In a Spike Lee joint, American history, race, and cinema are all linked by an intersecting wavelength of trauma and culpability. Da 5 Bloods, his latest film for Netflix, continues this “honest truth, Ruth” cinematic bluntness, a masterpiece deconstruction of the trauma black Vietnam G.I.’s faced after risking their lives for a country that continues to regard them as second-class citizens. It’s a simple story given complexity by the merging of past, present and future through footage and film, done in a way that only Lee can make look seamless.
One can’t help but see the timeliness of Da 5 Bloods in wake of the Black Lives Matter protests avenging George Floyd’s murder, amongst countless other black deaths at the hands of police brutality. Of course it’s not like Lee hasn’t called out this reality of white supremacy before. The death of Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing mirrors what happened to Floyd and Eric Gardner five years before, implying an endless loop of brutality that can’t be ignored anymore. His last film Blackkklansman ended by transitioning into footage of the Charlottesville Neo-Nazi rally, forcing viewers to accept that the absurdist KKK ideas they just watched found a home in the present. But they’ve always been there. Lee’s no prophet- he’s just always had his finger on the pulse as to where white supremacy left its cultural mark.
Da 5 Bloods begins with a quick montage of the Vietnam era from a black and American perspective. We get Muhammad Ali protesting his drafting request at the expense of a heavyweight title, Napalm bomb drops, quotes by Malcolm X and Angela Davis, a trip to “da Moon” and criticisms of how many families Space Race money could have fed, amongst other landmarks. Opposition to the war meant jingoistic criticism at home, even as inequality and racial strife in America escalated. Black lives were killed domestically and they were killed as Vets, with the survivors returning to a country that wouldn’t return the favor for their service. This is where we meet the titular 5 Bloods in modern Vietnam.
The Bloods in question are now down to four, and approaching senior citizen age at that. Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Paul (Delroy Lindo) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) were once in the same platoon together and have returned to the jungle to retrieve part of their past. With funding from a shady businessman named Desroche (Jean Reno), these men hope to recover both the remains of their squad leader “Stormin Norman” (T’Challa himself, Chadwick Boseman) and a cache of gold bars they discovered almost fifty years ago. The gold was initially sent by the CIA to aid (translation: fund) the war effort, but Norman advised they claim the gold as reparations for centuries of “dying for this country from the very git,” only for the treasure to be left behind with his body. The same can’t be said for the PTSD that haunts the Bloods over fifty years later, some more than others.
The war and PTSD, in Lee’s eyes, are a double conflict, representing both Vietnam and racism. His cinephile tactics, while subtler than Tarantino-esque pastiche, always succeed at revealing political and media hypocrisies toward blackness, in this case how we consume the iconography of war. Hence the story’s blend of premises from Apocalypse Now and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Some of it is classic homage, like playing “Flight of the Valkyries” over a slow riverboat sequence rather than a roaring helicopter brigade. But the more potent critiques are directed at Hollywood’s abundance of revisionist narratives, casting aside the 32% of black soldiers who served in favor of First Blood-inspired revenge fantasies. Who needs a story about Milton Olive, who threw himself on a grenade to save his platoon at the cost of his life, when you can just watch Rambo kick ass?
The Bloods aren’t bare-chested action stars; they’re old, weary, and dealing with scars that never fully healed. Some find those scars can be found back in ‘Nam like Otis, who reunites with an ex-prostitute he slept with on tour, while others, like Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) who followed him overseas to resolve their father-son issues, are byproducts of American trauma. Even the people they meet in Vietnam like tour guide Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyễn) and mine expert Hedy (Mélanie Thierry) are byproducts of the war’s aftereffects. As for the war itself: Lee doesn’t even present it normally, instead shooting flashbacks in a 16mm aspect ratio and scrunching corners inward to emphasize the visual shifts in memory. Because the actors’ aged faces stand in for their 20-something selves, one can’t help but view this symbolically: the war never left them, or they couldn’t leave it.
No character embodies this trauma worse than Paul, easily Da 5 Bloods’ most complex and tragic figure. Much to his platoon’s disgust, he’s an open Trump supporter, regurgitating right-wing rally speech and wearing a red MAGA hat across the jungle trip. “I didn’t get mine” is Paul’s rationale and, having internalized Norman’s teachings about black identity and America’s racial hypocrisy, that hatred and inability to re-adjust to post-war life most likely influenced his embrace of such damning beliefs. Delroy Lindo is phenomenal throughout, playing a man incapable of maintaining his rage and sinking further into paranoia as he pushes away military and familial Blood alike. At one point, this rage makes its way to the fourth wall, delivering a monologue to the camera (and by extension us) about how America made Paul, in his own words, “a wingnut.” If any actor deserves award recognition for this project beyond Lee, always a thorn in the Academy’s side, it’s Lindo.
Now more than ever, a story like this deserves attention. At over two and half hours long, there are moments where you think things are winding down, only for a new obstacle to show up and delay the journey further. Yet Da 5 Bloods never feels as bloated as that extensive runtime would imply. The script, adapted by Lee and Kevin Willmott but originally part of a spec script by The Rocketeer‘s Daniel Bilson and Paul DeMeo, mixes up tones and genre conventions so much that, when it jumps from funny character moments to brutal social commentary, the stakes remain interesting. But this isn’t a “no place like home” scenario, since home for black Americans is just as dangerous as 1970’s Vietnam. Just look at what’s happening right now.
Verdict: 5 out of 5 Stars
Da 5 Bloods is one of 2020’s best films and a perfect vehicle for channeling rage at the system’s generational failures. Everything from the performances to Terence Blanchard’s score to Lee’s visual style is firing on all cylinders, laying down a scathing critique of how certain POV’s in American history are erased yet again. You’ll be entertained when you watch it, but you’ll also be informed, and that’s what always makes a Spike Lee joint so captivating.