Review: ‘Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody,’ starring Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders, Tamara Tunie, Nafessa Williams and Clarke Peters

December 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Naomi Ackie in “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (Photo by Emily Aragones/TriStar Pictures)

“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody”

Directed by Kasi Lemmons

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1983 to 2012, in various parts of the world, the dramatic film “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Entertainment superstar Whitney Houston has struggles with her public image, her sexuality, fame, drugs, her parents and a volatile marriage to singer Bobby Brown. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Whitney Houston fans, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” will appeal primarily to people who want to see music-video-styled recreations of her life and relatively tame depictions of her biggest public scandals.

Nafessa Williams and Naomi Ackie in “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (Photo by Emily Aragones/TriStar Pictures)

At times, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” looks more like a cliché checklist of the legendary diva’s high points and low points instead of being an insightful biopic. However, the cast members’ performances, led by a dynamic Naomi Ackie, elevate this uneven movie. The recreations of some of Whitney Houston’s most beloved performances and music videos are among the highlights of this biopic, which sometimes gets dragged down by corny dialogue and tedious pacing.

Directed by Kasi Lemmons and written by Anthony McCarten, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is a movie sanctioned by the Whitney Houston estate, which is overseen by her sister-in-law Pat, who is one of the movie’s producers. Whitney Houston—who died at age 48 in 2012, of a drug-related drowning in a Beverly Hills hotel bathtub—has been the subject of some tell-all documentaries and books since her death. Therefore, the only people who might be surprised by what’s in “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” are those who don’t know what’s already been revealed in these tell-all stories or in the tabloid media.

That’s why everything in “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” feels like a retread with nothing fresh or innovative to offer in telling Whitney’s story. However, the movie delivers in its intention to be a nostalgia trip for her music and in doing faithful and meticulous staging of many of Whitney’s iconic moments. This is a movie made for fans who don’t want to see anything too shocking or too unflattering about Whitney.

Ackie’s performance as Whitney admirably captures some of the magic of this entertainment superstar. However, this depiction of Whitney never looks like a true embodiment but more like a better-than-average imitation. Some of Ackie’s real singing is in the movie, but the majority of Whitney’s singing in the movie consists of the real Whitney’s recordings. (And wisely so, since no one can completely duplicate Whitney’s extraordinary vocal talent and style.) Ackie, who is British in real life, also does a credible but not outstanding imitation of Whitney’s speaking voice.

Because this movie does not aspire to be prestigious, award-winning art, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” serves its purpose in delivering Whitney’s hits as a soundtrack to the portrayal of her life’s melodrama. Much of the real-life raunchiness and decadence are toned down to make her story more appealing to audiences of wide age ranges. The movie never takes the time to understand Whitney’s inner thoughts, but instead gives viewers plenty of behind-the-scenes drama that was already exposed years ago.

There are some touches of comedy that generally work well to lighten the mood. But sometimes, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” tries too hard to gloss over much of her emotional pain. Anything truly depressing in her life (which might have contributed to her drug addiction) is never fully examined, because the movie then jumps back into showing another Whitney performance. In other words, these are surface-level portrayals of Whitney’s problems.

For example, the 1991 miscarriage that Whitney had while filming the 1992 film “The Bodyguard” (her feature-film debut, which spawned the blockbuster soundtrack of the same name) gets less than two minutes of screen time. It breezes by with a scene of Whitney being comforted on a hospital bed by then-fiancé Bobby Brown (played by Ashton Sanders), with him telling her they can have other children in the future. And the miscarriage is never mentioned again. In real life, according to several people who knew Whitney and talked about her in interviews, this miscarriage had a profound and traumatic effect on her, but you’d never know it from watching this movie.

“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” screenwriter McCarten also wrote the divisive screenplay for “Bohemian Rhapsody” (the Oscar-winning 2018 biopic of British rock band Queen), which got a lot of criticism for jumbling the band’s timeline too much and fabricating important details. “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” doesn’t have those problems, since the movie sticks to the basic, well-known facts of Whitney’s life. The film’s tweaks to Whitney’s life timeline are minor and do not significantly rewrite factual history. The movie shows a good balance of Whitney in the recording studio and on stage, but the depictions of how she deals with her personal problems are often reduced to soundbites.

“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (which takes place from 1983 to 2012) is told mostly in chronological order, except for the movie opening with the introduction to her performance at the 1994 American Music Awards. It’s a scene that the movie circles back to at the end of the film, which concludes in a somewhat long, drawn-out and awkward way: Her entire medley performance (of “I Loves You, Porgy,” “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” and “I Have Nothing”) is recreated on screen when the end credits should have already been rolling.

The movie depicts Whitney’s rise to stardom, beginning in 1983, when she was 19 or 20 years old and a backup vocalist for her gospel singer mother Cissy Houston (played by Tamara Tunie), who had a great deal of influence on Whitney as a singer. Cissy is portrayed as loving but also very strong-willed and domineering with Whitney. As a performer, Cissy was well-known but not rich by any stretch of the imagination.

Cissy’s headlining status was mostly at large nightclubs and small theaters. And even though Whitney’s cousin is Dionne Warwick, Whitney’s godmother was Aretha Franklin, and the Houston family mingled with showbiz royalty, Whitney grew up in a middle-class home in the New Jersey cities of Newark and East Orange. Cissy often spent a lot of time away from home as a touring artist to pay the family’s bills. Cissy’s then-husband John Houston (played by Clarke Peters) was also Cissy’s manager. Like many famous divas, Whitney’s first manager was also her father.

As shown and told repeatedly in the movie, Cissy and John (who would eventually divorce in 1990, after 31 years of marriage) frequently argued because John expected Cissy to be a more attentive to the family despite her busy touring schedule, while Cissy resented having to be the family’s main source of income for years. Whitney’s older brothers Michael (played by JaQuan Malik Jones) and Gary (played by Daniel Washington) are briefly seen near the beginning of the movie, in a scene where all three siblings are smoking marijuana together in one of the family’s bedrooms. In real life, Gary (who married Pat in 1994) and Michael have admitted that they introduced Whitney to marijuana and cocaine, which became longtime addictions for her. (Whitney’s older brother John Houston III is not shown and is barely mentioned in the movie.)

How did John and Cissy Houston’s troubled marriage affect Whitney? The movie quickly depicts a young adult Whitney looking sad and disturbed as she listens to her parents arguing in another room. But she’s never really shown opening up to anyone about how all of this turmoil affected her. By the time Whitney meets Robyn Crawford (played by Nafessa Williams), who’s three years older than Whitney, on a basketball court, Whitney is all too happy to name drop the famous people who are in her family, in order to impress Robyn. The movie portrays Whitney and Robyn’s first meeting in 1983, when they actually met in 1980.

As shown in the movie, Whitney and Robyn became fast friends and eventually became lovers. For a while, Whitney and Robyn lived together before Whitney became famous and during the early years of her fame. It’s a romance that the real Crawford publicly confirmed in her 2019 memoir “A Song for You: My Life With Whitney Houston,” after years of speculation and gossip about the true nature of their relationship. Brown, who was married to Whitney from 1992 to 2007, also told intimate details about his volatile relationship with Whitney (which included love-triangle jealousy between him and Crawford) in his 2016 memoir “Every Little Step: My Story.”

“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” then shows the expected rise to fame of Whitney, beginning with a very contrived-looking scene of Cissy seeing Arista Records founder Clive Davis (played by Stanley Tucci) in the audience before the start of one of Cissy’s shows at Sweetwater’s Club in New York City. Cissy pretends to lose her voice, so that a confused Whitney would go on stage in Cissy’s place. Whitney sings a cover version of George Benson’s 1977 song “The Greatest Love of All,” which later became a hit from Whitney’s 1985 self-titled debut album. Clive is predictably blown away by Whitney’s talent; some variations of “I can make you star” scenes happen; Whitney signs a record deal with Arista; and Whitney becomes an instant smash.

Throughout the movie, Whitney is shown being torn between her public image and how she lived in private. From the beginning of her career at Arista, it was planned that she would have the image of a clean-cut princess who would have wide crossover appeal among many races and generations. Behind the scenes, Whitney is shown as someone who was already using drugs, and she didn’t really like wearing the dresses and wigs that she was pressured to wear as part of her “princess” image.

Behind the scenes, Whitney and Robyn were open about their relationship, but Whitney’s father/manager and other handlers told Whitney to appear like a heterosexual bachelorette who wanted to eventually get married to a man. Because of Whitney’s religious Christian upbringing, the movie shows her often being personally conflicted about her same-sex romance with Robyn, while Robyn had no such doubts. When the tabloid media would later report that Whitney was a lesbian, Whitney would deny it, which is technically an accurate denial, because she was also sexually attracted to men, and she probably identified as queer or bisexual.

When Whitney has a short-lived affair with singer Jermaine Jackson (played by Jaison Hunter), her duet partner on 1985’s “Nobody Loves Me Like You Do,” the movie shows Robyn flying into a rage and trashing the home where she and Whitney live. The movie does not mention that Jermaine was married to his first wife, Hazel Gordy (daughter of Motown founder Berry Gordy), at the time of Jermaine’s affair with Whitney. Eventually, Whitney and Robyn moved on to other love partners, but Robyn and Whitney continued to work together.

The movie also shows how Whitney’s relationship with Robyn led to clashes with Whitney’s father/manager John (who didn’t like that Whitney hired inexperienced Robyn as Whitney’s personal assistant) and later conflicts with Whitney’s husband Bobby, when Robyn had been promoted at the time to being Whitney’s creative director. (“She’s my princess!” John sneers at Robyn, during one of the movie’s cringeworthy lines of dialogue.) When the addictions to drugs and alcohol got out of control for Whitney and Bobby, the movie portrays Robyn as one of the few people in the couple’s entourage who would try to put a stop to it. But those efforts got stubborn resistance from self-destructive Whitney and Bobby. Robyn, who eventually quit working with Whitney in 2000, left the entertainment business.

Whitney’s relationship with Robyn in the early years of Whitney’s career are the scenes that seem the most genuine in portraying the “real” Whitney Houston. In a somewhat amusing scene, Robyn and Whitney both barge into John’s office, where he and his mistress/secretary Barbara (played by Andrea Eversley) are interrupted while being affectionate with each other. Whitney reacts like she knows that her father has been cheating on her mother, but Whitney doesn’t want to talk about it. Meanwhile, before Barbara leaves the room, she calls Whitney the family nickname for Whitney—Nippy—and Whitney and Robyn give each other a look, as if they’re thinking, “Say what? How dare she use the name Nippy!”

“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” has repetitive scenes of Whitney being bothered by criticism that she wasn’t “black enough” for some black audiences because of her choice of music, her mainstream success and her “America’s sweetheart” image. In other scene, Whitney gets defensive and angry with a radio DJ who tells her that many black people think she’s a sellout to her race. Whitney also makes a point of telling people that she didn’t grow up spoiled and rich.

The movie shows how Whitney tries to keep her composure in the audience when she gets booed at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards while her name was announced as one of the show’s nominees for Best Music Video, and losing in that category to Janet Jackson. Robyn is Whitney’s date at this show. The movie alters a few details, because the booing incident actually happened at the 1988 Soul Train Music Awards, not at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards.

The 1989 Soul Train Music Awards was where Whitney met Bobby, who was seated in front of her. Whitney gets his attention by swinging her purse deliberately so that the purse hit his head. (In real life, Whitney said she got his attention by kicking his chair, and he was really irritated by it.) Sanders portrays Bobby as someone who can be both a selfish troublemaker and a generous charmer, but the movie still leaves out some of the worst public information about Bobby.

Tucci’s portrayal of music mogul Clive is surprisingly subdued and not as interesting as it could have been, considering the real Clive Davis (who is one of the movie’s producers) has a reputation for being very charismatic. The movie shows Whitney telling Clive before she makes her first album with Arista that she doesn’t want to make white music or black music. She just wants to make great music. It’s one of several examples of the movie’s hokey dialogue that doesn’t ruin the movie but certainly lowers the quality of the film. Another example is when Clive first sees Whitney perform at Sweetwater’s Club, and he declares to his subordinate Gerry Griffith (played by Lance A. Williams), who persuaded Clive to be there: “I believe I’ve heard the greatest voice of her generation.”

The movie makes a half-hearted attempt to explain why Whitney didn’t go to rehab sooner for her addictions. In a scene shortly before Whitney records her first album, Clive promises that he won’t judge her or lecture her about her personal life. It isn’t until Whitney starts canceling performances, and the record company is losing money in other ways because of her drug problems, that Clive finally intervenes and tells her that she needs to go to rehab. It’s a very over-simplified scene because there were a lot more people involved in enabling Whitney and getting her to go to rehab. Her first public stint in rehab was in 2005.

What stands out most in this movie are undoubtedly the near-perfect recreations of Whitney’s on-stage performances, with the best highlight being Whitney’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV in 1991. The scene is shown with the pomp and circumstance of immersing audiences into a VIP experience of that spectacular performance. Even though in real life, Whitney used a prerecorded track instead of singing live, the energy in the performance and her vocal expressions are what really captivated people the most.

Other recreations in the movie include Whitney’s performance of “Home” on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1983; her music videos for 1985’s “How Will I Know,” 1987’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” 1992’s “I Will Always Love You” and 1998’s “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”; and 1994’s Whitney: The Concert for a New South Africa. The movie also has performances depicting some of her tours spanning several decades, from the 1980s to her ill-fated 2009-2010 last tour. The songs she performs in these concert scenes include “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” “I’m Every Woman,” “So Emotional” and “One Moment in Time.” There’s also a depiction of Whitney’s musical director Rickey Minor (played by Dave Heard) convincing a reluctant and skeptical Whitney in a rehearsal space to do her 1994 American Music Awards medley and rehearsing it for the first time.

The movie accurately shows how her final tour wasn’t exactly a triumph, since many of the shows were not well-attended, started late, or were canceled. In addition, Whitney got some negative reviews for not being able to hit the same notes that she could in the past. Whitney’s financial problems and her legal battles with her father (who sued her for $100 million in 2002, as he was dying in a hospital) are also depicted like more plot developments in a soap opera. Pat Houston (played by Kris Sidberry), who took over as Whitney’s manager after Whitney fired her father, is portrayed as the person who pointed out to Whitney that John Houston’s irresponsible spending led to Whitney’s losing so much money, she describes her fortune as “almost gone” in a scene where she confronts her father about it.

For every showstopping musical performance in the movie, the off-stage recreations are hit and miss, usually marred by shallow dialogue and very contrived scenarios. When Bobby and Whitney begin dating and are labeled an “odd couple” by the media, Bobby is defensive and tells Whitney why they have so much in common: “We from the ‘hood!” Bobby’s marriage proposal in a limousine is made to look intentionally comedic. As soon as Whitney says yes, he confesses that one of his ex-girlfriends is pregnant with their second child. Whitney gets angry, storms out of the limo, and the couple has one of many arguments shown in the movie.

Whitney and Bobby’s 1992 wedding, which was extravagant and had about 800 guests in real life, looks like a cheap imitation in the movie, which does a quick montage that makes it look like hardly anyone was at the wedding. Don’t expect the movie to give much insight into how Whitney was as a mother. Whitney and Bobby’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina (played as an adolescent by Bria Danielle Singleton), is portrayed as Whitney’s sidekick who doesn’t have much of a personality. (Bobbi Kristina’s tragic death at age 22 in 2015 is not mentioned in the movie.)

To its credit, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is more candid and a better-made film than Lifetime’s relatively low-budget 2015 movie “Whitney” (starring Yaya DaCosta as Whitney), which was directed by Angela Bassett. Lifetime’s “Whitney” movie was not sanctioned by the Whitney Houston estate, which might be why “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” excels in showing Whitney as a music artist. For all of its shortcomings, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” at least gets it right when it comes to representing Whitney’s musical essence that remains her greatest legacy.

TriStar Pictures will release “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” in U.S. cinemas on December 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes,’ starring Quincy Jones, John Williams, Scotty Barnhart, Norma Miller, Will Friedwald, Gary Giddins and Carmen Bradford

September 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Count Basie in “Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes” (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)

“Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes”

Directed by Jeremy Marre

Culture Representation: The documentary “Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes” features a group of African Americans and white people discussing the life and legacy of jazz/swing legend Count Basie.

Culture Clash: Count Basie experienced racism and other discrimination but overcame a lot of barriers to become one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. 

Culture Audience: “Count Basie” will appeal primarily to jazz fans, but other people who like biographies about famous entertainers can appreciate this documentary.

Count Basie (second from left) with his daughter Diane (second from right) and his wife Catherine (far right) (Photo courtesy of William J. Basie Trust)

Many people know jazz legend Count Basie when it comes to his music, but few people know what type of person he was off-stage. (Basie died in 1984, at the age of 79.) The well-made documentary “Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes” (directed by Jeremy Marre) takes a fascinating look inside Basie’s private thoughts and his personal life by revealing for the first time several of his letters, family photos and home movie footage. Basie and his wife Catherine preserved these archives that were made available to the documentary through the William J. Basie Trust.

The movie has voiceover narration by actor Clarke Peters portraying Count Basie reading Basie’s letters and other writings, many of which sound like they could have been excerpts from an unpublished memoir. Because of the voiceover narration of what Basie wrote in his own words, the documentary brings more of his personality to life than if it had been a conventional biographical documentary. Several of Basie’s former colleagues are interviewed, and they describe him as ambitious, good-natured, a strong leader and a devoted family man.

Basie Band saxophonist John Williams comments about Basie in the documentary: “He had this saying: ‘I like my band to think of me as just one of the guys.’ Don’t you ever believe that he was just one of the guys in the band … He was the boss!”

William James Basie (who was born on August 21, 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey) became interested in showbiz as a child, when he fell in love with going to carnivals. An avid piano player, he got his first real taste of performing as a teenager, on a fateful day when he attended a movie at the Palace Theater in Red Bank. The movie’s accompanying piano player was absent due to illness, so Basie filled in and learned to improvise his own music while playing the piano according to what was on screen.

Although being a cinema piano player was his first big break, Basie knew that he didn’t want to keep doing this as a job in entertainment. As his wrote in one of his letters: “It was time to get out of Red Bank. And music was the ticket.” (And it’s a good thing that Basie didn’t stick with being a piano player in a movie theater, since that type of job would become outdated when movies began to have sound.)

In 1920, Basie’s journey to fame and fortune took him to New York City, where he befriended Fats Domino and idolized Fats Waller. It was during his stint playing in Harlem nightclubs and hobnobbing with some of jazz’s greatest musicians that he took on the nickname Count, as a way to distinguish himself and bring an air of “royalty” to his stage name.

In 1929, Basie relocated to Kansas City, Missouri, where he further honed his craft as a jazz pianist and a swing band leader. In a letter, Basie wrote about his Kansas City experience: “It’s where I learned you don’t have to kill yourself to swing. Play like you play. Play like you think. And then, it’s you.” The Count Basie Orchestra was formed in 1935.

Basie eventually made his way back to New York City in 1937, but he found that the nightclub scene had become much more competitive than when he first arrived in the city. In an interview in the documentary, saxophonist Williams remembers: “They tried everything when Basie first came on the scene to destroy his band, and he was never bitter about it … And he succeeded.”

Basie was a regular performer at New York City’s Savoy Hotel, which had the rare distinction at the time of being a racially integrated hotel. However, racism was inescapable. As a traveling musician, Basie (just like other people of color) had to be mindful of the dangers of going in certain areas where people of color could be attacked or killed just because of the color of their skin.

In a letter revealed in the documentary, Basie wrote: “I can’t remember when I did not experience discrimination … And I didn’t let it bug me.” Some of his former colleagues confirm in the documentary that although Basie didn’t like racism, he wasn’t the type of person to get overtly angry about it.

It’s mentioned in the documentary that one of the ironies of Basie’s worldwide fame is that he was a favorite musician of German Nazis. In addition, Basie broke racial barriers in the music industry. In 1958, he was the first African American to win a Grammy Award. He went on to win nine Grammys in his lifetime.

Grammy-winning music legend Quincy Jones, who was a Basie Band arranger early in his career, reveals how Basie and his band would deal with racists: “Every day, we used to say, ‘Not one drop of my self-worth depends on your acceptance of me.'” Jones says of the racism that he, Basie and many other people of color experienced back then: “It was horrible. It ain’t much better now.”

Jones still gets rankled when he remembers when the band traveled in racially segregated areas (which were usually in Southern states), they often had to drive for hours before they could find a hotel that would accommodate them. According to Jones, things got so bad one night that they had no choice but to stay in a funeral parlor with dead bodies in caskets because all the nearest hotels were for white people only. “It was ridiculous,” Jones comments.

Despite the damaging effects of racism, Jones says that Basie remained humble. “He was a a very simple man … He was a very positive person.” After he became famous, Basie settled in Addisleigh Park, an upscale, predominantly African American neighborhood in New York City’s St. Albans, Queens. Addisleigh Park residents at the time included boxer Joe Louis, actress/singer Lena Horne and baseball player Babe Ruth.

Pamela Jackson, a Basie family friend, says in the documentary that Basie didn’t act like he was a celebrity when he wasn’t on stage. Although he spent a lot of time touring, when Basie was off the road, he spent as much time as he could with his wife Catherine and their daughter Diane, who was born in 1944.

According to Jackson, this family of three had a tight bond with each other, but “everything centered on Diane.” Diane was born with a disability that Jackson and Aaron Woodward III (another Basie family friend) describe in the documentary as probably cerebral palsy. However, they and other people say in the movie that Basie and his wife always treated Diane as if she were a “normal” child and it was unthinkable for them to send her away to an institution.

In Basie’s letters that are read in the movie, he describes his courtship with Catherine, whose maiden name was Morgan. She was a dancer when they met, and their relationship started out as an uneasy flirtation. She resisted dating him at first because she told him that she heard he had a bad reputation.

However, he eventually won her over, and they got married in 1940. (The documentary does not mention Basie’s first wife Vivian, whom he married in 1930 and divorced about three years later.) Catherine is described in the documentary as his soul mate and equal partner, including when she and Basie began getting involved in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.

Other people who are interviewed in the documentary include Count Basie Orchestra director Scotty Barnhart, plus former members of the Basie Band teams, such as dancer Norma Miller, drummer Harold Jones, singer Carmen Bradford and manager Dee Askew. On the journalism side, Basie essayist/jazz critic Gary Giddins and jazz critic/biographer Will Friedwald also offer their thoughts on Basie.

The documentary includes a very good selection of archival footage of Basie throughout the years. There’s some classic performance of Basie doing “I Needs to Bee’d” accompanied by Jones (who is not seen on camera during the performance.) Billie Holiday is featured in two separate archival clips: She seen bopping around in the background during a performance of “Dickie’s Dream,” and she sings lead vocals on “God Bless the Child.”

“Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes” clocks in at a brisk 74 minutes and tells Basie’s story in an unfussy and straightforward manner—just the way that Basie would have wanted it, based on the way his personality is described by people who knew him. The previously unreleased archival footage and letters enrich the movie (Peters does a great job with the narration), which gives people more appreciation for Basie not just as a legendary musician but also as an inspirational human being.

Eagle Rock Entertainment released “Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes” on digital on September 11, 2020.

Review: ‘Da 5 Bloods,’ starring Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman and Mélanie Thierry

June 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters and Jonathan Majors in “Da 5 Bloods” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Da 5 Bloods”

Directed by Spike Lee

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Vietnam, the drama “Da 5 Bloods” has a racially diverse cast (African American, Asian and white) portraying the middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Four African American men who are Vietnam War veterans return to Vietnam with one of the men’s sons to find a hidden stash of gold bars, and they confront issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), loyalty, greed and the cultural wounds left by the war.

Culture Audience: “Da 5 Bloods” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted dramas about friendships bound by trauma, but sensitive viewers might be disturbed by the film’s significant level of bloody violence.

Johnny Trí Nguyên, Clarke Peters and Delroy Lindo in “Da 5 Bloods” (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

Spike Lee’s sprawling epic drama “Da 5 Bloods” takes viewers on a thrilling, heartbreaking and absorbing ride that will reel you in, shake you up, and leave you feeling uplifted and solemn at the same time by the end of the movie. Simply put: “Da 5 Bloods” is one of writer/director Lee’s best films of the 21st century. Delroy Lindo gives a masterful performance that will stay with people long after watching “Da 5 Bloods.”

The plot to “Da 5 Bloods” is pretty simple, but there are many complexities that weave the story together. It’s the type of movie that people might feel compelled to see more than once to revisit all the story’s layers. The movie clocks in at 155 minutes (or two hours and 35 minutes), but every minute is worth it.

In “Da 5 Bloods,” four African American men who were Army buddies in the Vietnam War return to Vietnam to find the hidden treasure they left behind back in 1971—a safe filled with gold bars that they were entrusted to deliver on behalf of the U.S. government but the pals decided to keep the gold for themselves. The safe got lost in a plane crash and a mudslide, but there’s a chance that they could find the gold again.

The four men are Paul (played by Lindo), a politically conservative curmudgeon who’s suffering from PTSD and refuses to get treatment for it; Otis (played by Clarke Peters), a friendly medic who has a possible addiction to Oxycontin pills; Melvin (played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a fun-loving jokester who’s married but has an eye for other women; and Eddie (played by Norm Lewis), a well-to-do businessman who’s made his money through several car dealerships.

All four men are haunted by the Vietnam War death of their squad leader Stormin’ Norman (played by Chadwick Boseman, who appears in the movie’s flashback scenes), who was the fifth member of their group and the one who inspired them the most. The five men called themselves Da 5 Bloods. The surviving members all say that they have dreams about Stormin’ Norman, who died a hero in the plane crash. The four surviving members of the group are hoping to find the remains of Stormin’ Norman, so that he can get a proper burial.

Soon after they arrive at their hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, it’s clear that Paul is the most emotionally volatile one of the group. He makes racist and dismissive comments about the local Vietnamese people, and he has a quick temper. While having dinner at the hotel, a boy with one leg wanders in and goes over to their table to beg for money. Paul tries to shoo the boy away, but Otis compassionately gives $20 to the boy.

Paul, who is a unabashed supporter of Donald Trump, gripes: “It’s time we got those freeloading immigrants off of our backs and build that wall.” Otis, Eddie and Melvin don’t like Trump at all, but their political differences with Paul don’t drive a wedge between the four friends. Paul likes to wears a red Make America Great Again baseball cap (which was the Trump campaign’s signature apparel item for the 2016 U.S. presidential election), and that cap is used as a metaphor in different parts of the story.

After the four friends spend the night partying at a nightclub and drinking at a bar, Paul goes back to his hotel room to find a surprise: His son David (played by Jonathan Majors), an African American studies teacher, has unexpectedly shown up, and Paul is furious about it. Paul makes it clear that not only does he not want David there, but he also doesn’t want David in his life at all.

“You ain’t been nothing but an anchor around my neck since the day you were born,” Paul cruelly tells David. Why does Paul dislike David so much? That answer is revealed later in the movie. Majors gives an outstanding performance as David, who is desperate for his father’s love but is trying to hold on to his masculine dignity in seeking his dad’s love and approval.

Even though Paul doesn’t seem to want anything to do with his son, David isn’t going to leave. David tells Paul that he found out about the treasure hunt and that he wants to help. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that for David, this trip isn’t about finding the gold. It’s about trying to connect with his father, who goes out of his way to express his animosity toward David. This stressful father-son relationship is truly one of the most compelling aspects of “Da 5 Bloods,” and it will leave many viewers in tears during certain scenes.

Meanwhile, Otis has taken on the role of a surrogate father figure to David, as well as the group’s peacemaker when conflicts inevitably happen. Otis is also the one who leads the planning of the treasure hunt, since he has figured out the coordinates of where the plane might be, based on satellite photos.

Otis has enlisted the help of an ex-lover named Tiên (played by Lê Y Lan), a former prostitute who now works in international exports. Tiên has assisted Otis in arranging a meeting with one of her contacts: a shady businessman named Desroche (played by Jean Reno), who promises that he can give the treasure hunters a way to convert the gold to American funds without them getting caught. In exchange, Desroche will get a percentage of the money as his fee.

It’s a deal that has to be made on trust, because none of Da 5 Bloods knows Desroche personally, since he was recommended by Tiên. Paul is the most suspicious of Desroche, because he thinks it’s possible that Desroche will try to double-cross them and steal the money for himself. Paul also tells Otis that he doesn’t really trust Tiên either. During an argument with Otis, Paul also accuses Otis of the possibility that Otis and Tiên are secretly in cahoots with each other to steal the money.

And what about that gold treasure? A flashback scene shows when Da 5 Bloods decided to keep the gold, Stormin’ Norman made a pledge to donate the money to the Black Liberation movement: “We repossess this gold for every black boot that never made it home, for every brother and sister stolen from mother Africa to Jamestown, Virginia, way back in 1619.”

“Da 5 Bloods” makes an unusual and bold artistic move for the flashback scenes. Instead of having younger actors portraying the young Paul, Otis, Melvin and Eddie, the movie keeps the same actors for these roles in which they have to portray the characters as their younger selves. There are also no visual effects that de-age the actors in the flashback scenes. By not changing the physical age of the actors in the flashback scenes, it actually creates the sense that although they have physically aged when they remember this time in their lives, there’s a part of them that is still mentally trapped in their Vietnam War days.

But in the present day, the surviving members of the group have mixed feelings about that pledge. Paul is the one who unapologetically says that he wants to keep his share of the money for himself, while Eddie still wants to hold true to the promise that they made with Stormin’ Norman to donate the money toward causes that empower African Americans. The dilemma of greed versus philanthropy causes major friction with the characters during different parts of the story. If people want to read more into it, the gold and what to do with it are metaphors for the conflicting ideals of capitalism and socialism.

Before their big trip to the jungle, the five men spend some time in a restaurant/bar. While there, David meets a French woman named Hedy Bouvier (played by Mélanie Thierry), who works for nonprofit organization called Love Against Mines and Bombs (LAMB). As part of her job, she looks for old land mines and detonates them. Two of her co-workers—an American named Scott (played by Paul Walter Hauser) and a Finnish man named Seppo (played by Jasper Pääkkönen)—are also in the bar.

David and Hedy are immediately attracted to each other and they begin flirting and talking about their lives. Hedy says that she and Seppo “occasionally use each other for sex,” but she makes it clear that she’s single and available. And so is David.

For the treasure hunters’ trip to the jungle, they have a local guide named Vinh Tran (played by Johnny Trí Nguyên), who is easygoing and knowledgeable, but  Vinh isn’t told the real reason for the trip. During a boat ride, a middle-aged Vietnamese man tries to sell Paul a live chickens and refuses to take no for answer. Paul gets so angry that he begins yelling and threatening the man, who accuses Paul of killing his parents because African American men in Vietnam are assumed to be American military men.

The accusation triggers Paul into an emotional meltdown, where his PTSD is on full display. It’s during this breakdown that he confesses that his dreams about Stormin’ Norman are really nightmares. There are several scenes in “Da 5 Bloods” that are disturbing close-ups of Paul’s mental deterioration. And his relationship with estranged son David also takes viewers on an emotional roller coaster.

One of the striking technical aspects of “Da 5 Bloods” is how the flashback scenes are filmed by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. The scenes are shot as if they’re news film from the late 1960s/early 1970s, with 16mm and 4:3 aspect ratio. When the movie switches back to the present day, the scenes are in 2:40 aspect ratio before they go to the jungle. And for the scenes in the jungle, the film is in a 1:85 aspect ratio, to portray an environment which is wide open to the possibilities of the unknown.

It wouldn’t be a Spike Lee film without social commentary as part of the story. Lee and Kevin Willmott (who both won adapted screenplay Oscars for “BlacKkKlansman”) wrote “Da 5 Bloods” screenplay with Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo. The movie has plenty to say about race relations, colonialism and civil rights, not just in the United States but also in Vietnam.

“Da 5 Bloods” also makes blistering observations about how the Vietnam War was the first American war fought with a fully racially integrated military, which meant that more African Americans were on the front lines to die, compared to previous American wars. And although Vietnam War veterans of all races experienced divisive and painful reactions when they returned home, African American veterans had the added burden of racism in trying to adjust back to civilian society.

Throughout the film, there are snippets of African American history lessons to put much of the movie’s story in context. The beginning of the film opens with a montage of archival footage of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Angela Davis and Bobby Seale talking about the Vietnam War and/or the American government. And there’s mention of war hero Milton Olive III (who died in 1965 at the age of 18),  the first African American man to be award the Medal of Honor for the Vietnam War.

Lee’s best movies are known for their memorable soundtracks. “Da 5 Bloods” is no exception. Marvin Gaye’s classic 1971 album “What’s Going On” is prominently featured. And so is the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today,” which seems to be a staple in movies that have themes of African American empowerment, just like the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” seems to be in a lot of mobster movies. Music composer Terence Blanchard, a longtime collaborator of Lee’s, once again does a great score that enhances the essence of each scene.

“Da 5 Bloods” also includes striking and often brutal archival photos and videos to show the horrors and controversies of the Vietnam War, such as the American protests against the war; combat footage; and disturbing photos of people being murdered and children’s bloody corpses. The last half of the film, which primarily takes place in the jungle, is especially gruesome with gun shootouts and other bloody mayhem.

However, whatever violence is in the film is a manifestation of the emotional horrors the characters feel in trying to face personal demons. That psychological turmoil is the biggest gut-punch in “Da 5 Bloods.” People can try to avoid bullets and bombs, but they can’t run away from themselves.

Netflix premiered “Da 5 Bloods” on June 12, 2020.

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