Spike Lee‘s films are often about race in conversation with the medium of cinema itself, and his latest Da 5 Bloods is no different. It is about many things: Racial relations in American history, U.S. imperialism, caste systems, the intersection of race and class, PTSD, friendship, and even the ramifications of war being passed down to the next generations.
If you need a refresher on how Lee finds these delicate threads of historic proportions in his movies, you don’t have to look much further than Spike Lee’s previous film, BlacKkKlansman.
Maybe go as far back as Spike Lee’s NYU student film The Answer, which almost got him kicked out of the illustrious film school. The film is about a black filmmaker tasked with recreating a $50,000 version of A Birth of Nation.
It’s not hard for Lee to find these sorts of threads in film history considering that Birth of a Nation is considered to be one of the first “great films” (a legitimization of the art-form) but was also considered racist and used as a KKK recruitment tool.
With his most-recent project on Netflix, Lee uses the tools and language of Vietnamese cinema and media as a gateway into this larger perspective of failed reconciliation and systemic injustice to frame the story of Da 5 Bloods. It is explosive, relevant, and powerful.
For many, BlacKkKlansman was Spike Lee’s reaffirmation of the power in his voice. With that backdrop, Da 5 Bloods solidifies that we need that voice more than ever as he delivers a film that is more ambitious than BlacKkKlansman, but also more personal and somehow even more current.
The Film’s “currency”
Much like the hip hop/rap supergroup of Run the Jewels, whose latest album (titled, RTJ4) dropped earlier in the month with bars that felt like it written in response to the current social activist movement/uprising, Da 5 Bloods feels eerie in how relevant it is to the current political landscape. Obviously, the film was shot and made over the course of 2019 but Lee’s movie feels like it was made two weeks ago.
Lee’s new project is even more urgent and contemporary than BlacKkKlansman, which ended with shocking images of current white supremacy in modern America. As with many Spike Lee joints, Da 5 Bloods has a powerful opening — a clip of Muhammad Ali speaking out against the war in Vietnam (something that cost him years in his boxing career).
This opening serves as a rebuttal to current alt-right commentaries like Ben Shapiro complaining about how sports and players have become politicized. Lee’s subversive answer to Shapiro (and many others like him) is that sports have always been that way, especially for black athletes. The montage that follows Ali speaking on Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement is a reminder that many things still haven’t changed.
Voice and Damage
The plot of Da 5 Bloods follow four black Vietnam Veterans who return to the country to find the remains of their squad-leader (played by Chadwick Boseman). There is also a quest to find gold they found, hid, and left behind during their last tour in Vietnam.
Da 5 Bloods is a “mission movie” (with many making the comparison to movies like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). Although this is an “explosive” film, it isn’t fast-paced or action-packed. The runtime for the film is 155 minutes and Lee uses every bit of it to explore these men and their journey. There isn’t a moment that isn’t connected to plot, characters, or exploration of damages that war has left on different races and the disconnect that causes between different creeds.
One thing you seldom see in North American Vietnam-related films is a voice for the Vietnamese. Vietnamese characters are rarely subtitled and given meaningful dialogue (even in Vietnamese movies that are well intended). Lee makes sure they are heard to communicate the damage U.S. imperialism brought upon those families and the country of Vietnam, which is still being felt today.
That damage extends to our lead characters — Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. There is lasting damage to both their personal lives and their respective communities that demands exploration and introspection.
At the start of the movie, the pain is unresolved, unspoken, and lingers in the absence of communication. Lee every second of the 155-minute runtime (that’s 2 hours and 35 minutes) to meditate on the pain and the socio-economic circumstances that led them back to Vietnam, as well as what led them there in the first place. The movie even points out how disproportionately the Vietnam war affected the poor and black communities, which brings me back to that all-too-true System of a Down lyric in their song B.Y.O.B, “Why don’t presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?”
Da 5 Bloods is packed (some could argue a bit too much). The film’s first act does stumble trying to get all the pieces together with a lot of heavy exposition. But, like Nolan or Cameron sometimes that’s in service of a stronger second half where there are no more questions and all just pure character action and performance.
In particular, Delroy Lindo is going to be signaled out for both his performance and character as the perfect example of this in film — that would not be wrong. Lindo’s performance and character, Paul, is infinitely interesting and complex. Should the Oscars still happen, Lindo’s performance not being nominated should be considered a crime in of itself. There is a real intimacy here and rawness to his character’s pain that Lee allows us to experience.
Vietnam Cinema Under Fire
If a Vietnam veteran returning to the land of battle to recover a lost comrade sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The movie even deliberately makes the comparison to the film in question, Rambo: First Blood Part II. This isn’t the only movie that Lee references, he also references movies like Green Berets (starring John Wayne, a self-proclaimed White Supremacist) and also Apocalypse Now (although I think that’s less a critique).
Lee mixes several different filmmaking styles, aspect ratios, and film stocks to bring different effects from the audience in Da 5 Bloods. I found the early flashback war sequences to feel glorious, heroic, and idealized, much like Green Berets, which was made explicitly as pro-war propaganda film in Vietnam.
Over the course of the film, as our characters become more vulnerable and willing to reveal their guilt, the flashbacks become more intense and harder to watch.
Lee’s theatrical filmmaking still features his touch on an exaggerated color palette, grindhouse dirtiness, and split-screen character shots. All of them; however, takes a back seat to something more earnest — almost as if the audience is also more willing to confront the real horrors as the characters are.
All the sequences taking place in modern day related to war are anything but theatrical. They represent a direct opposition to a movie like Rambo: First Blood Part II, a conservative war film that peddled a false conspiracy theory for American audiences to feel good about the U.S. involvement in the war. That tactic was key to allow the audience to vicariously go back to “win it again”.
The return back to Vietnam in Da 5 Bloods is a painful one, not only for African Americans to revisit their pain at the hands of their country, but also to revisit the pain of Vietnam at the hands of U.S. Imperialism. It is messy, complicated, and far from idealized.
Spike Lee’s Story
Lee is a loud filmmaker. There is a lot on his mind, which is planned on pummeling you over the head with a message of importance. And, while I used to always yell for subtlety, I’ve grown more conflicted about my feelings toward loud messages in movies. Sometimes, you need a sledgehammer and given the state of the world right now, many are still able to avoid getting smashed with a mallet.
That all being said for the more overt messages Spike Lee delivers, I found there to be a far more degree of nuance than usual in his films. There is a good amount of room for interpretation. The characters aren’t one-dimensional, everyone has baggage and no one is wholly good or bad. Da 5 Bloods doesn’t fall into the “both sides” trap but the legacies of imperialistic wars like the Vietnam War are messy and complicated. Lee doesn’t treat the subject matter with daft simplicity, nor the audience.
On a more basic level, the subject matter in Da 5 Bloods is a “caper” of sorts, a pretty solid one even removing all the thematic depth. It’s got enough plot twists and surprises to keep us entertained along with some truly heart pounding moments of suspense.
What is it Good For?
For better or worse, movies shape our understanding of history.Me
This sometimes allows for great truths to be examined, myths to be investigated, and for filmmakers to challenge our present by looking to the past. But, historical movies also allow for lies to persist in culture.
It’s no wonder that the filmmaker that started his career by critiquing A Birth of Nation’s place as a “great film” has found much to criticize and examine here. The flashback war sequences are wonderfully stylized but don’t let the audience off the hook. Lee uses the very same tools of cinema that Wayne and Stallone used to make us feel good about Vietnam, only to subvert it.
Da 5 Bloods is well aware of its history and through that comes a solemn reflection about the pain and guilt serving as a constant reminder that not enough has changed, and if anything is evident from the past few weeks the past is still not far removed from the present even if we like to pretend it is.