Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods begins with a long montage of archival footage from the 1960s and ’70s, including images of Muhammad Ali, Lyndon B. Johnson (speaking from “Da White House”), Neil Armstrong (landing on “Da Moon”), Angela Davis warning of fascism coming to the U.S., and the fall of Saigon. It ends — no spoilers — with another montage, this time of present-day images: a military casket’s arrival at an airfield, a group of landmine activists and Vietnamese amputees, a Black Lives Matter meeting. “After you’ve been in a war, you understand it never really ends,” a character observes at one point in the film. That in itself is not a new notion. The spin Lee puts on it, however, is that it’s all actually one big war that’s been going on for centuries — that racism, poverty, imperialism, and the poisoning of the world are all gnarled branches of the same grim tree. And at various points, we’ve all helped water it.
The film’s urgency at this particular moment is self-evident, but what’s so astonishing about Da 5 Bloods is that Lee has welded these images and ideas onto what apparently started out years ago as an action-adventure flick from the writers of Disney’s The Rocketeer about a group of vets going back to Vietnam in search of hidden gold. The director and his co-writer, Kevin Willmott, eventually got ahold of the script, made all the protagonists African-American, then turned the whole thing into a stirring, deliriously referential treatise on race, American history, and black patriotism. If at times the weld-points show, that’s probably because they’re supposed to. Lee clearly isn’t worried about the loss of verisimilitude: After the film introduces us to its protagonists in the present day — Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr., who gets one really good “sheeeiiiiiiiiit” in there), and Eddie (Norm Lewis) — it flashes back to their days in ’Nam, and they all look pretty much the same age, even as they bounce around in combat with machine guns. We note it, and we roll with it: Pulling us out of our comfort zone has been part of Spike Lee’s project since the earliest days of his career. Da 5 Bloods is his agit-prop action movie.
That’s not to say that it’s not deeply moving as well. The present-day Bloods are an engaging bunch to spend time with, but as they joke and josh and reminisce, we sense the presence of ghosts both personal and historical. The film divides its focus between Lindo’s Paul, whose many traumas have turned him into a resentful, paranoid, immigrant-hating Trump voter, and Peters’s soft-spoken Otis, who often acts as a compassionate check on his old comrade. When David (Jonathan Majors), Paul’s melancholy son (and Otis’s godson), shows up in Ho Chi Minh City to join the Bloods on their journey, we understand how those aforementioned ghosts might continue to haunt subsequent generations. Otis himself has his share of issues, too: He’s nursing an Oxycontin addiction, and has discovered that he has a Vietnamese daughter. His old lover informs him that the girl has been discriminated against her whole life, both for being black and for being the illegitimate daughter of an American serviceman. (The N-word, she informs Otis, was taught to the Vietnamese by U.S. soldiers.)
The film’s nominal storyline, in which our protagonists return to the site where their helicopter crashed many years ago, and where they buried a massive stash of CIA gold alongside their angelic, heroic young captain Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), has all the typical beats of a Hollywood adventure, complete with ruthless international businessmen, bloodthirsty mercenaries, and even some earnest young Western aid workers who provide a convenient blend of comic relief, narrative complication, and romantic interest. And Lee is not above having fun with a high concept. He clearly enjoys all the action and epic spectacle and occasional flashes of gallows humor. In what would have been a lively stylistic flourish in cinemas, the film toys with aspect ratios: Flashbacks to the war are shot in 16mm and presented in a narrow frame, which in the first hour expands to a Cinemascope-like widescreen presentation for present-day scenes. Later, the frame opens up on all sides to encompass the full screen. (In the age of Netflix, 16:9 is the new Golden Ratio.)
Along the way, to go with the many historical references, we get nods to Apocalypse Now, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Rambo, Missing in Action, Platoon, The Seven Samurai, and any number of allusions I’m probably missing. Spike Lee is underrated as a cinephile director: His work is as conversant with film history as it is with American history, from the way Malcolm X jumps genres with each stage of its hero’s journey, to the cop-pastiche procedural of Clockers, to the poignant stylistic collage of Bamboozled, to the pointed juxtaposition of tones in BlacKkKlansman. So, Da 5 Bloods winds up being as much about war movies as it is about war. In an early flashback, we see the Bloods engaged in a gunfight, with lots of derring-do and faceless enemy soldiers bursting in the background like so many anonymous blood-filled dummies. Later, as our heroes wait in the bushes, we hear another approaching group of unsuspecting Viet Cong talking about the messages and poems their wives and girlfriends left for them — right before they’re mowed down by the Bloods. Of course, we only see their words as subtitles; otherwise, the scene is still shot like your average war movie. But again, that seems to be the point. One of the things that makes Lee’s work so fascinating — and, sometimes, perplexing — is the glee with which he’s willing to undercut his own scenes to make a broader point. Yes, he wants us engaged in the movie, but he also wants us to question what we’re seeing, and how we’re seeing it.
This approach hasn’t always worked. But I don’t think it has ever worked as powerfully as it does in Da 5 Bloods. Partly, that has to do with the humanity Lee and his cast bring to the material. The MAGA-hatted Paul, with all his hurt and fear and regret and rage, might be one of the most complex characters in the director’s entire oeuvre. Lee knows he’s poking a (murder) hornets’ nest by putting that hat on Delroy Lindo’s head. But the hat eventually lands on other characters as well, as if to suggest that we all own Donald Trump. American history owns Donald Trump.
But look also to seemingly throwaway moments. At one point, someone mentions Crispus Attucks, that ubiquitous name from history class, the first person to die in the Boston Massacre and thus the first casualty of the American Revolution, a black man. Lee quickly cuts to a picture of Attucks’s death — the kind of image that as kids we all probably saw in school textbooks. But then, just as quickly, he cuts to a second image, a posed portrait of Attucks, as if to remind us: This was a man. Such stories lie in every frame of Da 5 Bloods, and they help make the movie impossible to shake. It is one of the greatest films Spike Lee has ever made.
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