Spike Lee's Netflix Film 'Da 5 Bloods' Is a Vital, Bloody History Lesson
A gory, important movie about Black GIs going back to Vietnam in search of the things they lost.
It's difficult to distill Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods, a film with a lot on its mind that aims to accomplish a lot over the course of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. It's alternately an extremely violent war drama, a treasure hunt, a referendum on American colonialism, an indictment of President Trump, a history lesson, and a buddy comedy. It's a sprawling movie that shifts tones and styles constantly, veering between past and present, 16mm and digital. It's angry and funny and quite literally filled with viscera. It's a movie that feels like it can almost not be contained by the screen -- perhaps because, due to the coronavirus pandemic, it's premiering on televisions and laptops rather than in theaters where it deserves to be seen -- as it bubbles over with ideas and feelings. The confluence of Lee's unmistakeable point of view and the film's emotional journey can be overwhelming at times for the viewer, but it's also what makes Da 5 Bloods, out now on Netflix, so powerful.
Much will (rightly) be said about how Da 5 Bloods taps into the current national anger over the murders of George Floyd and other Black men and women at the hands of the police; the opening sequence puts a fine point on that. The first beats combine archival footage of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Black soldiers in Vietnam, the Kent State massacre, the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém, and more to paint a brief picture of the era, scored by the sounds of Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues." It also clearly lays out the theme that Lee will return to over the course of the running time: American atrocities at home and abroad have never looked all that different.
At the center of the narrative are the four surviving members of the Bloods, who fought together under their commander, known as Stormin' Norman (Chadwick Boseman, in flashbacks). In the years since the war, Eddie (Norm Lewis) has become wealthy; Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) has become a family man with a tendency for overindulgence; and Paul (Delroy Lindo) has turned into a Trump supporter, parroting the president's rhetoric about immigrants. Meanwhile, the audience quickly learns that the meditative Otis (Clarke Peters) had a romantic relationship during the war with a Vietnamese woman, who he has now turned to for help once again.
That's because these men have organized a reunion in Vietnam with a dual purpose: To retrieve Norman's remains and find the extraordinary fortune they left buried in the jungle. They arrive in Ho Chi Minh City looking like a bunch of goofy boomer dads, a far cry from the hardened soldiers they were in youth or will become once again in their advanced age. It quickly becomes obvious that the mission is not what Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott are most preoccupied with. (Lee and Willmott took a script that was about a group of white GIs going back and completely reworked it.) The hunt for Norman's body and the gold is relatively straightforward; the relationships between these men, which has been shaped by the dual traumas of being veterans of an immoral war and Black in America, is not.
Lee shoots the flashbacks that document the Bloods' time fighting the Viet Cong in 16mm, using the same actors to play the living members of the squad, but with Chadwick Boseman as their leader. While the newsreel-style footage gives these scenes a veracity, the disparity between the ages of the older actors and the people they are playing makes these scenes distinctly heightened. It often feels like Boseman and the other men are acting on different planes of existence even when they are in the same shot, which is rare. It works to make these moments feel like warped memories, frayed like the edges of film stock.
All of the actors are phenomenal, but it's Lindo as Paul who stands out. At first, it feels like Paul's Trump support and MAGA hat wearing might be too facile a trait, but, of course, Lee has never been a filmmaker that has cared much for subtlety. Instead, it's indicative of a rot that's been festering in this man's soul, portrayed with all the weight of a Shakespearean tragedy by Lindo. It's no coincidence that Lee has taken to calling Trump "Agent Orange," the same name as the chemical warfare used by the US. Paul is surprised when his son David (Jonathan Majors) arrives in Vietnam, wanting in on the cash reward and lording something over his distant father. The fascist impulses of this country bleed between generations, creating rifts between fathers and sons, allowing injustices to spread.
Da 5 Bloods wants to account for all the people to whom America owes reparations: the Black GIs, who were sent to die overseas for an indifferent and hostile homeland, and the Vietnamese people. It's in conversation with the years of media that has painted the North Vietnamese in broadly evil strokes, even name-checking the Rambo franchise. While the film doesn't totally bat down all those stereotypes, it adds wrinkles to every character who could be perceived as a villain.
For as brutal as Da 5 Bloods often is -- and it is bloody and gruesome -- the film ends in a place of genuine catharsis. This is a furious piece of art, but not one without optimism. Wrestling in the swampy decades of racism and crimes against humanity, Lee has emerged hopeful. It's not simple or naïve, but it is hope.
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