DA 5 Bloods (directed by Spike Lee, 154 minutes, USA, 2020)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Films often take years, even decades to come to fruition, so it’s rare when a filmmaker manages to make a movie that is perfectly timed to comment on a moment. Spike Lee has done just that with his latest, Da Five Bloods, which is also his most ambitious since Malcom X. Illuminating as it is entertaining, the film is supercharged by our current sociopolitical climate as it dissects Trump, race, family and war. I found it reminiscent of The Irishman in that it’s a veteran filmmaker using the medium to tell a story that resonates with the insight and wisdom of a long life well-lived.
The plot follows the surviving members of an all-black Army platoon, nicknamed “Da Bloods” (Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo), who have returned to Vietnam 45 years after their final tour in search of the remains of their fallen squad leader/mentor, “Stormin” Norman (Chadwick Boseman). What we soon discover is that during the conflict, the five Bloods were on a mission to deliver to the South Vietnamese, America’s ally in the war, $14 million in gold. When their plane was shot down in hostile territory, the men buried the gold and reported it stolen by the Vietcong after the crash landing, which also resulted in Norman’s death. Gold tends to bring out the worst in people and it does just that here as the men who never really left the war are now pulled back in for an epic adventure that will test their friendships and push the men to their limits.
The film explores how and why the US government used black soldiers as an expendable resource in their wars, as well as how these soldiers and the racial dynamics in play were viewed by the enemy. It’s becomes apparent during the first flashback, with the Vietnamese dialog in subtitles, that Lee is going to dig his heels in a bit deeper. It’s a pretty common subliminal trick in most of these war flicks that the enemy dialog is never subtitled, because knowing what the enemy is saying humanizes them. Lee paints the Vietnamese with empathy and the film is intercut with graphic newsreel footage that contextualizes the Vietnamese’s treatment of the visiting G.Is. Visually the film switches up the format and aspect ratios to denote the shifting back and forth of past and present as well as the perspective — sometimes we are looking through the eyes of the Americans, other times we are looking through the eyes of the Vietnamese. The most revealing choice, however, is how Lee chooses to depict Da Bloods in flashbacks. All the men are old, trapped in the same aging bodies they inhabit in the present. That their fallen comrade hasn’t aged a day since his death is an eerily effective creative choice.
Narrative-wise Lee really goes big here, and Da Five Bloods’ war/heist film hybrid mix works really well, for the most part, and the cast of characters all have believable trajectories. The film originally started out as a spec script with Oliver Stone attached. After making the rounds in Hollywood for seven years, Lee decided to take the project on and infuse it with his own perspective. It doesn’t feel as preachy or heavy handed as Blakkklansman tended to get in its darker moments. The most curious bit is making Da Blood named Paul (Delroy Lindo) a MAGA-hatted Trumper, which allows Lee to dissect the psychology behind black Trump voters. It’s much more complex and nuanced than I expected, to be honest, given Lee’s very vocal disdain for Trump.
Given the recent death of George Floyd, it’s hard not to view this film through that dark prism. As the narrative flashes back to Civil Rights riots, which are reminiscent of what we’re seeing unfold in the unrelentingly bleak news cycle of the here and now. Lee could have easily just focused his lens only on the plight of the black soldiers, who were continuously sent to the front lines of these wars to fight for a freedom they would never enjoy when they came home. Instead, he infuses the film with the painful legacy of the Vietnam War and those who fought on both sides of the battle field were forever changed by the experience. Da Five Bloods is uncompromising and stark and that is exactly what we need right now.