In the film wasteland that is 2020, Spike Lee has arrived just in time to bolt us all back into consciousness with his war drama, Da 5 Bloods. Da 5 Bloods is an explosion of political satire, emotion and torment all strung together from the unhealed wounds of the Vietnam war. At a time where the subject matter feels incredibly prevalent, I think it’s important to reflect on how this film could have been released at many different times over the last 40 years, and felt just as relevant as it does today.
The titular ‘bloods’ are Otis (Clarke Peters), Paul (Delroy Lindo), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis). Four of the five bloods return to Vietnam as veterans, all understandably still effected by the war and coming back naturally isn’t the most therapeutic decision. Haunted primarily by the death of their squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) they return not only to search for his remains, but also to track down a cache of buried treasure.
Straight away I think it’s necessary to understand this isn’t a giant Vietnam war epic i.e the Rambo series, focusing on the battles and gruesome, physical destruction. The film shows a lot less of the actual war than you might expect and although it can offer violence in a traditional war film sense, the moments are few and far between. One interesting decision by Lee in relation to this, is to have the real time scenes at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, whereas the flashbacks are all at an aspect ratio of 4:3. Instead of putting the brutality at the forefront, though it’s not exactly an omission, the more interesting focus is on the mental destruction of war. It illustrates largely the mental health effects this has had on the four characters, particularly Paul. The performances by the ensemble cast are terrific, however Delroy Lindo as Paul steals the show with an excellent, pained portrayal. A descent into madness as returning to the jungle and coming to terms with loss makes for some extremely compelling moments. Add to that the father, son dynamic with David (Jonathan Majors) that runs throughout, there is a heap of emotion present in this The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) inspired story-line.
In terms of comparisons, needless to say there are several nods to Apocalypse Now (1979) sewn into the narrative. An obvious one which is shown in the trailer, when the bloods are first at a bar, there is a large poster of the film behind the DJ booth. In addition to this, when they set off on their adventure, Richard Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ accompanies the scene. Of course this is most likely Lee poking fun, but it seems to be a bit of an overused joke at this point. Then, in the final act, the action takes place in an ancient temple which is just a Marlon Brando short of perfect recreation. Regardless, the action that takes place is brilliantly done, in particular there is one anxiety inducing scene which will have you on the edge of your seats, rearing it’s head when least expected.
The aspect of this film, and a large section of Lee’s work, making him unique, is his intertwining of reality and fiction. At numerous points in the film he will show archive footage of real people, such as Mohammed Ali giving his thoughts on the Vietnam war. This political edge gives his films a vastly different feel in which you are confronted with questions, and horrendous answers that you cannot turn away from. It is at no point subtle, therefore not letting anyone miss or misunderstand the message. Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. make obligatory appearances, both in conversation between characters and with archival footage, something that has always been important to Lee. Another decision by Lee which is worth noting, is in the flashback scenes, other than Norman, the four bloods are played by the same actors who are acting as their older selves. As much as this could be to show how war never truly leaves a person and depict how, although they’ve all grown older, Norman’s death left him forever young, Spike Lee joked this was just because of budget restrictions.
With Da 5 Bloods, Lee has created a story never told before. The first Vietnam film with a focus on the black characters and how they were mistreated in the war. Of all enlisted men who died in Vietnam, black people made up 14.1% of the total. At the time they made up only 11% of the young male population nationwide. Statistics similar to this and many other equally important points are raised to keep the audience thinking and essentially educate what was never taught. There is an especially powerful moment as the characters hear via the radio announcer, Hanoi Hannah (Van Veronica Ngo) of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Norman calms the bloods down and instructs them to ignore her suggestion that they should resist as they owe the racist commanders nothing.
Da 5 Bloods is available on Netflix and is part of the Black Lives Matter collection set up by Netflix. Although it has a rather long run time of 154 minutes, it’s by no means a difficult watch. In terms of Spike Lee’s filmography, I think Do the Right Thing (1989) and BlacKkKlansman (2018) are still his standout films, the latter being such a hard act for him to follow. However this is overall a really great film, certainly worth your time and weighs in astoundingly well on the political conversation being had at the moment.
Have you watched Da 5 Bloods yet? If so, what are your thoughts on the film? How do you think it ranks amongst Spike Lee’s work? Let us know in the comments section of our website or on our Twitter and Instagram.
Readers may be aware of recent events which have brought to the forefront the issue of race inequality, not just in America, but all over the world. If you would like more information on the cause, I would urge you to access https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/ where you can donate, sign petitions, and help in many other ways to support the Black Lives Matter campaign. As stated on the website, racism doesn’t go away once the topic stops trending.