Movie Review: Da 5 Bloods
Da 5 Bloods is a film about four black Vietnam vets who return to Vietnam to find the remains of their friend and squad leader and a chest of gold they left behind, but it's the baggage they bring with them into Vietnam that weighs them down. Getting in isn't as easy as getting out, as they find the war may be over, but the memories still live with the people they meet. It stars Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock, Jr., Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Johnny Nguyen, Y. Lan, Lam Nguyen, Sandy Huong Pham, Van Veronica Ngo, Jean Reno, and Chadwick Boseman. It is directed by Spike Lee and written by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee. The film is streaming exclusively on Netflix.
Da 5 Bloods is steeped in a deep history. The opening montage sets the stage, but throughout the film we're given important, forgotten, and overlooked lessons about legacy, achievement, bravery and unparalleled skill. The way the film works is like a memory in itself. Spike Lee and editor Adam Gough pull in archival footage and pictures, over our characters talking about them like we would see them if someone is speaking to us. We would see flashes, just as they're shown here.
Memory plays a large part in the story, too. The four surviving Bloods aren't de-aged, or played by younger actors in their flashback scenes, they look like they do in the present as they remember their experiences in the war. In these scenes, the movie shifts from digital footage to film stock and from widescreen to academy aspect ratio. It becomes the film in their collective memories, complete with heroism, and a grand sweeping war film score by composer Terence Blanchard, a veteran of many Spike Lee projects. The Bloods want their memories to be grand, they wish for their commander Stormin' Norman to remain a monolithic figure in their minds, and they wish for it to be an epic adventure rather than what it was.
It's a lot like the music of the rest of the film where Blanchard uses his heroic scoring in scenes where very unheroic action is being taken. The music in these scenes takes on a sort of cognitive dissonance for the scenes it blankets. It's like the film is asking us to reckon with the glossy portrait we see of the past and to the darkness that accompanies much of the times before. It works when you think about it afterward, but it can be a struggle in the moment. Though, what's unflinchingly awe inspiring is the scenes that have a gorgeous acapella version of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." This stripped down version gives an extra punch and an intense power to the words Gaye is singing.
That power is outshined, though, by the most brilliant scene in the film. Paul has split from the group both physically and philosophically. He tramps through the jungle on his own and suddenly he's staring right at us, right through us. He gives a soliloquy that's Shakespearian in scope and madness. He gives us more of himself in those minutes and details the depths of himself better than we would have gotten if he'd stayed with the group and closed off. His trauma is in full view, unhindered by the others. He lets it out and pulls us in to his pain, his hate and his fear only ending so he can raise a black fist into the air.
That scene is made so brilliant by the staggeringly great work of Delroy Lindo. A veteran character actor, Lindo has shown his incredibly complex range over the decades, but in Da 5 Bloods, he's let loose. He plays a Trump supporting, MAGA hat wearing man that is in some deep pain. Lindo's incredibly expressive eyes give us so much, his unique physicality gives us more. He shoves everything into this performance and it's brilliant. I was simply aghast as I watched him create and imagine Paul like an artist with a canvas.
Like a lot of Spike Lee films there are pieces that feel out of place, there are pieces that are genius, and there are pieces that are just fine. Yet, his whole is always better than the parts. With Da 5 Bloods, Lee has created a film with historical significance that also speaks directly to and reflects our current moment. The United States is a nation that needs a reckoning with its baggage and like all of Spike Lee's best films, and this is certainly among his very best, Da 5 Bloods lays bare the wounds and dares us to look at them and think about them. You should watch this film.