Film Review – Da 5 Bloods
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (2020) is a bold, urgent, passionate, messy, and relevant undertaking. When the world’s focus narrows on police brutality, racism, public protests, and Black Lives Matter, here is a film that seems born exactly for this moment. Lee has never been one for subtlety, and with his latest effort he brings fire and energy to a topic that has been central to his entire career. He does so with the hand of a cinephile, crafting his narrative in such a way that every scene feels like an opportunity to play with the medium. He covers many issues and utilizes almost every cinematic tool in his belt to do so.
Just as he did with BlacKkKlansman (2018) Lee (along with screenwriters Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, and Kevin Willmott) tie the story to current events. Yes, the main narrative arc involves the Vietnam War (or as it’s described in Vietnam: “The American War”) and the lingering toll it has taken on those who participated in it, but Lee’s vision is much grander in scale. He starts and ends with a montage of archival footage – including interviews from Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lee draws a parallel between the negative feelings of the war to that of the racism and bigotry black Americans faced at the exact same time. The message is clear: black people have participated in every war the U.S. has been involved in but have been treated as second and third class citizens by the very society they fought to protect.
It’s a strange and ugly paradox. A group of people dedicating themselves to fight for an ideal but come home to nation that did not live up to that ideal can feel like a betrayal. That is the dilemma faced by “Da Bloods”: Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). They all served in Vietnam in the same squad and now, years later, have come back to the country older but still affected by their experiences. As one character wisely puts in, “War never really ends.” But they have not returned simply to reminisce. Da Bloods are on their own mission: to retrieve the remains of their fallen commander, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and locate a cache of gold bars they hid soon before leaving active duty. Along the way, Paul’s estranged son David (Jonathan Majors) joins them.
On the surface, the plot takes on the structure of an adventure film. Lee is obviously influenced by film history, giving call backs on everything from Apocalypse Now (1929) to Rambo. In this case he borrows heavily from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). There’s even a reference to the classic line “We don’t need no badges!” But Lee’s interest doesn’t stop there. The gold doesn’t simply act as a MacGuffin for personal gain, but as a symbol of reparations. Chadwick Boseman has played a string of iconic black characters (Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, T’Challa) and continues his streak here. Norman was more than a beloved military commander of Da Bloods, he also acted as their spiritual leader and historical teacher. He explains that the first man to die in the American Revolution was a black man (Crispus Attucks) and that the gold they’ve stumbled upon is payment for services ignored.
Da 5 Bloods tackles very heavy material, but it isn’t a drag to watch. In fact, Lee injects so much energy into the craft that the pacing never loses momentum. He’s like a kid in a cinematic playground – doing whatever his imagination can come up with. Much credit needs to go to his editor, Adam Gough, who deftly handles the many tangents and sidebars Lee elects to follow. Often, when a real life historical figure is mentioned, the editing will cut to a picture or video footage of that person. Lee, in a way, is Stormin’ Norman for the audience, wanting to educate us as much as he can to provide a deeper context to the story.
In other ways, Lee appears to just be having fun with the form. The story is told in alternating flashbacks, between Da Bloods serving in the war to them in the present. Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography marks each section with a different look and aspect ratio. When the crew arrives back in Ho Chi Minh City in the present, it is shown in extreme wide 2.39:1 ratio. When we flash back to them in the past, the screen shrinks into a grainy 1.33:1. And beyond that, when they go on their trek to find their buried treasure, the screen fills up to 16:9 – which has become the standard for most Netflix releases. Do we really need the screen size to alternate so often to remind us what time period we are in? Not really, but part of the experience of watching Lee work is in how freely he plays with cinematic language.
The acting of all those involved work in their respective roles, but there is no doubt that Delroy Lindo gives – not just the best performance of the film – but arguably the best performance of his career. Paul is a ticking time bomb of conflicting emotions: his body may have left the war but a part of his soul was left behind. His hate and paranoia turned him into a Trump supporting, gun wielding, anxiety filled shell of his formal self. He spends much of the time wearing a red MAGA hat, either unaware of its social implications or simply not caring. He is haunted by what he went through, feels guilt for having survived, and has a distrust of everyone he doesn’t know. He is a broken man, and because of that a rift has grown between him and his son. Lindo is magnetic in his performance, commanding each scene he is in. There are extended sequences of him going on rants, addressing the camera directly. His monologues are intense, dynamic, and heartbreaking.
With so much going on, the narrative does have a sprawling, messy feel. Lee has never been one to tell tight, condensed stories – his willingness to break off from the main plot and introduce numerous supporting characters makes his work often more bloated than it needs to be. That applies here, with additional elements such as the inclusion of Descroche (Jean Reno) a Frenchman who Da Bloods turn to for help transporting the gold out of Vietnam. There’s also three members of an organization focused on locating and diffusing old landmines (Melanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Paakkonen). While the characters and performances are not bad on their own, they blur into the background, not nearly as interesting as the main protagonists.
But would we even want a “Spike Lee Joint” to be anything other than big, ambitious, and expansive? Lee is at his very best when he is swinging for the fences. His passion and enthusiasm for the work overrides whatever minute nitpicks there may be. Da 5 Bloods burns with resolve, a work that doesn’t merely want to inform but to physically shake us out of our own malaise. It’s one of the best films of the year.