Watching Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (dropping Friday on Netflix), you feel as if he’s been tinkering with the film right up until the moment we see it. Many scenes feel ripped from last night’s evening news, and that’s probably the point. Systematic oppression of Black Americans has existed for hundreds of years, evolving through decades to take on multiple forms. First, the horrible crime of slavery evolved into a sense of freedom that varied from region to region. The struggle for property ownership evolved into the fight for voting rights. The Klu Klux Klan. Tulsa 1921. Straight up to the continued abuse and murder by those sworn to protect all Americans.
Within that laundry list of atrocities sits the Vietnam War – an unpopular war fought by a significant number of Black Americans. Either drafted or forced into enrollment due to a lack of other options, so many Black Americans died in the early years of the war that President Johnson cut back on their numbers in front-line combat units. But the impact – both cultural and economic – dealt a crushing blow to thousands of Black families.
That impact drives the central narrative of Da 5 Bloods, Lee’s newest film following the Oscar-winning success of BlackKklansman. As with many great Vietnam War epics, Bloods lacks the laser-sharp focus of BlackKklansman, but that’s not a criticism. Lee’s story and themes serve a much broader international canvas that spans the past and the present. He takes on not only the impact of the Vietnam War on Black Americans, but he also dives into the pain of local Vietnamese and the involvement of French colonists. There’s a lot going on here, yes, but Bloods and Lee give us the kind of filmmaking many of us thrive on. It’s gonzo and brilliant at times, painful and intimate at others.
The central plot involves a group of five Black men – the Bloods (Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) – who have returned to Vietnam for the publicly stated purpose of finding the remains of their beloved squad leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman). They’re also in country to find a stash of gold they’d confiscated after a raid and buried in the jungle. It takes a while to get to the jungle scenes because Lee spends a lot of screen time exploring modern day Vietnam and the fallout from the war. These scenes, though, are the heart of the piece. They give us context as to who these men are, and what this informal mission means to them.
Lee also gives us several flashback war sequences that feel inspired by Rambo or The Wild Bunch. They’re violent acts of cinema, filmed with period-specific cinematography and a bold, dramatic action score by Terence Blanchard. At first, these scenes threw me as they’re unlike anything else in the film. They’re blatantly over the top. They’re almost fetishistic in their depiction of war. But by the end, their purpose comes into focus as you understand the perspective through which they’re realized. They’re projected through a damaged mind – a mind broken by the war, by grief, and by a country that sent Black Americans to die in the jungle.
While there isn’t really a bad performance in the group, Delroy Lindo (Malcolm X, Clockers) has a career-defining role in Paul, the Trump-loving member of the Bloods. He is the broken man. He clings to an American idea and Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again.” Why that is can be interpreted a few different ways. Right now, my opinion is that he’s so broken, so damaged, so deflated by the American systematic abuse of Blacks that he clings to the abuser for comfort. Kind of a battered wife syndrome. It can get better. We just need to keep the immigrants out. By the time we get to the jungle, Lindo tears through his scenes, portraying a hyper focused insanity that culminates in a brilliant monologue delivered directly to the camera.
This is the kind of role that wins Oscars. I hope Netflix runs him in the lead actor race rather than relegate him to supporting. I have no idea what his screen time is, but his presence looms so large over the material that he feels like a lead, even in an ensemble piece.
Rising star Jonathan Majors is also great as Paul’s son David. He shows up in Vietnam to look after his father, but the pressures of the mission and the allure of gold heighten their often strained relationship. David represents the better America that Paul dreams of through a better education and a supposed wealth of opportunity. They share fantastic scenes that never feel too bogged down in the traditional father-son dynamic, but they build enough chemistry together to heighten a heart-pounding scene later in the film. Majors is a star for sure. Watch out for this guy.
Ultimately, Da 5 Bloods’ biggest star is director Spike Lee. The film emerges as his vision of the Vietnam War and r and its lasting impact on everyone involved, particularly Black Americans. He makes bold directorial choices that feel fresh and yet completely at home within his canon. He tells us, through the story and through the bookending footage, that America continues to force Black Americans into subserviant roles. They could have been scholars and Olympians and so much more, and sure, many have been. But the numbers could have been so much higher had the opportunities been there. Instead, the Black experience finds it way, here, into the jungles of Vietnam – not once, but twice – with deadly results.
This hybrid of Rambo, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and many more cinematic inspirations blended with an undeniably (persistently) timeless message makes Da 5 Bloods one of Lee’s very best films. His is a war epic that balances the undeniably visceral thrills of combat against the horrors of war underscored with a stunning and painful social message that cannot be ignored. Black lives do matter. They cannot continue to be sacrificed at the hands those in power, time after time, year after year. Yes, the film ends on a positive note, but the deaths within it resonate long after you put it down.
Black lives do matter, and how many more have to die before progress is made?