As Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) filters through my living room speakers, I knew this film would be special. Call it an intuition – a feeling based on Berry Gordy’s Motown methodology about grabbing an audience’s attention within the first ten seconds. Call it because I consider Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Going On the greatest album ever made, a rejection of the popularise, feelgood ‘Motown sound’ for a series of political anthems reflective of the societal problems of Black America. But, like how I know and certainly director Spike Lee knows that Marvin’s music powerfully resonates today as it did in 1971.
It’s important to understand as to why Da 5 Bloods is so profound on so many levels that it evokes. On one hand, Spike Lee’s documentarian approach to Black consciousness will forever and always be an educative experience, one that fills in common knowledge with that spark of information that expands your grasp of the world and, most importantly to a Black person, re-contextualises your place in it. Another is how Lee constantly finds challenging points to reframe common debates and attitudes, as if he were holding up a mirror to American culture, forcing the audience to look at things from a different perspective. And pretty much all his films extend beyond just entertainment, always drawing active, modern-day parallels that you can’t ignore. History has repeated itself; Da 5 Bloods – Spike Lee’s latest joint feels timely and relevant and somehow speaks beyond that, probably more than this review could ever capture. And just like his impressive film catalogue, Da 5 Bloods follows in the same, emotive, and gut-punching footsteps while telling his audience ‘the war isn’t over’.
Besides the obvious homages to Apocalypse Now, the most impressive aspect is how Da 5 Bloods deconstructs the romanticism of American War movies. The fact that Rambo and Walker, Texas Ranger are mentioned highlights how some post-Vietnam War films dealt with the past traumas – triggered, one-man-armies, jacked-up on white machismo, where anger, rage and fury is expelled as glorified, hellfire bullets from a gun. To put it simply, they were wars where America gets to win – no different from how the world viewed Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) in 24 in a post-9/11 world – torturing terrorists ‘by any means necessary’ was helping to save America in the process.
The profound difference that Da 5 Bloods finds itself in is how Lee incorporates layers of empathy and nuance knowing how powerful and necessary it is to document the war from a Black POV – a perspective that’s rarely examined, heavily marginalised and systemically erased from historical culture. That’s an experience I would know considering outside of the tick-box of the Civil Rights Movement, my historical knowledge growing up in school was knowing about Kings and Queens of England, Royal successions and Great Britain was ‘great’ during WW1 and WW2 without connecting the dots on the insidious nature behind those achievements. Any sort of Black accomplishment and contribution was rendered invisible.
Lee doesn’t treat Da 5 Bloods as an isolated incident. Everywhere in Da 5 Bloods and its sprawling vistas (thanks to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel) is a signature echo of the past and how the past is deeply ingrained to the current events in America. Through the experiences of Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) they head back to Vietnam to find their fallen brother Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and the gold they had buried. This is a film that actively looks at the horrors of war, patriotism and painful reconciliation of the truth while dealing with the disproportionate and systemically racist reality of Black people fighting two wars – Vietnam and America. And in this war, Black people have been on the frontline for years and continue to do so.
Lee is not afraid to showcase the different optics and opinions within the Black community, showing how not all Black people think or act the same (reversing a cinematic stereotype of how Black people are tainted by the same brush). The fact that Delroy Lindo plays a MAGA loving Trump supporter pushes the audience out of their comfort zones, knowing how much of his opinions will challenge your own. When the Bloods hear the death of Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio by Hanoi Hannah (who provides a taunting yet truthful perspective on the Vietnam War), there’s a debate about how to deal with the overwhelming rage and systemic hurt for a country that doesn’t fight for Black men, women and children. What does progress look like? The fact that the golden treasure becomes a symbol for both liberation and heartbreak is just one of the many analogies Spike Lee leaves on the cinematic table.
And as much as Da 5 Bloods showcases the hurt, the disrespect and betrayal from the American Government (especially in the era of Trump which is given a heightened focus), the strength of Black brotherhood and joy are celebrated by faultless cast performing to outstanding material.
Casting Chadwick Boseman as Stormin’ Norman is a stroke of genius. Some would easily point out his role in Black Panther, but his other roles such as Jackie Robinson in 42, Thurgood Marshall in Marshall and James Brown in Get On Up say otherwise. Boseman understands the power of Black iconography, and therefore showcasing him as a leader once again evokes those memories. Norman doesn’t escape the tragedy as reflected by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X – young men assassinated in their prime and voices silenced where you wonder what kind of influence they would have had today if they had lived. But just like Martin and Malcolm, Stormin’ Norman becomes a revolutionary and cultural martyr and symbolic hero to the Bloods.
Lee certainly takes ambitious and artistic swings, mixing a treasure finding expedition, a generational hangout movie, a father/son story with Jonathan Majors’ David, PTSD trauma, Civil Rights and a slow-burn story which captures the disillusionment for both the Bloods and the Vietnamese people in a war they shouldn’t have fought and still paying the price. Whether intentional or not, he doesn’t indulge in the ‘de-aging’ process – a massive talking point of Scorsese’s The Irishman or cast younger actors, letting the Bloods re-enact their war experiences where age has allowed their story to continue, but Stormin’ Norman’s is immortalised in time by youth and death. And true to any film which has so many elements at play and substance to unpack, there are occasional moments where it struggles to maintain that cohesion and balance and a few spots of predictability start to creep in.
And that balance is noted in its female characters. Besides Hanoi Hannah (Van Veronica Ngo) which Lee films with poetic coolness, the other female characters are given less autonomy over their actions or given enough space to explore. Hedy (Mélanie Thierry) provides an effective counterpoint to the Bloods where she re-writes her family history (a history steeped in slavery, exploitation and subjugation). But the attempted ‘love interest’ tag slightly overshadows the potential depth that could have been further explored. I would have loved to have seen more perspective on Tiên (Lê Y Lan) because when American soldiers fathered children during the war, the social stigmas attached is another lifelong encapsulation of the traumatic toll.
It’s flawed on that respect – no film is perfect, but I love that Lee takes risks and still manages to make every scene as absorbing as it can be, where every tension-filled moment culminates into an emotionally driven and powerful third act.
To Lee’s credit, Da 5 Bloods is also a deeply cathartic film, an emotional release that needed to be said, felt and endured. Lee understands the struggles better than most where the lead characters are all left with scars – drinking, money, drugs – fleshed out arguments on what social, economic, and racial inequality can do to a person. There’s no escaping how the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery suddenly creeps into the mind. There’s no escaping the NFL treatment of Colin Kaepernick, where the world calls him unpatriotic for taking a knee in highlighting police brutality. There’s no escaping the necessary poignancy behind the Black Lives Matter movement or the recent videos of Trevor Noah and Kimberly Jones explaining the double standards when the social contract is repeatedly ripped up.
And the truth that Lee resoundingly echoes is that Black people have been fighting for all their lives, building the wealth for others, and fighting in wars that have no moral justice for the so-called greater good. It’s no wonder you get characters like Paul – a MAGA loving and ignorant Trump supporter who served his country, was promised freedom and liberation only to face the same injustice when he returned home. The war never ended for him, still haunted and trapped by the cycle. Da 5 Bloods may regard him as Colonel Kurtz in this homage, but Lindo’s career-defining performance brings so much unhinged pain and complex hopelessness that he couldn’t escape the unravelling of his own demons. It’s the type of empathetic performance that screams Oscar, making you feel every residual, heart-inducing moment as he talks directly to the camera. While COVID-19 may have disrupted the theatrical cycle, I challenge anyone to find a better performance than that in 2020. Lindo has already set that high bar.
Da 5 Bloods is Spike Lee at his unapologetic best. Essential in the moment? Yes. But like all of Lee’s work, that catalogued confidence not only speaks to a generation but within itself, a protest movement and amplified voice that it inspires itself to be. And already, it has the replay value for multiple watches.
And all I can say to that is this: right on.