There’s a cinematic tradition of films revolving around America’s War in Vietnam. It’s iconic, as cheap and dispassionate a statement as that may sound by regarding an event in which millions lost their lives, and millions more were displaced. But as one of the most-tumultuous periods of American history, naturally it attracts storytellers. Though not all storytellers are given the chance to tell their tales, and the African American side of the Vietnam War is one that’s largely been relegated to cinematic sidekickery.
Until Spike Lee came along and blew the lid off the joint.
Da 5 Bloods
Director: Spike Lee
Release date: June 12, 2020 (Netflix)
Da 5 Bloods is a film about the war, yes, but its story concerns its characters. In present-day Vietnam, veterans Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr) return to their old fighting grounds on a new mission: No man left behind. Here to reclaim the remains of their platoon leader “Stormin'” Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who never made it out alive back in the ’70s. But the men have more than just honor on the mind, looking to reclaim a fortune in gold thought to be lost by many, buried in secret by five brothers. The five bloods.
What we get then is a story with its foot in the present and its head in the past, with moments of the men’s war-fighting–filmed in near-hallucinatory, ultra-saturated flashbacks–intercut with the treasure hunt of today. The scenes flashing back to the war are stylistically audacious, though not always coherent with the larger picture, expounding on the idea that we’re seeing a history through the memory of these men (the cast appear in their present, aged persons alongside their still-youthful slain leader, for example) with some distractingly-flashy special effects. The surrealism of the flashbacks often felt unintentionally awkward, though Lee certainly makes a point of being bold in his presentation of Da 5 Bloods.
Brimming with inserts left and right, Lee’s style is at best a radical, loud cry for black history and at worst a slideshow of facts, though more often the former than the latter. As with all of Lee’s films, Da 5 Bloods is strikingly political and pressingly relevant–alarmingly so in light of America’s social upheaval, following the murder of George Floyd. Da 5 Bloods could get by on its unfortunately-perfect timing in lending a loud, angry voice to Black Americans who, in the ’60s and ’70s, were made to go to war for White America. But of course, history isn’t planned, and Lee’s film would have been relevant regardless of up-to-day developments.
The scenes in which Norman coaches his oppressed Bloods in the ways of Black Power and mindfulness are some of the film’s best. When the men learn of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr, exploding in rage at what’s being done to their communities back home, it’s when Da 5 Bloods makes the Vietnam War ugly under an entirely different light.
Channeling this ideology are Lee’s actors, most of whom are absolutely phenomenal. The titular Bloods get the credit, with Delroy Lindo’s Paul an incredibly complicated and heartbreaking character. He wears a MAGA hat while preaching for his own empowerment as a Black man whose country abandoned him; he explodes with anger when his son David (Jonathan Majors) follows him to Vietnam on his unfinished business, but breaks down in tenderness as the journey grows more harrowing. The character is a crossroads of contradictions that add up to a real, tortured soul, and Lindo plays the array with grace.
Clarke Peters, as the group’s realist Otis, conveys a sense of tenderness coupled with resolve that bleeds truth. The supporting cast is a bit more eclectic in their roles, such as over-the-top criminal and gold-liaison Desroche (Jean Reno), or the French bomb-defusal activist Hedy (Mélanie Thierry). For as much of Da 5 Bloods works with its strong attitude and anything-goes structure, sometimes it felt as if the production was a little too free-wheeling and, possibly, bloated.
Not short at over two-and-a-half hours, Da 5 Bloods was never “unnecessary,” but there were stretches of the film that build to bombastic (sometimes literally) developments that felt too haphazard or, frankly, silly. Never quite a parody, Lee toes a fine line between realism and grandiose spectacle in weaving his run through the jungle that can feel disparate, at times. Luckily the main cast keeps any narrative shark-jumping sharp and enjoyable, but you wonder if Da 5 Bloods should have been either an hour longer or 30 minutes shorter.
Maybe it’s the stuffed, everything-but-the-sink quality of Da 5 Bloods that will leave its mark on history. Chock full of archival footage, one moment we’re in the thick of a warzone flashback rife with some questionable visual effects and loud stylization, and the next getting a brief history lesson on Milton Olive’s bravery during the war. The aspect ratio shifts almost scene-to-scene, widening to encompass the beauty of the Vietnamese landscape or narrowing to convey period detail. We’ve got elaborate, dreamlike dolly shots and close-ups where actors address the camera. Da 5 Bloods is most definitely a lot, and most of it is good, that which isn’t is at least interesting, and all of it is relevant.
Some might say a viewer would need to detach themselves from the world at present and take Lee’s film on its own terms as it relates to history, that feeling its power resonate due to current events would be giving the film external credit. This would be incorrect. Da 5 Bloods is proven to be a fierce and prescient film about how Black people in America have been, time and time again, forced to fight. To fight for their lives in wars both literal and metaphorical, bearing wounds physical and metaphysical. Paul’s struggle with his relationship with his son, his post-combat trauma, and his identity as a Black man in the America of 2020 is no joke. Da 5 Bloods is a whole lot of movie, coming from one of American cinema’s strongest Black voices at a time when these are the voices we need to be hearing from.
I wish 100% of Da 5 Bloods worked, but simply couldn’t say that Lee’s tableau of film genres and scenarios always mesh. The lasting impression of Bloods, however, is one of honor, identity, and fist-clenching injustice that barrels out of the film’s grab-bag of tricks. It’s tragic, it’s funny, unlikely and all-too-real, all at the same time. Da 5 Bloods amused me with some of its excesses then horrified me with its violence, all in the stretch of five minutes. And by my count, we’ve got a whole lot more than five minutes of movie here to pore over.