As I watched the opening moments of the new Spike Lee Joint, Da 5 Bloods – which debuted on Netflix on June 12th – the footage of an interview with Mohammed Ali speaking of why he refused to fight in the Vietnam war, brought to mind the scene from Ghostbusters when Peter Venkman is trying to woo Dana Barrett in a square, surrounded by pigeons. As Dana tries to ignore him, Venkman sings a little song: ‘Is it fate, is it karma…’, a sentiment that perfectly sums up the fortuitousness of releasing a film about the experiences of African American men fighting during the Vietnam war during a time of racial upheaval in America in 2020.
Although director Spike Lee has made straightforward genre films to various effect – Inside Man being perhaps the best example – most of his films touch, in one way or another, on the African American experience in their homeland. His last film, BlacKkKlansman, took a high concept idea – a black man infiltrates the bastion of white supremacy, the Ku Klux Klan – and transformed it into an analysis of the perceptions of race which has influenced, and been influenced by, amongst other things, Hollywood and he’s done something similar with Da 5 Bloods.
It’s the story of four friends, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) on an adventure which starts in Saigon and continues through the jungles where they once fought the Viet Cong. It’s a film about a lot of things, not least of all friendship. From the moment we first see the gang together, there’s instant chemistry. They argue, cuss, fight and laugh, and are instantly likeable. You really get a sense of the camaraderie that these men have, and even though they have widely differing opinions and post-war experiences, they are still brothers after all these years.
The most prominent member of the gang is undoubtedly Delroy Lindo. I don’t think that I’m going out on a limb by claiming that Lindo should be guaranteed an Oscar nomination for his role, and I’d go as far as saying that he would be one of the favourites to win the coveted award next year. He’s a tour de force as the right-wing, Trump supporting, MAGA hat wearing, guilt-ridden vet who is just on the cusp of a nervous breakdown. The hate he has for himself and just about everyone and everything else, including his own son, coupled with his constant need for trust and reassurance from his friends, blazes in his eyes throughout. He’s at constant war with himself, and anyone surrounding him is collateral damage. We know where he‘s probably heading, we know the tragedy that may befall him, and we can’t keep our eyes off him.
The other members of the bloods are probably not as well fleshed out as Paul – we have the stable and possibly opioid-addicted Otis, the rich and successful Eddie, and the very funny Melvin – but that’s ok because it’s as a group that they really come to life. Although they haven’t seen each other for some time, they seem to reignite their relationship immediately. It’s this relationship, with its tensions and sense of genuine love, that holds the film together.
On the journey we are joined by Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) who has a very complicated relationship with his father, their guide Vinh (Johnny Nguyen), and the members of LAMB (Love Against Mines and Bombs): Hedy (Melanie Theirry), Simon (Paul Walter Hauser) and Seppo (Jasper Pääkkönen).
At its most simplistic, Da 5 Bloods is like a modern retelling of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre wrapped up in a #BlackLivesMatter bow. The four vets return to Vietnam to find the body of their fallen brother in arms and at the same time find a hoard of gold that they had discovered in the battle that had killed their friend. In this sense it’s no different to other men-on-a-mission adventures like The Dirty Dozen or Kelly’s Heroes, but this is a Spike Lee Joint and we know that whilst he has an obvious love for these films, his interests are bigger than a mere adventure.
As he tried to do with his 2008 film, Miracle At St. Anna, Da 5 Bloods is about the role of African American soldiers in American wars. The opening speech by Ali sets the tone as he outlines why he couldn’t fight for a country in which he’s a second class citizen against a country and its people that have never done anything to him. What were African American soldiers fighting for during the war, and what has it meant to them since? These are two questions which are central to the film. It starts with footage and speeches from many prominent African Americans denouncing the war and the treatment they receive in their everyday lives, and throughout the film, archival footage is used to underline many of the moments that occur. This gives the film a very real foundation for this work of fiction to grow from. At one point, as they discuss a massacre perpetrated by American soldiers, I had to look away for a second because the images were too upsetting.
It’s also a ghost story with the fifth member of their group, Norm (Chadwick Boseman), who was the leader of the pack and who was killed in action, being a constant companion to the group. Paul even confesses that he sees and talks to Norm every night. Norm was the one who held them together, who challenged them about the civil rights war that was going on at home, and taught them how to survive in the jungle. He was their mentor and each one felt a profound sense of loss when he died. It changed them and hung over them for the rest of their lives.
Although Da 5 Bloods is not about the Vietnamese experience, it does provide some significant insights into post-American-War Vietnam and its psyche that few American films ever have; The old men who had fought for the Viet Cong and wanted to buy their old adversaries, the Americans, a round of drinks; the boatman who doesn’t understand the word ‘No’ but does understand a particular racial slur, the night club with a huge Apocalypse Now Banner.
Lee, fresh off his critically acclaimed success with BlacKkKlansman, is in confident mood here and employs a number of bold choices – the most daring is probably sticking to the aging actors and not using younger actors to play the vets in the flashback scenes. This might seem an odd choice, but it works well.
Lee differentiates between the different eras by changing the aspect ratio of the film. In the Modern day city scenes he uses 2.39:1, in the Jungle scenes he uses 1.85:1 and in the flashbacks he uses 1.33:1. He also uses Super 8 (2.39:1) for the some of the river boat scenes.
The film is laced with very successful humour (Ride of the Valkyries on the river, for example) and can be watched as a straightforward adventure. Despite the use of archival footage, it is not necessarily realism. Some elements of the film suggest it’s based in the early years of this century at the very latest (some members of the group are clearly too young to have fought in the war) and Otis’ daughter is in her twenties when, if she had been conceived in the war she should be almost fifty. It’s as if Lee took a script that was based in the ‘80s and decided not to change any of it. This did cause some confusion early on, but soon I just went with it and accepted it was probably an aesthetic choice.
Da 5 Bloods is definitely top tier Spike Lee. It might not reach the heights of Do The Right Thing, but it certainly stands alongside Malcolm X, Crooklyn, Clockers, Get On the Bus and BlacKkKlansman. Last year Netflix produced by favourite film of 2019 – The Irishman – and although we are only halfway through the year, it would take a very special film to displace Da 5 Bloods from that position. Given the climate we are currently in and the lack of major cinema releases at the moment, I would expect it to pick up a plethora of awards early next year. Netflix has always been good at fighting for their films even though there’s a prejudice in Hollywood against films which debut on streaming platforms, but, as the entertainment industry is ravaged by Covid-19, this might not be an issue this year.
Da 5 Bloods is widely entertaining, raucous and violent. It’s moving and important, and is essential viewing whether you watch it because you‘re interested in the issues it raises, or because you just want a great adventure film. And when it comes to Delroy Lindo, I really hope that come next March when the Oscars are announced I can say, “I told you so”.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 9/10
Da 5 Bloods is available to watch now on Netflix (regional variances may apply).
*Artwork courtesy of Tony Stella.