Spike Lee explores the painful history of Blackness in American warfare with this lengthy, but gripping, Vietnam epic.
Spike Lee’s long been obsessed with history: not just of America’s sordid relationship with race, but of the filmic traditions that are his, and our, cultural signposts. By centering Black people and Black lives in historical periods and film genres notorious for leaving them out, Lee engages in a welcome round of cinematic reparations. Coming off the back of a long-belated Oscar win for BlackKklansman, Lee’s newest joint Da 5 Bloods takes on another shibboleth of white American cinema: the Vietnam war and the American imperial machine. The results are as broad and big and unsubtle as Lee’s usual work, and it might be one of his most assured films to date.
The titular Bloods consist of Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.), four Vietnam War vets returning to the country fifty years later on a mission to reclaim a shipment of gold bars they buried there to reclaim after the war. That’s not all; they’re there to track down the body of their slain brother “Stormin’ Norman” (Chadwick Boseman), who flashbacks reveal as the glue that held their ragtag group together. They’re joined by Paul’s estranged son David (Jonathan Majors), who forces himself onto the trip in a bid for reconnection with his father.
Lee’s all about balancing Black anguish with Black joy, Da 5 Bloods juggling solemn recollections of historical injustice (the disposability of Black soldiers in America’s wars throughout history, MLK’s assassination) with the gentle warmth of Black solidarity. The Bloods themselves provide a comforting conduit for the latter: as a collective, the ensemble gives you a very specific ‘boisterous Black uncles at the family gathering’ vibe, which is consistently hilarious. When we move further into the jungle, that dynamic gets more complicated and the fractures of their bond formed by shared trauma develop in interesting and organic ways – whilst never entirely losing that jokey dynamic. You’re really with them in all their highs and lows, stirred along by Terence Blanchard’s rousing score.
While this is technically an ensemble picture, and there isn’t a bad performance to be seen, three stars very clearly emerge: Peters’ level-headed Otis, Lindo’s trauma-ridden Paul, and Major’s fresh-faced outsider David. Peters is a sensitive, calm presence throughout, and works really well as a grounding force for the Bloods, especially in terms of his connection with the others. Majors is funny and endearing as an awkward son looking for his dad’s affection. He brings a youthful energy to the group which plays as a nice contrast to these older men.
Head and shoulders above the rest, though, is Lindo, as a constantly aggrieved Trump supporter who’s never reckoned with his own trauma. There are so many ways this could go wrong or become clownish, but Lindo manages to deftly swing between being hilarious, powerful and pitiful. It’s a performance that feels straight out of a Shakespearean tragedy, especially when he’s monologuing straight to camera, complete with theatrical lighting. One of his most incredible, raw moments is a messy screaming/laughing/crying rendition of The Lord’s Prayer as he trudges out of frame. Even when you can’t see him anymore, you can hear and feel the mix of pain and delirium in his voice. Paul feels like an expression of the fraught nature of devotion to a nation that hates and tortures you.
Lee is clearly interested in challenging the cultural myth of the Vietnam War and specifically complicates that by relating it to the role of Black people in this war. This happens both in the text and in the filmmaking itself. Thomas Newton Sigel’s cinematography switches from modern digital filming in the present, to 16mm and a different aspect ratio in the past, emulating old war footage and creating a dream-like version of this past (the original Bloods play their young selves, without an ounce of de-aging) which is consistently subverted. The grandeur of Blanchard’s phenomenal score also purposefully evokes the feeling of a war epic without ever succumbing to the spectacle.
To a lesser filmmaker, this would feel like cheap collage art; in Lee’s hands, it feels like reclamation.
We’re constantly reminded of the pain inflicted by the American soldiers on Vietnam, with scenes intercut with brutal images of war crimes, and frequently giving Vietnamese characters a voice to express ways the American war machine brutalized them. At the same time, we’re also shown the ways in which Black Americans were coerced into the war in disproportionate numbers whilst still being mistreated in the USA. Lee frequently intercuts the film with snippets of real contemporary footage of legendary Black figures who opposed the Vietnam war like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. We’re repeatedly brought back to images of the assasination of Martin Luther King and the nationwide riots that ensued in the wake of his death.
In classic Lee fashion, we’re consistently made aware of the fact that Black people have always been some of the first to be sacrificed in service of the USA and capitalism – something which we can see right now with who is being sent out to do essential work during a pandemic.
Boseman’s character plays an interesting role in this discourse. This almost feels like a role made for Boseman, who seems to have played half of America’s Black historical figures by this point (Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, James Brown). He’s the person and idea that held the Bloods together through the trauma of the war, and he also more directly haunts Paul in his PTSD-induced hallucinations. More broadly, he becomes an imagined image of the heroic Black soldier. He seems to challenge Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey all at the same time.
Like them, he’s killed. Yet unlike the bold all-American (white) hero, he has to die, and he doesn’t even get to do it on his own terms. It very much feels as if Lee puts the character of Norman up in comparison with MLK and a whole host of others who died before their time, demonstrating how Black heroes don’t get to live, and they don’t even get to die on their own terms.
This, of course, dovetails with Bloods‘ rich understanding of American cinema, from the obvious homages to Vietnam epics like Apocalypse Now (whose poster and logo are featured prominently earlier in the film) to Treasure of the Sierra Madre, from which this film yanks a lot of its basic premise and quips about needing stinkin’ badges. To a lesser filmmaker, this would feel like cheap collage art; in Lee’s hands, it feels like reclamation.
One of the few shortfalls of the film is familiar to a lot of Lee’s work – the women are underutilised. You get Melanie Thierry as Hedy, the daughter of a rich family of plantation owners who founded the charity LAMB (Love Against Mine and Bombs) to clear the mines still left from the war and help the victims of these mines. Thierry gives a charming performance for an interesting character, but it feels like she’s being pushed into the role of ‘love interest’ for David and it feels really forced. I would say Lê Y Lan, who plays Tiên, a former sex worker with whom Otis had a child, is given the shortest straw by the script. Her performance is fantastic, but she mostly seems to exist to be a motivator for Otis’ emotions and a target for Paul’s racialised misogyny. While this is a film deliberately centred on men, it still feels like there was room for the women of the film to be better served by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Lee, and Kevin Willmott’s script.
At times, the dialogue feels a little stilted as Lee stretches to make a point or give key context. There are also a few times where he reaches to be provocative and it feels over-the-top and incredibly abrasive. But even with those qualifications, Da 5 Bloods has so many layers to unpack and study. There are issues of neo-imperialism brought in through the wealthy European characters, Hedy and DesRoche (Jean Reno), to Black patriotism through the symbolism of Paul’s MAGA cap and the Bloods’ frustrated reactions to it. This is a film that’s interested in grey areas and moral complicity, never obfuscating the atrocities or pain of a war that pitted people of colour against each other for the sake of white political interests (rendered beautifully by Veronica Ngo‘s take on Hanoi Hannah).
Da 5 Bloods feels both timely and timeless, Lee doing what he does best — giving an unflinching and layered look at the complex connections between anti-Blackness, American identity, and American imperialism. Most importantly, this film drives home the way that Black lives have been devalued for centuries and how, irrespective of how much we give, oppression will not end without tearing these systems down. In our present moment, where there’s so much energy for change, and we’re looking for ways to reshape our world to make it less hostile to Black people, this film is an essential watch as both education and a call for action.
Da 5 Bloods is currently streaming on Netflix.