Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Director: Spike Lee
Screenwriters: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
Starring: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman, Mélanie Thierry, Johnny Tri Nguyen, Paul Walter Hauser, Jean Reno
2020 has been far from an ideal year for film fans. Delayed releases and theater closures have led to innumerable jokes online about films like Trolls 2 or Birds of Prey competing for major awards and headlining the coming Oscars. While there are still other heavy hitters to come, Netflix Original Da 5 Bloods stands out from the current crowd of digital releases. Will Spike Lee finally get his Best Director Oscar? He should, and not because the global promotion of #BlackLivesMatter might finally guilt voters into choosing a black winner; Da 5 Bloods appeals to film nerd ideals while providing invaluable perspective on the social changes that are brewing in the US and around the world.
The story follows four Vietnam veterans during their trek into the Vietnamese jungle to locate gold they discovered during the war, while also showing flashbacks of their tour of Vietnam with the fifth Blood, Chadwick Boseman’s deceased Stormin’ Norman. During their odyssey, they are faced with the enduring effects the war had on the region, from children of those killed by the US to the bright McDonalds and Budweiser signs that display the triumph of neo-imperialist capitalism over Vietnamese communism. The group also debates US politics, while the film explores the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and dives into the impact of social events of the late 1960s and early 1970s on the black American population.
Spike Lee’s signature use of documentary footage gives viewers direct insight into the counter-culture sentiments (and subsequent governmental containment) of the Vietnam era. Powerful words from icons like Muhammed Ali, Malcom X and Bobby Seale show how black Americans were exploited by the government to fight their neo-imperialist war. The social unrest in 1968 and 2020 are direct parallels, and it’s important to remember that the past isn’t a monolith of ideals – the world has always contained intellectual and social diversity, and now is the time to fight for the words spoken by these brilliant activists. Documentary footage also acts as in-text citations which show the subjects discussed by the characters, and includes full names, dates, and locations of speeches and other events for those who want to conduct further research into what is shown.
Lee also vitally plays with film form in Da 5 Bloods’ flashbacks. These segments are visually distinguished from the present day through two separate filmmaking elements – a 1.33:1 aspect ratio (the present is presented in 2.39:1 in the city, and 16:9 in the jungle), and the four living and aged bloods remaining their current age as opposed to being de-aged through cast-swaps or digital technologies (as was the case in The Irishman). The flashbacks pose similarities to period war films, with heroic music supporting the Bloods as they shoot and philosophize their way through the jungle. Stormin’ Norman is portrayed as a wise, brave leader that is notably absent in the modern era. The age of the living Bloods, in conjunction with the cinematic presentation and characterization, show the flashbacks to be the subjective memory of the characters (perhaps Delroy Lindo’s Paul in particular) – this is further evidenced by firecrackers triggering the first flashback as if it were the result of PTSD.
Film fans will truly be able appreciate Spike Lee’s references to Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now (1979), while building upon its anti-war and anti-American ethos. US media in the 70s frequently reinforced positive views of the war, especially among non-white Americans, which is what makes Coppola’s work so monumental in American film history. The structure of Da 5 Bloods is the most apparent similarity, but more specific references (a helicopter flying out of the sun and traveling down a river, the use of “Ride of the Valkyries”, characters meeting with white, French Vietnamese) appear throughout. Other references to film history are made, such as characters criticizing the second Rambo film, or a character named Hedy (“like Hedy Lamar… Old time Hollywood star?”), each illustrating Lee’s knowledge and appreciation for the form.
While Da 5 Bloods obviously explores black identity (and the war’s effect on it due to the disproportionate compulsory service of blacks compared to whites), it also explores white (privileged) identity through Mélanie Thierry’s Hedy and her friends. The bourgeoisie, white Frenchman (notably descended from French imperialist business owners) works to defuse landmines in the jungle, a consequence of the war still felt today by the Vietnamese. This appears to be an acknowledgement that the younger generation is an improvement on those who came before, and shows how white people ought to stand in solidarity with black people as seemingly anyone can be caught in the cultural (and literal) crossfires. The issues presented are, then, not only “black” issues, but universal issues – human issues – and white people must acknowledge the physical and social damage caused by centuries of racism in America while working to create a better world for future generations.
The highlight of the film is Delroy Lindo’s performance as PTSD suffering veteran Paul. Paul is a Trump supporter, perhaps in part due to the trauma he experienced in Vietnam (particularly the loss of Norman). He represents the impact of propaganda on American knowledge and emotions. His frequent outbursts and displays of ignorance frustrate his friends, but they and his son show how those that oppose Trump (or Tories, or any other neo-fascist regime) can still love and help those we know because it isn’t entirely their fault. The baby boomer generation in America was exposed to nationalist social instruction via the media for decades through ultra-right-wing and neo-liberal capitalist outlets. David (Jonathan Majors) doesn’t abandon his father – he supports him, encourages him, and provides a perspective outside of the American hegemonic norms. Trump supporters and the like are fellow workers and countrymen that have been led astray from the alleged ideals of Western democracy (as Langston Hughes wrote, “O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath—America will be!”), and ostracizing and otherizing them does nothing but reinforce their spiteful, selfish mindsets. Paul’s rediscovery of his roots through the memory of Norman (a representative of American idealism and black unity) is part of his character’s gradual transformation, and Lindo’s portrayal of the manic, Kanye-inspired moments are some of the best in the film.
The main criticism that can be leveled at Da 5 Bloods is that it’s too on-the-nose, but that seems to be a stylistic choice by Lee, who has never been one to be subtle. How one would subtly approach the impact of the Vietnam war and racism is puzzling – metaphor wouldn’t really pack the same punch as direct address and rhetorical realism, and Lee isn’t really a director of stylized social fiction like (the entirely unsubtle) Star Wars or The Hunger Games. Viewer reviews on IMDb (where the film holds a rating of 6.5/10) reveal a disconnect between Lee’s blunt encoding and audience decoding. “There’s a lot of really cool stuff going on in this movie, but the directing and writing gets in the way. Ultimately, the movie tries to link the Viet Nam war and racism, and fails miserably,” user jamaisj-838-93732 writes, perhaps having missed the entire opening of the film while making popcorn in another room of their home. “It was disjointed and the quality overall would be expected of an amateur, but not someone like Spike Lee,” according to user portermelissa, who must have had trouble following the clear storyline with a directly stated thesis constructed by one of the masters of cinematic craft. User simelemontolomeo-56461 thinks there were “[too] many political overtones and stereotypes, I just wanted to see a good movie, sorry,” because we all know good movies are divorced from politics.
Great films aren’t just great stories – they didn’t originate as such, and the bias towards narrative in the mainstream serves as an obstacle to the artistic evolution of the medium. But Da 5 Bloods is a great story, as well as a great social inquisition and display of Lee’s mastery of film history and form. It’s hard to imagine a film more relevant to the past and present being released this year, and it deserves exposure as one of the best of 2020 for that reason alone.