Da 5 Bloods, this June’s Netflix-exclusive Spike Lee joint, opens with archival footage from the American Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, prophetically resonating with the current political climate. Lee is known for righteous anger and aggressive political filmmaking (his production company is called 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks for a reason). The power that a film like Da 5 Bloods holds is often directly proportional to the political, cultural and social climate into which it is released, and one might argue that 2020 is not just the backdrop, but center stage in our experience of the film.
Da 5 Bloods follows a group of four Black American veterans returning to Vietnam in the present day to retrieve a supply of gold they buried in the countryside, along with the body of their slain friend Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). These veterans—Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.)—arrive in Vietnam as old friends, but their journey breeds tensions both old and new. The film follows the lives of each of these Bloods but ultimately centers on Paul’s story: that of a guilt-addled veteran who becomes a Trump supporter and an ineffectual father to David (Jonathan Majors), who follows Paul to Vietnam.
Referencing cinematic history, Black history and war history, Da 5 Bloods is a complex beast of a film, clocking in at just over two and a half sometimes-difficult-to-watch hours. Scenes of over-the-top fictionalized violence are juxtaposed with scenes of actual violence from archival footage. The effect is haunting, creating a truly one-of-a-kind film in the tried-and-true subgenre of Vietnam War cinema. Lee’s film explores shared trauma across intense action sequences and emotionally fraught moments, using memory and current action alike to urge for a better future.
There are great performances across the film’s ensemble, but one of the main reasons why this is Paul’s movie is Delroy Lindo’s firecracker of a performance. Lindo begins the film as a deceptively simple archetype, if not stereotype: a grandstanding, conservative veteran touting America’s greatness in a foreign land invaded by American forces, both military and consumerist. In playing a man returning to Vietnam and facing the history inherent therein (as a black American sent to war during the Civil Rights Movement and as a soldier who saw his friend die), Lindo allows the trauma to creep into every aspect of his performance; one of the film’s most powerful moments comes when he delivers a pair of bombastic monologues directly to the camera.
Lee’s stylistic choices are also fascinating, creating a unique cinematic and historical collage. The film shifts between aspect ratios when cutting between archival footage, flashbacks and the events in present-day Vietnam, not shying away from the negative space it causes. This shifting suggests a subjectivity that creates schisms between memory and history.
Lived-out memory and history both fracture and collide through Lee’s use of the same actors for both the action-movie-inspired flashbacks and the modern-day sequences. With the exception of Norman, remembered as a young man (he died young and thus remains firmly in the past), the veterans see themselves in the past as they are now; they see themselves as older, experienced and traumatized men reliving the trauma of an era bygone in history but not in memory.
While it may take a moment for Da 5 Bloods to get up and running, the film is quite compelling despite its immense running time. The thematic elements are front and center, of course, but the narrative and character arcs are genuinely interesting on their own, creating a captivating and ultimately satisfying experience. Despite the Spike Lee pedigree, Netflix distribution is a perfect avenue for this film, appealing to broad audiences while occupying an experimental niche.
Da 5 Bloods fulfills its “R” rating, utilizing footage of actual violence alongside the over-the-top, fictionalized violence, and while Lee’s intent does not seem to be to use images of dead and maimed bodies as entertainment, some may find that their use borders on (and arguably crosses into) an uncomfortable appropriation of real victims of violence in Vietnam.
While the Vietnamese characters in the film are not the focal point, they come across as background elements, at best. These characters are not stereotypes, per se, but they generally come across as one-dimensional. Even the most prominent Vietnamese characters, like tour guide Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyễn) and Otis’ old flame Tiên (Lê Y Lan), feel underdeveloped, primarily existing to push forward the character arcs of American men.
The casualty that happens in war tends to happen elsewhere—abroad. But what we’re experiencing today is a war fought on our very own soil. Politics, violence and warring causes are again at the centerpiece of today’s news. The masses are pitted against the authority on the streets in public demonstrations, where weapons are used against unarmed citizens. In Congress, politicians spar with one another, mangling legislations as if they were treaties between warring countries.
And, as the film brings to sharp focus, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are complexly interrelated, even internalized. Since the beginning of 2020, societal and economic collapses have followed one after the other, unrest and social upheaval happening across the nation and world, movements rallying people of very different persuasions to fill American streets. Between the Black Lives Matter movement’s surge in activity in the wake of increased awareness of police violence and the increasing restlessness in the U.S. over measures protecting against COVID-19, people are living the conflicts of guilt, outrage and anger usually reserved for filmic experiences. Now more than ever, audiences may empathize with the content of a Spike Lee film, especially one with as much righteous anger as this one.
As the de facto protagonist, Paul is probably Da 5 Bloods’ most complex character. He carries a major tension between his allegiance toward his country and the real bloodshed of war, as he struggles to find justification and someone to blame for his accidental shooting of Norman during the war. (Yes, it was him, but why was he there in the first place?)
Paul’s conflict of allegiance and unresolved guilt are exacerbated by his Blackness, as explained by Muhammad Ali in the film’s opening moments: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me n–––––, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality.”
For Paul, and for us, this tension comes to a head in a way that prompts the question: What is the price of war? Whose war is it? Who benefits from this war? The white soldiers, the black soldiers or the politicians at the helm of command?
The film plays out the struggle between the image of “big powerful America” and “conscience,” which is perhaps the defining characteristic of our current social dilemma today. Characters in the film refer to the war as the “American War,” challenging the idea that the war was solely or even primarily a Vietnamese conflict in which the U.S. only played a part. Are we a society that has been fighting for an appearance of something “great” or are we a society that can acknowledge, yes, we have a conscience to uphold basic human decency?
We are certainly warring today. During his first monologue, Paul says, “I will choose when and how I die,” a sentiment that finds resonance in movements we see today. Occupying news stations and social media, the Black Lives Matter and the Anti-Masker movements alike are fighting government overreach, yet one movement traces communal experiences and systemic history of race in America, while the other relies on memories of and a desire for “normalcy” to return to our individual lives. As the pandemic rages on, the distinction between those concerned with the greater good and those concerned primarily for themselves seems to become more and more distinct. But with any movement, or dare we say “war” today, perhaps the key question remains: whose war am I fighting, and who and what am I fighting for?