Spike Lee continues to cast his insightful, critical eye on a piece of mythologized American history–reckoning a bitter present with its misguided past
Da 5 Bloods opens with a disorienting recap of Black America’s immediate past — one of the aggressions and atrocities faced during the Civil Rights movement, and of rampant socioeconomic inequality at the height of America’s global ambitions. Neil Armstrong landed on “Da Moon” while children starved; and where Black Americans were limited to joining a segregated armed forces in the thousands during the World Wars, 32% of soldiers in the Vietnam War were Black — despite making up only 8% of the population. It’s a rush of sobering American history, full of recognizable moments in American culture that serve as anchor points which reveal the other, darker moments that deserve equal attention but higher authorities would prefer we collectively forget.
Da 5 Bloods, which further continues Spike Lee’s roll of great re-contextualizations of American History, is a film that explores this quixotic relationship America has between its past and present. Through the lens of war and adventure films, Lee examines the generational repercussions of rampant inequality and long-lasting trauma — forcing his audience to confront an idealized past alongside his characters.
Da 5 Bloods follows 4 Black veterans as they travel back to Vietnam to recover the remains of their fallen squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). But for these men, the return to Vietnam isn’t just the fulfillment of an age-old promise, but also the promise of a much brighter future. Also in pursuit is the cache of U.S. Government gold Stormin’ Norman died defending alongside them — which could net the Bloods life-changing millions as reparations for their community’s unequal wartime sacrifices.
While their reunion re-solidifies their distant friendships, the Bloods also reveal how life has dealt them far different hands than they once expected. Otis (Clarke Peters) is a calm, collected man whose return also brings him to Tien — an old wartime flame turned international exporter/fence for the gold…and, as Otis learns, the mother of his now-adult daughter. Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) is the ex-medic, a rational, practical guy eager to start a new life with his share of the gold; he acknowledges how the gold could be used for good, as Stormin’ Norman wanted for them — but is far more focused on his own financial struggles, as are his fellow Bloods. The only one who clings to Norm’s teachings is Eddie (Norm Lewis), who’s defined by his own apparent success in the automotive industry and the most well-off of the Bloods — it appears, though, that his affluence has afforded him the ability to be socially generous.
The most outspoken of the group, though, is Paul (Delroy Lindo, in a towering performance). Hard on his luck and an outspoken Trump supporter (down to the MAGA hat he wears on the journey), Paul is bitter about how life seems to have cheated him and his fellow soldiers both before, during, and after the War. And despite all his efforts to better himself, everything around Paul seems to cut him down before he can finally get by. He may be defined by a “fuck you, got mine” mentality, but Paul’s more than earned it. Paul’s tormented by visions of his Wartime experiences, and his PTSD causes him to recoil from the slightest touch of anyone that exists outside his limited emotional scope. Unfortunately, Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) is part of that collateral damage. In an act that’s equal parts intervention, self-interest, and hunger for connection, David unexpectedly muscles into joining the Bloods on their adventure into the jungle, partially to get a cut of his father’s legendary gold, but primarily so David can finally understand why Paul’s been so cold and bitter to him all these years. Each of the Bloods has their own demons created in the wake of Vietnam — which their return sweats out of them with every trudge forward.
One of the things that separates Spike Lee from directors like Quentin Tarantino is that while both may openly wear their cinematic homages on their sleeves, Lee isn’t afraid to take his influences to task for their shortcomings, as well as their lingering effects on the collective pop culture consciousness. Da 5 Bloods is no exception. With visual, soundtrack, and dialogue cues ranging from everything between The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to Apocalypse Now, Da 5 Bloods is Spike Lee at his most epic in scope. The strange effect, though, places the reality of the Vietnam War of Da 5 Bloods as one inseparable from its later mythologized iteration in pop culture. Sure, there’s no Creedence, but that doesn’t stop the film’s Vietnam War flashbacks from retaining the gritty, effortlessly cool sheen of action movies of the era, like Rambo or Chuck Norris’ filmography — films ridiculed by the Bloods, save Paul (naturally). Whether in recovering from a failed war riddled with unspeakable atrocities or championing bitter victories of other conflicts, Lee acknowledges how America toxically tends to turn its trauma into a source of entertainment in order to cope. It’s an act of distancing ourselves from the responsibility of our wartime actions that we confuse with embracing and reckoning with it.
In one of Da 5 Bloods greatest directorial flourishes, Lee’s dramatization and critique of the past lends itself to how the Bloods are portrayed in their own flashbacks. Where Scorsese digitally aged-down his cast in The Irishman, Lee refuses to do the same or substitute younger actors for his present-day cast. Instead, these aged veterans place their present-day selves in their flashbacks, as if they were in an elaborate re-enactment of their own lives. It speaks to a refusal to acknowledge any sort of change, positive or negative — and a desire to imagine oneself as emotionally consistent or incapable of fault, one immediately betrayed by the visuals onscreen.
None more so than the appearance of Stormin’ Norman, who, surrounded by the glow of the jungle sun, feels like a Christ figure cut down too soon. He’s described as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. as one person, fully conscious of his belittled place in American society but determined to change his position for the better the only ways he knows how. He teaches the Bloods about Black history and the hollowness of the Army’s anti-Communist rhetoric, and in one of his most moving scenes, pacifies his squad after the enemy’s “Hanoi Hannah” broadcasts news about the Assassination of MLK. Norm refuses to let his anger be used as a weapon by those in power, and instead dedicates himself to using it as a tool for his own future success. His death, however, kills that message before it can fully take root in his fellow bloods — leading them to confront their distancing from his lessons lost in the woods like Private Dantes without Norm’s Virgil to guide them.
The rest of Lee’s film is one that should go predominantly unspoiled, even as much of the film’s premise fulfills its promises early on in the epic two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Lost in the jungle with the golden weight of the future strapped to their backs, the Bloods must reckon with the other promises they’ve failed to keep, ones fueled by a guilt and regret that infectiously spreads across other supporting characters. There’s the aforementioned David, but there’s also their off-and-on guide, Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyen), whose own family was split between North and South during the “American War,” as well as a group of well-intentioned white landmine removal specialists (Mélanie Thierry, as well as BlacKkKlansman returners Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Pääkkönen). Throughout, though, is Paul’s selfish antagonism — once laser-focused on retrieving Norm’s body, then to the fate of the gold they seek — and underneath is a deeply personal, rage-filled cry for redemption that is the beating heart of Da 5 Bloods’ epic of wartime brutality.
Da 5 Bloods is an action/adventure picture for sure, but like the best of Spike Lee films it’s one that revels and savagely critiques its genre trappings and inspirations, never losing sight of its own ambitions and fierce moral codes.
Watch Da 5 Bloods on Netflix.