When was the last time a director had the courage to attempt a full-scale epic? The kind of sweeping, hours-long story that the legendary directors of old – the David Leans, the Akira Kurosawas, the William Wylers, etc. – would attempt to cement their status in the history books? Sure, there’s last year’s The Irishman, but before that you’d have to go back to 2005 (Kingdom of Heaven), 2000 (Gladiator) or 1997 (Titanic) to really see a big swing. And these were all considered major risks that either became massive successes or legendary flops. Well, Spike Lee is a director of considerable renown enjoying a newfound resurgence after a horrifically-maligned period of supposed “flops,” so it shouldn’t be a major surprise that he chose to take a major gamble after his first Oscar win for BlacKkKlansman. What may come as a surprise (although it shouldn’t) is the way he wraps up a complex tale of collective grief, generational injustice, and systemic failure of both Black people and veterans all inside a grand, sweeping epic that could make Cecil B. DeMille blush.
Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) are four aging Vietnam veterans at various stages of life. Fifty years ago, they were a part of a squadron of African-American fighters known as Da 5 Bloods. When recent satellite footage reveals the tip of a downed plane they’d been sent to rescue on one of their last missions, the U.S. government permits the men to return to the country they’d warred with all those years ago to bring home the body of their fallen squad leader, Stormin’ Norman Holloway (Chadwick Boseman). However, the Bloods possess a secret they dare not divulge to anyone: on that final mission, they had recovered a large shipment of gold meant to bribe Vietnamese officials, which they had repurposed as a form of reparations for their oppressed community dying in the war in vastly disproportionate numbers and massacred at home by police, National Guardsman, and white supremacists. Joined on their quest by Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors), the men confront both the elements and the lasting impact of the war, as well as their own psyches, ravaged by grief, greed, and guilt.
The key to a great Spike Lee joint is his talent for crafting a treatise on Black history inside a seemingly unrelated or straightforward story. For while Da 5 Bloods is a straightforward story about veterans struggling with their past and hunting for treasure, Lee uses his lens and his editing structure to trace the roots of these struggles and decisions throughout the history of the United States. After all, the key to understanding the Bloods and their psyches can be found in the first five minutes of the film, which opens with Muhammad Ali’s famous quote about not fighting in the Vietnam War as “they had never called me [the n-word]” and proceeds into a montage of suffering and progress from the 60s to today. The sequence begins with a series of Black Vietnam soldiers before interweaving its way through the Watts riots, MLK’s death, protests for Civil Rights and against the war, massacres like that of Kent State, and finally to the L.A. riots of the 90s, placing a special focus on the protesters beaten and killed by the police. The message of the sequence cannot be more clear: it underlines the irony of sending young Black men to die for their country when their country has continuously repressed, beaten, and killed them at a far higher rate.
Black culture and history is prevalent throughout the film, whether narratively or technically. After all, the reason the Bloods took the gold in the first place is to serve as reparations for the Black soldiers who died for the United States throughout history, abroad or at home. As Stormin’ Norman notes, “We’ve been dying for this country since Day 1, with Crispus Attucks. We’re taking this gold for every Black soldier who never made it home.” And it is how they plan to use that gold that redeems them, morally and beyond. But Lee explores Black culture in a deeper way than even that. He weaves the spirit of the 60s into his characters, his story, and the tapestry of his filmmaking. For example, he scores his story about the Vietnam War and the lasting ramifications of the 60s on a group of abandoned and put-upon individuals with a selection of hits from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, an album that tackled the issues of the day. That opening montage is set to “Inner City Blues,” the film’s emotional climax is scored by a stunning acapella rendition of the eponymous track, and characters find redemption while singing “God Is Love.” And it is impossible to hear the characters’ names and not immediately hear the Golden Five lineup from The Temptations. Lee is creating a representation of Black history and suffering and entwining it with the epic filmmaking traditions of old.
Beyond just Black history, Da 5 Bloods dives deep into the American subconscious to explore not only what it means to be Black in America, but what it means to be a Black man who’s served in the military. At its core, no era captures the definition of generational divide quite like Vietnam: it has pitted the Greatest Generation against the Boomers, the Boomers against Generation X, the Boomers against millennials…really, it turned the Boomers against everyone. Which, as it turns out, is kind of the point of the film. As our four protagonists begin their quest into the heart of the Vietnamese jungle, they are forced to confront the ways that time and Black identity have changed throughout the years. “Back in the day, being a brother meant something,” they openly lament. And no juxtaposition encapsulates this divide and sense of feeling lost in time like the strained relationship between Paul and his son David. It is clear that the Bloods feel a disconnect from David from the get-go, as his introductory shot portrays him as a rather dorky-looking child who is described by his father as “an anchor around my neck.” Lee explores the generational divide through these characters and their relationship, as well as the toxic masculinity that fuels such behavior.
But Da 5 Bloods dives into far more than just the divide between generations and how the Black community defines itself. In fact, like the immortal 1946 classic The Best Years of Our Lives, Da 5 Bloods explores the problems of today through the eyes of veterans who will never fully leave the battlefield. We see the ramifications of the war on their psyches through a litany of issues – Paul’s search for a father figure (a la Kanye West) leads him to become an ardent Trump supporter, several of the Bloods suffer potential opioid addictions, and all four of them face the ever-present realities of racism, overtly or subconsciously. What makes the film interesting is the way all these traits, struggles, and beliefs are presented not as insulting flaws or melodramatic diseases, but as everyday realities, shown honestly and plainly. Instead, this film is about the irony of being a Black veteran – or, as the ending so eloquently phrases things, “We fought an immoral war that wasn’t ours for rights we didn’t have.” We are shown first hand the way black soldiers were used as cannon fodder while white college boys were rich enough to escape the war entirely. In their down time, the Bloods lament the fact that Hollywood never tells stories like this, about Black Vietnam heroes, as they would rather show Chuck Norris or Sylvester Stallone (neither of whom fought in the war) retroactively winning the war for the Americans. And in the film’s most poignant sequence, we witness the Bloods confront these questions head-on as they listen to Hanoi Hannah (Veronica Ngo) announce the assassination of Martin Luther King. It’s a truly stunning sequence, as we cut between Hannah pointing out their nation’s indifference to their suffering, the Bloods’ anguished faces, and footage of mourners and funeral attendees being beaten by police in the streets. It’s a stunning visual representation of the irony of dying for a country that hates you. And yet, despite never receiving the equality they deserved for their service to their country, they still deal with the baggage tethered to that service. We see the fear in their eyes when a local beggar sets off a string of fireworks. We’re placed first person inside a PTSD-laden panic attack. And in one of the film’s most striking sequences – a firefight placed late in the film – we watch as the frame shrinks around the head of one of the Bloods, creating the claustrophobic, anxiety-laced feeling that this pressure has placed upon him. It’s a brilliant commentary on the veteran experience, and a sharp critique of the nation’s treatment of Black veterans.
Lee also uses the film to delve deep into the American psyche to present his own take on the Vietnam War. Now, I’ve been pretty adamant that the film industry as a whole should expel Vietnam from the public lexicon – its overuse in visual imagery and blatant storytelling has reached a point of self-parody. However, what’s interesting about Lee’s portrayal is the way the film avoids the normal clichés of the Unjust War picture, or the Unwinnable War picture, to instead focus on two underrepresented themes of the tragedy: collective guilt, and the underlying ironies of imperialism. The Bloods first realize the futility of their actions fifty years ago upon meeting their guide Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguễn) in Ho Chi Minh City. Set against a vibrant backdrop of skyscrapers and fast food restaurants, Vinh tells the Bloods of the chasm in his family that erupted in the wake of the war, with Northern relatives murdered and Southern relatives imprisoned and reeducated. As they travel throughout the country, they are confronted by beggars, gangsters, and businessmen who feel contempt not just for the Bloods, but for what they represent: colonialism, interventionalism, and death personified. It is no mistake that the Bloods’ acquaintances on their journey are mostly French businessmen and heiresses – after all, it was France who colonized and abused Vietnam for centuries before their uprising. The Bloods’ alliances with the French (which lead to two very different conclusions) represents the effects both countries had on the long-suffering Vietnamese people – or, as one character so eloquently phrases it, “Uncle Sam did no better than France in Vietnam.”
And what makes the film work is the way the Bloods grapple with the guilt that they collectively bear. When we flash back to the battles of their youth, the enemy dialogue is subtitled – a choice that humanizes the men they’re ambushing and making us actively feel for their deaths. What’s more, their choice of conversation is so casual and friendly, most war films would tend to put the words squarely in the protagonists’ mouths, so as not to humanize the enemy. These are the choices Lee makes to avoid the clichés of the genre and portray a sense of collective guilt. After all, as much as we may want to sympathize with the Bloods and cheer for their victories, they are still complicit in war crimes. Lee makes sure we understand that they were aware of, and to an extent complicit in, the actions of Lt. Calley and the massacre of My Lai. In fact, Lee is so on the nose with his portrayl of their guilt and their struggles that the emotional climax of the film takes their metaphorical, subconscious guilt and gives it new meaning in the form of literal guilt. It’d be wrong to spoil it here, but I will say that it’s hard to not look at the film’s “twist” and view it as a microcosm of the horrors veterans not only experienced in Vietnam, but inflicted there as well.
As for the filmmaking, Lee combines the formalist structure of the epic with his usual shaggy qualities – and for the most part, it works! His filmmaking here is impeccable, as they just don’t make films like it anymore. It’s a cross between the form of the 40s and the style of the 70s, and I don’t just mean in terms of the filmmaking. After all, Lee is not shy in making it clear that he’s “borrowing” from Apocalypse Now, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. And not just in story or visuals, either. He has characters shouting “Madness!” into the night sky. Majors’ David performs the Walter Huston gold dance. Characters unironically declare “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!” And in the most blunt reference of all, “Ride of the Valkyries” plays as our characters set out on a boat ride through Vietnam. But borrowing is only wrong if you don’t have the talent to back it up – and Lee proves time and again that he is more than worthy of his homages. One need look no further than what Lee, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, and composer Terence Blanchard accomplish with their first flashback to the 60s. As the film stock shifts to 16mm, the ratio dramatically changes, and the booming score kicks in, it is hard not to get sucked into the bombastic, dramatic storytelling Lee is providing for us. It is truly impressive how he manages to recreate the grainy visuals of yesteryear, the same way those images used to come over our television sets every day. Beyond just Blanchard’s classical score, Lee also utilizes sound design to create atmosphere – the clinking of the gold in the second act is a terrific representation of the guilt and danger the Bloods carry with them every day.
As for the editing, I’m in a bit of a tough spot. For the most part, I love the work that Adam Gough does on this film, carrying its epic weight on his shoulders so that the film never feels overly long. And I’m a sucker for a great passage-of-time montage (see: Zodiac, the only good scene in Watchmen). However, there are several moments that feel too shaggy for my taste. Furthermore, the decision NOT to de-age the leads never quite works the way Lee hopes it will, even though it does successfully show that our heroes never left Vietnam, at least not mentally. And then comes the challenge: at two-hours-and-forty-minutes, some of Lee’s trademarks feel a bit too indulgent. For example, Lee loves incorporating quick-cuts to famous figures in history to drive his point home. But while a cut to Crispus Attucks may be relevant, is a cut to Aretha Franklin when a character quotes “Think” really necessary? And while it’s been a trademark since Do The Right Thing, Lee’s use of the double hug will never cease to bother me. However, it feels wrong criticizing a director for a trademark flourish. And if these are small quibbles inside a film that also gives us a sequence as impressive as The Landmine Scene late in the film’s second act, then who am I to complain? Lee is attempting the type of filmmaking every director should strive for, and I’m not going to fault him for what ultimately amounts to minor missteps.
Of course, Da 5 Bloods lives and dies with its acting, and I believe we’ll be hard pressed to find a better ensemble by the end of 2020. All four of the Bloods have a unique and true camaraderie, best exemplified when they hit a nightclub together early in the film. Obviously the name everyone’s going to be talking about after seeing Da 5 Bloods is Delroy Lindo, and it’d be a challenge to fault them for doing so. Lindo is a true standout from his first scene, and he only gets better from there. Lindo is forced to carry the most baggage of any actor in the film, and he does so with aplomb. His panic attack on the boat is one of the strongest sequences in the film, and by the end, as he’s ranting classical soliloquies in the style of Bogart’s Fred Dobbs, it is impossible to look away from the master class he’s providing. Lindo is the film’s strongest standout, but I want to also draw special attention to Clarke Peters. A sequence prominently featuring his Otis early in the film is one of the best pieces of acting I’ve witnessed in a long time. Rounding out the Bloods, I was particularly drawn to Norm Lewis’ charismatic Eddie, while Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s Melvin is good, even though I wish he’d gotten material as meaty as his three counterparts. Oh well, at least he got to deliver his classic “Sheeeee-eeeeet” – it’s like waiting for Samuel L. Jackson to say “motherf*cker,” or John Wayne to say “pilgrim.” Jonathan Majors continues a hot streak of terrific roles after his stunning breakout in The Last Black Man In San Francisco. Meanwhile, amongst the Vietnamese cast members, I cannot stop thinking abou thte performances of Nguyễn, Ngo, or Lê Y Lan. I hope Hollywood makes an effort to cast all three of them in all sorts of exciting projects. Amongst the rest of the cast, Jean Reno is…fine as Desroche, a French businessman, but I found his European counterparts far more entertaining. Mélanie Thierry is a perfect foil as Hedy Bouvier, and the film brightens whenever she’s onscreen, but my favorite touch is Lee’s repeated use of Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Pääkkönen as Hedy’s counterparts. Having just used them as the perfect bumbling Klansmen in BlacKkKlansman, their use here as goodhearted ex-pats is both humorous commentary and a demonstration of range by two great character actors. Honestly, it’s hard to think of a better director of actors working today than Spike Lee.
Da 5 Bloods is the type of shaggy, sophisticated storytelling that Hollywood isn’t entirely interested in making anymore. It has its flaws, to be sure. And I’d be lying if I called this anything other than a “lesser” Lee joint. But that’s the thing about Lee joints: even the weakest of his offerings is still vastly superior to everything else the market has to offer. And if the “lesser” films in your oeuvre happen to be big, bold, audacious filmmaking that no other director alive would dare to make – and one that comments on race, history, and morality to boot – then you have truly cemented yourself as a living legend. Da 5 Bloods is a film that challenged me, and I’m still thinking about it days after first viewing it. And if that’s not the hallmark of a great film and filmmaker, I don’t know what is.