude. This came after a brutal, bloody 4 year war- where upward of 179,000 Black people fought for their own, and even forcibly against their own, freedom. In that war, Robert Smalls, a former slave, became the first Black Navy captain.

After fighting alongside whites for multiple wars, and after the passing of the 13th Amendment, Black people in America continued down a path of vilification and increased criminalization. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Written in black ink, in the United States constitution, was a back door available for use for Black people to continue to be slaves to the state. Thus, the Black Codes of the South and convict leasing once again placed shackles on African Americans.

“Can’t find no work, can’t find no job my friend. Money is tighter than it’s ever been.”

Nearly a century later (76 years), the U.S. joined World War 2, where approximately 1 million African Americans served. Though, the U.S. military at the time was just as segregated as the South- relegating Black soldiers to cooks, quartermasters, and grave-diggers. Nonetheless, it was during WW2 that Vernon J. Baker was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was the first Lieutenant to receive one with the all-Black 92nd Infantry Division in Italy. Back in America, the G.I. Bill passed to offer resources and opportunities to veterans. It was known for effectively excluding Black veterans from its benefits. Black soldiers came home from fighting the same war, but they were not “heroes” like their counterparts. They returned to a continuous war on their home front- battling segregation, racism, criminalization, and more death.

Movie poster for Da 5 Bloods with Delroy Lindo, Chadwick Boseman, and Clarke Peters
Image courtesy of Netflix

The Vietnam War- where the most African Americans served in any American war. They made up 16% of the total drafted soldiers. Most of them were on the front line where they made up 25% of the U.S. casualties- all while only making up 11% of the U.S. population at the time. The 1966 Project 100,000 dragged hundreds of thousands of poor men from their homes onto the battlefront- 40% of which were African American. Fighting in yet another war, while being denied rights at home, proved to take a toll on Black soldiers. Studies have shown that PTSD had disproportionately affected African American soldiers, yet they were denied treatment and VA benefits. Between the Civil Rights movement and the war in Vietnam, Black Americans were continuously fighting externally for a country that they also battled internally for basic human rights.

Despite countless war films about American “heroes” of war, close to none portray Black soldiers in the same light as the white ones. Hollywood’s portrayal of American wars relies on the erasure of Black and other minority soldiers. This is part of what made Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (2020) such an exciting, new experience. Black soldiers were getting their story told.

So, where does Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On come into play for all of this? Not only was it a thoughtful, emotional choice for the film overall- heightening the experience with beautiful vocals and moving lyrics- but it was a historical choice, as well. To me, the soundtrack is what wrapped this film up in silk and ribbons and presented itself like the perfect quarantine gift. What’s Going On was Marvin Gaye’s 11th album. Its first single, What’s Going On, is considered one of the greatest songs of all time, and it was the song that inspired the entire album. The concept album is a soulful experience of its own, being written and sung from the perspective of a Black Vietnam veteran returning home from war and witnessing injustice, police brutality, racism, and poverty in his community. The album coincides so perfectly with every scene, every action, of the film, it completely immerses you in an experience unlike any other.

Photo of the cover of Marvin Gaye's 1971 album, What's Going On

Whats Going On was Gaye’s artistic protest. He stated in an interview that after watching the Watts riots, he thought to himself, “How am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” Despite little-to-no support from Motown Records, Gaye went on to record his 11th studio album- which he himself described as a protest album. What’s Going On received critical and commercial success; however, what the album has to offer, what it has to say, and what Gaye poured into it will transcend lifetimes.

Lee open’s Da 5 Bloods with footage from the Vietnam War, Civil Rights leaders, and Black opinions of the war and America at the time. With Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) playing alongside it, the film starts on a strong opening with a clear message for the audience.

“No CHance To increase finance. Bills pile up sky high. Send that boy off to die”

The lyrics perfectly mirror what you are witnessing on screen.

“Trigger Happy Policing.”

By the end of the film, Lee has created a masterful tribute to African American soldiers as well as Marvin Gaye. The final climax contains an acapella version of Gaye’s What’s Going On single, creating something new and representing something old all in the same. As the camera follows the characters after they have separated, and Delroy Lindo traverses the jungle alone while the others seek some sort of defense, Gaye’s lyrics echo like an empty hallway or abandoned house. The smooth tone of his voice singing “Father, Father, we don’t need to escalate. You see, war is not the answer. Only love can conquer hate” forces you to listen and reflect. The haunting lyrics connect the “then” to the “now” just as the film does. Altogether, they present the consistency of passing time. How much has changed, yet how much has not changed at all.

“Don’t Punish Me with Brutality.”

“Don’t punish me with brutality.” Those lyrics ring in my ears over and over again. Our fathers, grandfathers, great grandfathers, forefathers- crying and fighting for the same thing. As we march through the streets for Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed, Atatiana Jefferson, and so SO many more, we demand that we no longer be punished for the color of our skin. Don’t punish me with brutality. We ask that the country we fought for, to fight back for us. Every day, watching the news, looking to each other, asking ourselves “What’s happening, brother?” Will it ever end?

Photo of Marvin Gaye at a piano

Listen to “What’s Going On” on Spotify

Listen to “What’s Going On” on Apple Music

Today, African Americans make up 29% of active-duty enlisted women and 16% of active-duty enlisted men in the U.S. military, despite making up only 14% of the U.S. population.

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