As the pandemic continues to shut down theaters and delay major film releases across the world, Netflix decides to appease our appetites for worthwhile filmmaking with a new Spike Lee Joint: Da 5 Bloods.
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Clarke Peters, Delroy Lindo, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Jonathan Majors, Norm Lewis, and others, Da 5 Bloods is a timely film about reuniting Vietnam War veterans who return to the country to search for the remains of their fallen squad leader and buried gold. The film is extremely relevant to today’s political climate, and adds to the conversation on racial politics and war trauma in an emotionally poignant way; Spike Lee seems to have a knack for doing such a thing. However, coming off the heels of BlacKkKlansman, a superiorly made film equal in pertinence (possibly an even more important viewing today than it was in 2018 as we reevaluate our policing institutions), Da 5 Bloods may struggle to go beyond preaching to the choir and winning over alternative perspectives.
Spike Lee’s films are political and anyone familiar with his filmography knows that. Not only that, but the politics of his films make their presence known and are in your face; trying to take the politics out of a Spike Lee film is like trying to take me out of bed some mornings…it’s just not going to happen. And I believe during a time when meaningful dialogue on politics is of the essence, especially in the midst of an election year as Black Lives Matter protests take place across the country, a director like Spike Lee becomes ever so important. With Da 5 Bloods, Lee is a filmmaker with a bold and uncensored voice, not afraid to have his characters equate the president to a Klan member or adorn a MAGA cap; not only does this keep the film from being lost in the mix but positions it to lead the charge in forcing audiences to deliberate the very issues in society the film addresses. Whether the messages and opinions of the film stir outrage or produce thoughtful discussion is ultimately up to the viewer, yet regardless, Lee is successful with Da 5 Bloods in creating a film that offers his view of the world and also evokes strong responses from those who watch it.
Da 5 Bloods is a significant film also because it focuses on black soldiers in the war, who disproportionately made up 1/3 of the Vietnam army while making up far less of the population back at home; the film offers a unique and important perspective audiences haven’t been exposed to much if at all. Some of the issues the “Bloods” discuss throughout the film reminded me of Ronsel Jackson from Mudbound, an African American soldier who faced nasty racism and segregation upon his return from WWII.
It is particularly in the acting where the greatest strength of Da 5 Bloods lies. A film that portrays former army buddies getting back together, men who fought by each other’s sides through the jungles of Vietnam as they feared for their lives, requires a strong sense of chemistry between the central cast or else the whole film will fall apart. Following a montage of archived footage which brings us up to speed with the history preceding and surrounding the Vietnam War Spike wants to expose us to, the four actors who make up the “Bloods” meet up in a hotel lobby, and are all hugging and bantering as if they were back in the war again. Clarke Peters, Delroy Lindo, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Norm Lewis mesh together like family.
The performance from Delroy Lindo is being given the most spotlight, and rightfully so. Playing Paul, a black Trump supporter with severe PTSD, Lindo is asked by Spike to do the most, and his acting is flush with emotion. He builds a character who the audience can sympathize with, while simultaneously be intimidated by. Later in the film, he turns to insanity as he machetes his way through the jungle, looking past the screen and at us, preaching his thoughts. Paul is the epitome of one of the major themes of the film, that even when you leave the war, the war doesn’t leave you.
Clocking in at two and a half hours, Da 5 Bloods runs long, and its length is felt. There are many characters in the film, and Spike is careful to develop just about all of them; he may have benefitted from someone telling him to “kill his darlings” back at Netflix HQ. With a more concentrated focus on the relationships within the “Bloods”, and their search for gold and the remains of their former leader, and without the amateur-looking combat sequences and unnecessary romantic interest, the film may have been a more engaging and impactful one.
Da 5 Bloods gives us a rare glimpse into the lives of black Vietnam veterans, and is an important story to tell, and while director Spike Lee gives us plenty of substance to think on, the storytelling is a bit too loose for maximizing his message. 7.5/10