Spike Lee’s bold new film, Da 5 Bloods, opens with footage of figures including Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis condemning violence in Vietnam. Juxtaposed with images of protests and disarray, the first few minutes already seem familiar to anyone who has ever opened a U.S. history textbook.
Given the current wave of protests advocating for justice and respect for Black lives, however, the timing of the film seems vital. It’s as if Lee is reminding us how closely civil disobedience and history are intertwined. The societal obstacles that have been facing Black Americans for over 400 years continue to be challenged, only this time with iPhones to record and broadcast the injustice.
After the initial historical montage, four of “Da 5 Bloods,” Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) reunite in Ho Chi Minh 50 years after their deployment there. After an initial heartwarming dance routine, the audience learns that the group has returned to recover a hidden treasure buried in the jungle, as well as the remains of their fallen leader from 50 years earlier, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman).
In flashback scenes, the squadron barely survives a helicopter crash while battling Vietnamese troops. The soldiers exchange fire through the trees, a classic scene reminiscent of Rambo, and the Vietnamese flee. Norman stumbles onto their supplies, where he finds a treasure chest of gold. In a persuasive monologue describing how Black soldiers time and time again are not treated with the same respect as their white counterparts, Norman claims that the gold belongs to “da bloods” as reparations for all other Black veterans. They will all eventually return to retrieve their fair share.
It’s quite astounding how quick the film feels. Everything mentioned so far occurs within the first 30 minutes, and the pace is essential in driving the film forward as the men head into the jungle. Da 5 Bloods is 155 minutes, but not a single minute too long.
Lee tackles common war film tropes such as brotherhood and comments on American imperialism through a distinctly Black lens. The trauma that the soldiers underwent is best exemplified by Paul, who suffers from PTSD from his three tours in Vietnam. A MAGA hat-wearing, Trump-supporting Paul exclaims, “I’m tired of not getting mine” in the opening scene, foreshadowing his determination in retrieving his share of the gold. His son, David (Jonathan Majors), even flies to Vietnam unannounced, worried how his father is going to react when he returns to the jungle that pervades his nightmares.
Like many films before it, Da 5 Bloods paints the setting as haunting and otherworldly. Each character refers to Vietnam as a kind of hell. Otis constantly remarks to his fellow soldiers that he can’t wait to go back home to “the world.” The jungle has no right to be a real location on earth—it is a place of terror.
Lee maintains his visual flair while still maintaining a sense of realism. Several scenes are shot documentary style, as Eddie films much of the men’s journey. In particular, there are two scenes where Lindo recites monologues directly into the camera, cementing his splendidly charged performance as one that singles him out for an Oscar nomination. Paul is bold and brash, a character that is forever changed due to his military service. Lindo’s decision to intensify each decision his character makes in the jungle is calculated, rounding the character into something truly fascinating.
It seems as if Lee is fully aware of the platform Da 5 Bloods is held on. Simply put, the film is made with its Netflix viewership in mind. Jam-packed with dialogue serving to educate audience members about prominent Black military figures, Lee often includes handy visual aids, like an illustration of the Boston Massacre as Norman describes Crispus Attucks. It’s almost as if Lee is pausing the film for audience members, lecturing them on any figure they don’t instantly recognize.
Da 5 Bloods could be characterized as imprecise filmmaking. The constant, drastic shifts in tone create a film that is sometimes all over the place. But its imperfections are, to an extent, what makes it so fascinating. Its powerful core, bolstered by excellent performances and a whole lot of strong political commentary, makes the film entertaining and, especially now, thought provoking.
Featured Image Courtesy of Netflix