Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkönen, Jean Reno, Chadwick Boseman
Director: Spike Lee,
Writers: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
Of his many, many talents, there is one thing in particular that Spike Lee can do perhaps better than any other filmmaker, living or dead. He is extremely good at drawing you in with an enticing and entertaining premise and then blindsiding you with the knockout blow of the message he wants to deliver. In the decades since he burst onto the American filmmaking scene, Lee has never been content with making movies that the viewer could casually watch as a passive observer. You’ll be entertained for sure, Lee couldn’t be boring if he tried, but you’ll also be besieged by his comprehensively provocative themes and the explosive urgency with which he conveys them. If you leave a Spike Lee joint feeling relaxed and at ease, then you haven’t been paying attention. Such was my experience of 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, the film that reconfirmed for many people what a crucial voice Lee continues to be in American cinema and won him his first competitive Oscar. What on its surface was a simple buddy-cop movie set in the 70s turned out to be a stark exploration of race, culture and identity with a sobering finale that drives home just how prevalent the intolerance and tyranny of the KKK continues to be in Trump-era America. Da 5 Bloods is Lee’s follow up and it is as captivating and timely a picture as any he’s made.
It would have been very easy for Lee to make a straightforward film about four golden-aged veterans returning to Vietnam in search of buried treasure, but as always he has bigger, more imperative things on his mind. Da 5 Bloods is a fiery, contemporary thesis on American history, culture and dogma told through a racial lens. It takes the Vietnam War, or the American War as it is tellingly called by the country itself, and depicts it as the grim, bloody embodiment of the age-old war that the African-American population has been fighting for its entire existence. As it grapples with the past and examines the ways it affects and lives on in the present, we are treated to some truly profound and harrowing portraits of trauma, grief, hatred, greed and regret. The movie continuously plays jump rope with the line between fiction and nonfiction and will happily disregard the rules of conventional storytelling when there’s a point or an impact to be made. It is an interrogation of how war, violence and heroism have been portrayed on-screen, both in archival news footage and Hollywood depictions, especially in how it relates to black representation, and it is a celebration of some noteworthy African-American heroes whose feats have often gone unacknowledged. It is all these things and more, such is Lee’s uncontainable ambition, and, while the film can often feel messy and convoluted, its immensity and profundity are not to be denied.
While Vietnam war films have been a Hollywood staple for the last half century, few have ever delved all that deeply into the experiences of the black soldiers who made up a disproportionate 32% of the infantry. Lee makes it his focus on the outset. The film opens with footage of Muhammad Ali asserting his position as a conscientious objector to the war, a stance that would go on to cost him his boxing titles and years of work at his athletic peak. It ends with Martin Luther King Jr. expressing his shared objection exactly one year to the day before his murder. In between is the story of four black veterans who have returned to the country they fought in so many years ago to fulfil a secret pact. Making up the four Bloods are Otis (Clarke Peters), the level-headed, even-tempered medic, Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), the affable joker, Eddie (Norm Lewis), the wealthy and successful savant, and Paul (Delroy Lindo), the hot-headed wild card. Their leader “Stormin’ Norman” (Chadwick Boseman) is the only one missing. He never made it out and the quest to find and recover his body provides the Bloods with the cover story they need to go searching for a stash of gold that they discovered and hid all those years ago. The soldiers’ memories of Norman are recounted in regular flashbacks in which the four leading men play their younger selves.
These flashbacks are part of what makes the movie so interesting and engaging. The past and present are differentiated by a shift in aspect ratio (modern scenes are shown in panoramic widescreen while the flashbacks are shot on 16mm in the classic Hollywood 4:3 frame). Even more notable is Lee’s decision not to use make up or the de-aging technology that Scorsese employed in The Irishman on his actors. The four stars, who between them have an average age of 64, appear as their natural selves fighting alongside the noticeably younger Boseman. The effect is quite jarring at first, but after a while you find that it does make a certain thematic sense. This is a movie about four old men revisiting the ghosts of their past and their memories are coloured by the knowledge of what has happened since and who they’ve all gone on to become. Paul in particular suffers a tragic inability to let go of his past or his memory of Norman, a man whom they’ve all romanticised and memorialised in their minds and whose spectre will forever remain young and beautiful as the rest of them get older and more withered. It also reinforces one of the larger points of Lee’s thesis of how violence inevitably begets more violence in a never-ending cycle that cannot be escaped. So long as the past continues to haunt and define them, the Bloods are doomed to relive it.
It is through the reverential Norman and his inspiring speeches that the living Bloods were instilled with their idealism and black pride. It is he who enlightens them on the USA’s long and bloody history of calling upon her black and brown citizens to fight and die for a country that doesn’t love them, a practice that dates all the way back to the beginning when Crispus Attucks became the very first casualty of the American Revolution. When the troop happens upon a downed CIA plane carrying millions worth in gold bars, what Norman sees before them is far more than a payday. Originally intended as payment to Vietnamese informants helping the US in the war, Norman proposes that the gold be appropriated by the Bloods as reparations and devoted towards the liberation of black people in America. It isn’t possible to move the gold while the war is still being waged; thus the Bloods bury their newfound fortune so that they it might be excavated later. Today they have finally returned to make good on the promise they made to the man they all loved and worshipped. Otis reconnects with his old flame Tien (Le Y Lan), a sex worker turned financial broker, who arranges a deal between them and shady, French businessman Desroche (Jean Reno). If the brothers in arms can navigate the jungle and recover the gold, he will launder it for them (for a healthy cut of the fortune of course).
Anybody who has seen the movies Lee so openly pays homage to will implicitly know that things won’t go according to plan. The two clearest influences for Lee are Apocalypse Now, a story of humanity succumbing to the horrors of war, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a film about the search for a lost fortune that forges stark divisions between the heroes. Lee wears his influences on his sleeve; he isn’t shy about quoting these movies as openly and loudly as he can any more than he is about going on tangents whenever he feels like it. Every now and then, the story will grind to a halt because Lee wants to take a minute to explain to the audience who Milton Olive, the first African-American recipient of the Medal of Honour for the war in Vietnam, and Edwin Moses, the Olympic gold-medallist track and field champion, are. These divergences are pretty forced, but then Lee has never been particularly interested in subtlety. His attitude is more that if you have something to say, shout it from the rooftops. There’s a scene where one of the characters sets out on his own that has an a-cappella version of ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye playing over it. In the absence of backing music, the viewer is invited to listen to Marvin’s words and consider what they actually mean within the context of all that has transpired. It is an affective moment precisely because it necessarily draws attention to itself.
At 154 minutes, Da 5 Bloods might appear to be a somewhat daunting venture for the casual Netflix subscriber and admittedly the story is meandering enough that it’s liable to prove frustrating for some. What kept me hooked the whole way through though were Lee’s direction and Lindo’s performance. As Paul, a volatile, PTSD-stricken soldier and an affirmed, immigrant-hating Trump supporter (with his MAGA hat in tow) he delivers as powerful and complex a portrait of trauma, rage and guilt as any you might care to name. Joining the Bloods on the excursion is Paul’s estranged son David (Jonathan Majors) and in their relationship we see the tragic effect that a man’s tortuous pain and anguish can have on those closest to him. This all culminates in a breathtaking scene where Lindo breaks the fourth wall to deliver a haunting monologue musing on the forces that shaped him into the man he’s become. While his comrades all return to Vietnam for a myriad of similar reasons (nostalgia, remorse, avarice), Paul appears to be searching either for vengeance or redemption. Maybe to him they’re the same thing; either way, he’s off trying to win a war that could never have been won against a foe that no longer and perhaps never did exist. Amusingly, as one of the characters observes, this isn’t at all dissimilar to what Hollywood has tried to accomplish in its own Vietnam depictions with such heroes as Rambo.
The movie has faults that I could dive into if I cared to. It relies on a few too many contrivances to get where it needs to go, some of the most dramatic story beats are a little predictable, and Lee is trying to do so many different things at once that the film can often feel quite disordered and disjointed. However I will take a fascinating and captivating mess over an adequately-made bore any day of the week. Lee’s films, even at their most bizarre and over the top, are made for the real world, which is often messy and haphazard. He’s a filmmaker who doesn’t subscribe to the view that fact and fiction are mutually exclusive. Da 5 Bloods is a fictional story where footage from news reports, interviews and documentaries are scattered throughout to provide a real-world context for its plot. The film has numerous battle scenes depicting bloody murder and atrocities; scenes that we know were staged by Lee and his crew for dramatic purposes. Then there are clips of the real deaths and atrocities of the war. These pictures are shocking and horrifying to watch and that’s the point. It expresses a specific idea that few war movies ever succeed in getting across, that this was a real war in which real people died. What’s more, it’s all part of a larger war that’s still going on. So long as the state continues to brutalise and kill black people, Spike Lee’s films will continue to be necessary.