“When you take 20 million black people and make them fight all your wars and pick all your cotton and never give them any real recompense, sooner or later their allegiance towards you is going to wear thin.”
Spike Lee opens up his latest joint, Da 5 Bloods, with a shockingly well timed, eye-opening montaged snippet of Black history throughout the 60-70s. Set to Marvin Gaye‘s masterfully thematic “Inner City Blues (Make me Wanna Holler)” heavy hitters, like Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Kwame Ture, Angela Davis, and Bobby Seale, are all heard and seen speaking on the injustices and systematic failures of the American government predominantly within the context of the Vietnam War. Within the opening minutes of the film, we’re already confronted with Spike Lee’s loud and powerful theme: why fight for a country that doesn’t fight for you? It’s a sobering opening five minutes of unfiltered critique that is still heard echoing this very second. To say that it’s topical and with a finger on the pulse would be a vast understatement; not only has Lee been on the vanguard of bold cinematic activism and awareness, but the same things he admonished over three decades ago are still being fought today. Another harrowing jab at the socio-political climate of the United States from Lee, and yet another joint that continues to speak on the sad reality many still struggle to live in. It’s impeccably evident that Lee has still not lost his touch, and that the same vigor and earnest panache of Do the Right Thing still rings true, even more so now than ever – this exact moment we have been witnessing and actively combating day in and out for the current Black Lives Matter climate. It’s scary how well timed Lee’s latest joint dropped on the world, and let me tell you, it’s one of his best. His far more politically charged The Treasure of Sierra Madre, set within a Vietnam War epic. It’s abundantly apparent that Lee can flex his skills in just about any genre. Da 5 Bloods is a film that will come as no surprise when it tops many end of the year lists and even [read: hopefully] garners some awards season representation.
Da 5 Bloods weaves a tale about four Black Vietnam War veterans who return to Vietnam in order to locate the remains of their old platoon leader and the gold they all hid decades ago. What they encounter is not only an entirely changed country – modernised and seemingly having entirely moved on but not forgotten about the war to the naked eye, – but also in learning more of the Vietnamese perspective on the war. The aftermath of both French and American participation/invasion, reflected in the clashing commentary between both sore losses of a war they should never have been engaged in to begin with. Naturally diegetic discourse on the land still being riddled with land mines, Vietnamese harbouring ill will towards the loss of past family members versus once Viet Cong welcoming their past enemies with open arms and beverages, commentary on Hollywood’s romanticised and glorified alternate takes of history such as Rambo: First Blood Part II and Missing in Action, to abrasive criticism on the current president of the United States. There’s a sense of educative awareness to this joint, where Lee dedicates allotted time to display important Black figures and accomplishments in history, such as Milton L. Olive III—the first Black soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War—Crispus Attucks (considered by many historians to be the first American victim of the American Revolution, killed during the Boston Massacre), and a handful of Olympic medalists. I know I’ve already mentioned it, but it’s truly a perfect time for this film to be seen right now. It’s thematic core is brutally honest and has a sense of immediacy to its message, true back then, still just as true today. With his Colt .45 aimed, Chadwick Boseman‘s (42, Black Panther, Get on Up, Marshall) Stormin’ Norman effectively hits the current mood right on the head with a monologue, “Every time I walk out my front door I see cops patrolling my neighborhood like it’s some kind of police state. I can feel just how much I ain’t worth.” While certainly being one of Lee’s most bloody and violent films, Da 5 Bloods revels more in showcasing the emotionally rippling shockwaves that forever altered every single participant’s life, on both sides.
It’s a Spike Lee joint, so you know the character chemistry is always palpable, this hit being quite prevalent between the leading four: Delroy Lindo (Gone in 60 Seconds, Domino, Blood In Blood Out, The One, Malcolm X), Clarke Peters (The Wire, John Wick), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Cedar Rapids, The Old Man and the Gun, BlacKkKlansman), and Norm Lewis (Winter’s Tale). Unlike the white heroes we so often see, Lee gives us these real genuine, flawed and personable individuals. The four Bloods have some terrific chemistry, completely convincing of their united military pasts and of their present day objective. Tagging along on the mission as an unexpected and partly unwanted third wheel, we see Jonathan Majors (Last Black Man in San Francisco, Captive State, Hostiles, Lovecraft Country) playing Lindo’s character’s son. I’ve seen a few of his films, but Majors always seems to excel in the roles given to him regardless of how much screen-time he is granted; I’d love to see him continue working with Lee. But of the entire film, Delroy Lindo – a welcome back of sorts, after three prior collaborations with Lee back in the 90s – and fellow Lee familiar Clarke Peters had the heaviest luggage to bear, with the Lindo’s captivating heart of the story being the best male performance of the year so far. Most filmmakers would not have hesitated to cast some up incoming younger actors to play the flashback versions of our squad. Instead, Lee – like Martin Scorsese last year – decides to have them play both their present and post versions, which I think was a very interesting thematic decision. Based on the scale of this film, I doubt the aforementioned artistic decision was made as a result of budget limits, but more out of Lee wanting to show us how these characters feel and see themselves still in full capability. The four of these men must be well into their 60s, but contrary to most of their righteous complaints about “Sly and Walker Texas Ranger,” they, too, clearly see themselves as still being battle-hardened soldiers capable of fighting to the last man. Or on a more somber note, it represents how these men and many like them are forever trapped in their pasts, unable to accept or move on. It did take me out of the moment upon first flashback, seeing them alongside a ~20 year younger Boseman, but it’s something one can quickly adjust to and place analysis upon.
My initial complaint is in the lack of development for the supporting cast. An unsteady array of supporting cast members result as being nothing more than cameos, from Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell, I, Tonya, BlacKkKlansman), Jasper Pääkkönen (Vikings, BlacKkKlansman), Mélanie Thierry (The Zero Theorem, A Perfect Day) and Jean Reno (Léon: the Professional, Mission Impossible, Godzilla, Ronin). They seem more outskirt players who could have arguably been taken out or repurposed in order to give even more focus to the Bloods and their various cursory subplots or to just avoid having some more convenient plot moments for the sake of progression. I, for one, would have loved to spend more time with Stormin’ Norm. The only other gripe I can think of on first viewing is a tonal issue with some scenes seemingly coming off more comedic than perhaps intended? For a film with such a soulful mantra to it, I found it jarring at times to have a cathartic monologue cut short or followed by light jokes or goofier scenes. Regardless, the film clocks in at 155 minutes, and aside from maybe 10-15 minutes, I think pacing worked out effectively for such heavy thematic content.
Lee’s mainstay musical composer, Terence Blanchard returns to compose an emotionally sweeping score that pairs well with an excellent soundtrack (which does include “Ride of the Valkyries”). It’s a Vietnam film, so you already know to expect the entry gate fee that is homage to Apocalypse Now. Da 5 Bloods is filled with it, from serene sun-backed helicopter patrols, to the aforementioned adopted Richard Wagner air cav musical theme, to even having a literal DJ backdrop of Apocalypse Now in a club. One does not simply go to Vietnam and not evoke imagery that Francis Ford Coppola and company ingrained into universal cinephile memory. Newton Thomas Sigel‘s (Drive, Three Kings, The Usual Suspects, X-Men, X2, Extraction) crisp and wide cinematography is almost immediately noticeable the moment we first meet four of the five titular bloods, at a Vietnamese hotel lobby. The city scenes are vibrant in colour and activity almost serving like a welcome invitation for all to visit Vietnam. In contrast, the exterior shots when the platoon go in search of their fallen comrade and recompense, the titular Bloods are shot in such a manner that they seem as large as life towering over the rice paddies up alongside the tree covered mountains. I was really surprised by the very welcome manipulation of aspect ratios, going from an ultrawide 2.39:1 aspect ratio for present day footage and 16mm 4:3 (like Mid90s) to showcase the flashback scenes. The use of the latter truly manages to convey the past in a tighter, granier lens, the characters and shared memories literally depicted in tighter and closer proximity to reflect their brotherhood in its peak – all while feeling like war journalist footage from an actual battle. If I recall correctly, Spike Lee even implements smaller homey moments with a Super 8. Added to his archival history lessons, it’s no shock that Lee continues to keep each of his films fresh and adaptive with an assortment of different techniques, but Da 5 Bloods feels like it’s his most cinematic and ambitious yet. I’d say those elements should factor in heavily for awards, but seeing how similar-in-scope Netflix films Beasts of No Nation and The Irishman got no love, who knows.
As the age-old adages go, “War never changes,” and “Only the dead see the end of war.” In his expected manner, Lee delivers a powerfully resonant film that begins and ends on a globally sobering level: a poignant film that demands to be seen now. A strong recommendation for all to experience, regardless of how much or little of a Spike Lee fan you are. One of 2020’s best films, hands down. “And that’s the double truth, Ruth.”
B+ Review 2020 42 a perfect day apocalypse now B+ beasts of no nation black panther blackkklansman captive state cedar rapids chadwick boseman clarke peters da 5 bloods delroy lindo do the right thing domino extraction francis ford coppola get on up godzilla gone in 60 seconds hostiles i tonya isiah whitlock jr jasper paakkonen jean reno john wick jonathan majors last black man in san francisco leon the professional malcolm x marshall martin scorsese marvin gaye melanie thierry mid90s missing in action mission impossible netflix newton thomas sigel norm lewis paul walter hauser rambo first blood part ii richard jewell ronin spike lee the irishman the old man and the gun the one the treasure of the sierra madre the usual suspects the zero theorem three kings winters tale x2
Film Studies/History graduate, using my love and knowledge of the medium to pass as a critic. I’m typically known for longer write-ups, and my eclectic taste ranging from awards darlings, European filmé, indie spirits, cinematic universes, and most notably 80s cult films. Hope you’ve enjoyed your visit, and remember, watch whatever, whenever, with whomever.