‘Da 5 Bloods’ Movie Review: Spike Lee’s Vietnam Epic Brings the Heat
Spike Lee hits a new career peak with this game-changer about four, emotionally damaged African-American veterans who return to Vietnam in the Trump era to recover the body of their fallen brother-in-arms —n and maybe a semblance of their former selves. Debuting on Netflix on June 12th, Da 5 Bloods speaks urgently to our current moment. Lee had no idea that his movie would be released as the killing of George Floyd would inspire people to take to the streets in protest, but he’s known in his bones how it felt for Black Americans to bear the crushing weight of a knee on their necks. Lee’s righteous anger in Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and BlacKkKlansman rises to gale force here. This is a lobbed grenade. But it’s also personal filmmaking at its prodding, profound best. This is a Spike Lee joint and a Spike Lee history lesson. Prepare to be schooled.
Lee kicks off class with archival news footage that seems tailor-made for right now: There’s Muhammad Ali refusing to submit to a draft that would have him kill Vietcong (“They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They don’t put dogs on me”). There’s Malcolm X expressing what happens when “you take 20 million black people and make them fight all your wars and pick all your cotton and never give them any recompense.” There’s Bobby Seale with facts and figures about the 186,000 black men who fought in the Civil War and the 850,000 conscripted in World War II in response to a promise of freedom that never came (“Now here we go with the damn Vietnam War and we still ain’t getting nothin’ but racist police brutality”). The words of Kwame Toure boom like thunder: “America has declared war on black people.”
The past is prologue as Lee burns the demoralizing legacy of Nam. The filmmaker has a legit gripe against the white face Hollywood puts on war. And in adapting a script about white soldiers by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo that Platoon’s Oliver Stone was originally slated to direct, Lee and frequent co-writer Kevin Willmott make sure to divest the film of whitewashed myths about heroism. The four remaining “bloods,” as black soldiers called themselves, we follow aren’t carved out of the John Wayne playbook when they meet up at a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City to begin their mission. They’re funny, fierce and flawed. Paul, played with lightning intensity by Delroy Lindo, is even a Trump voter; his fellow bloods are disgusted to see their PTSD-afflicted brother wearing a MAGA hat. “I’m tired of not getting mine,” he says, touching on the theme of black disenfranchisement that courses through the film. Paul is too proud to accept charity from Eddie (Norm Lewis), the owner of national car dealership who hides his impending bankruptcy. But the bond these men, including Otis (Clarke Peters) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), have for each other is truly in their blood. They idolized their fallen squad leader, Stormin’ Norman, seen in flashbacks and played by Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman. A word about those flashbacks: The older actors are not digitally de-aged, Irishman-style, to suggest their younger selves. Instead, Lee lets the contrast illustrate how their haunted past and present are one.
With the help of vibrant location shooting in Thailand and Vietnam from the superb cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (Bohemian Rhapsody) and an evocative score by Terence Blanchard that ups its resonance with soulful cuts from Marvin Gaye’s seminal 1971 album “What’s Going On,” Lee sets the scene. “It’s a stone-cold trip being back here in country,” says Eddie. It’s also traumatic, and the film makes you feel it. As the bloods gather at a bar/dance club called Apocalypse Now, elderly Vietnamese guides — once sworn enemies from the North and South — buy each other drinks and vie to offer tours of the scorched earth left by what they call “America’s war.” Signs from fast-food franchises illuminate the streets, signaling the victory of capitalism. The bloods party hard in a futile attempt to blur their pain. Whitlock Jr. makes you see how booze, opiods and adultery aren’t doing the trick for Melvin. And Peters, so good on The Wire, is revelatory as Otis, a former medic who dipped into his own drug supply and still mustered the authority to succeed Norman when enemy fire cut him down. Otis reels when he reunites with former lover Tiên (Lê Y Lan) and learns they have a daughter. Kudos to Lee for filling in the Vietnamese side of the equation either neglected or demonized by the mainstream. The bloods hire a Vietnamese guide, Vinh Tran (martial-arts master Johnny Trí Nguyễn), whose own family was torn apart by the war. Vinh doesn’t understand why the bloods only want him to guide them to the edge of the jungle, but no further.
What are they hiding? Do the bloods have more selfish motives then recovering Norman’s bodily remains for a hero’s burial? Near their leader’s grave, recently revealed by satellite photos, lies a hidden chest of gold bars that Uncle Sam was using to pay indigenous people to fight the V.C. It was Norman’s idea to bury the gold that officially belongs to Vietnam and to repossess it later “in the name of every single black boot that never made it home and for the brothers and sisters stolen from Mother Africa and sold in Jamestown, Virginia way back in 1619.” And it was Norman who taught the bloods about black history. “He was our Malcolm and our Martin,” says Otis, underlining the shattering impact when the young bloods first learn about the 1968 assassination of Dr. King.
As the bloods push into the jungle, with Paul’s son David (a stellar Jonathan Majors) along to heal their broken relationship, each of the men wrestles with his conscience. Do they use the gold for black reparations as Norman intended, or line their own pockets with the help of Desroche (Jean Reno, oozing self-interest), a shady French contact willing for a price to turn the gold into currency? Nothing about the terrors of the jungle, including snakes, traps, landmines and violent retribution from a rogue band of Vietnamese officers out to reclaim the gold, can compare with the battle raging inside the heads of the bloods. Paul, still out to get his share and tormented by hallucinations brought on by illness and a guilty secret, strikes out on his own, leaving the others struggling to do the right thing. But what is the right thing?
Add Da 5 Bloods to John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as one of the rare films that gets how greed can lead to betrayal and brother-against-brother warfare. Hollywood distortion of history is a Lee obsession. The bloods argue about “fugazzi Rambo movies” and “all them Holly-weird motherfuckers trying to go back and win the Vietnam War.” Melvin says he’d be “first in line to see a movie about a real hero” like Milton L. Olive III, the 18-year-old infantryman who jumped on a grenade to save lives and became “the first brother in ‘Nam to be awarded the Medal of Honor.” But no one’s making that movie, or the one about Crispus Attucks, the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War. Lee got jammed up by jamming too much into 2008’s The Miracle of St. Anna, about the unsung contribution of black soldiers in WWII. Not here, where the subject gets the laser focus it demands.
Astonishingly, Da 5 Bloods is the first major film that views Vietnam entirely through the eyes of black soldiers. And Lee is just the trailblazer to bring passion and clarity to his presentation of the bloods as patriots who suffered disproportionate combat losses in an immoral war that wasn’t theirs, then came home to a country that denied them civil rights and left them alienated and adrift. It’s the unbroken line of black sacrifice that gives the movie its cumulative, confrontational power. Lee ended BlacKkKlansman with a coda about the bigotry that sparked a deadly 2017 showdown in Charlottesville. He doesn’t wrap his latest with the outrage sparked by the Floyd killing in Minneapolis. He doesn’t need to. It’s impossible to watch Da 5 Bloods without hearing the cry for racial justice reverberate in every frame. Lee has made more than a soul-stirring film for our time. He’s made one for the ages.