Wake up! Wake up! Up you wake! Da 5 Bloods is here and sincere, asking, “Why are we here?” Spike Lee’s most ambitious film yet is bookended with two eloquent Black activists and detractors of the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with the former explaining that “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big, powerful America, and shoot them — for what? They never called me a n*****. They lynched me, they never put no dogs on me, they never robbed my nationality.” Alongside the dulcet mourning cries of Marvin Gaye, a series of warring images ensue — national advancement with the first astronauts landing on the moon, with black soldiers carrying themselves and their brothers through combat abroad and at home. In the shadow of rockets, the nation’s pride — a quartet of Black American men descend a staircase, the first bearing a sign that reads, “$12 a day to feed an astronaut. We could feed a starving child for $8.” The Malcolm X director points out that the powers that be aren’t only out to get Black people (though the most sustained wrath is reserved for those with the most melanin): he lists the photos, names and ages of all four white victims of the Kent State Massacre in 1970. Lee also shows beatings at the Democratic National Convention, a self-immolation protest in Saigon, mass killings, the napalm bombing of children and police brutality. The filmmaker’s questions are clear, chief among them: what was it all for?
Thus is the stage for Da 5 Bloods. Between Ali and King, a yarn ensues, weaving in elements of a heist movie and an adventure tale; a war film critique all in one high-impact tapestry. Four African American Vietnam veterans — Paul (Delroy Lindo), Melvin (Isiah “Sheeee-it” Whitlock Jr.), Otis (Clarke Peters) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) return to their former battlegrounds of Vietnam for a two-fold mission: to recover the remains of their late squad leader “Stormin’” Norman Holloway (Chadwick Boseman) and to unearth the buried cache of gold bars they left behind decades before. As they push forward into the heart of darkness, the Bloods (as they call themselves) confront the elements, each other and themselves in the wake of a conflict they took part in (Lee also brings up the relevant point that conscription rates were disproportionate) as national representatives.
The fictional reunion bears a real-life reunion. Lindo returns for the first time since 1995’s Clockers for his third Lee joint, as well as bringing The Wire bandmates Peters and Whitlock Jr. back together for another go. The familiarity shows: as the men reunite, the chemistry is immediate and ironclad. Every interaction among them, even when in-fighting, vibrates with tenderness. They bust out their old handshake greeting without missing a beat, and the roasts are just as lovingly barbed as they likely were in 1968. The result is a quadruple punch of veteran actors serving unique and stirring performances.
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Lindo is the Kool-Aid-drinking luminary of the core cadre, and the NAACP Image Award winner deserves every bit of hype he earns. As Paul, the traumatized Donald Trump-supporting patriot, Lindo offers forth his greatest performance to date. Paul is an important character, one whose xenophobic imperfections leap from the page, inhabit the man and extend to his now-grown son David (Jonathan Majors). Paul’s relationship with David is heavily strained, exacerbated by the stresses of the modern-day pilgrimage. As Paul descends into feverish paranoia, Lee’s outspoken adoration of Akira Kurosawa shines brightly, echoing the Seven Samurai director’s penchant for letting the elements magnify a character’s inner emotions. In a powerhouse scene, a hot wind blows as a fierce battle rages inside of Paul. Growling Psalm 23:4 as he cuts a swatch through the underbrush, Lindo delivers a lesson in presence, physicality and rhythm — by the time the howls and wild eyes happen, he has earned the moment by laying a meticulous foundation of incremental tension within himself. This is a bomb that has been ticking since the opening credits, with Lindo’s simmering stillness in the first half paying off when he finally launches into the furious hysterics that he had been building to all along. Like so many protestors in our streets today, Paul is scared, Paul is angry and Paul is, most of all, exhausted.
A noteworthy counterbalance to Lindo’s magnificent rage is found in Peters, who, in two muted-but-memorable occasions, conveys a world of contemplation and understanding with nothing more than his hands. Boseman is equally as effective during his intermittent scenes, filling the screen with a powerful charisma matched only by the real-life Black revolutionaries his character is modeled after.
Lee’s style, as a rule, is generally not one of subtlety. The story is peppered with references to both filmic influences and real notable snapshots in Black American history. Aside from the structural similarities to soldiers-swiping-gold dramas like Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and Three Kings (1995), Da 5 Bloods works to interrogate the intentions of classic war and post-war action films while paying homage to many of them. A character comments on the lack of Black representation in these films, and later lies injured (possibly dying) while quoting a line from The Bridge on the River Kwai. In a well-earned moment of humor amid a tense experience, another character utters the exact line you’re probably thinking of from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Before embarking on the nitty-gritty part of the campaign, the vets let loose in a real Saigon nightclub by the name of Apocalypse Now. “Ride of the Valkyries” blares as a tourist boat departs bustling Ho Chi Minh City and glides along the muddy jungle river, interspersed with textured Super 8 footage of the Bloods on the same journey. Far more than gimmicks, the choice to integrate then and now is a consistent one, most palpably felt in Lee’s choice to forgo de-aging technology for the flashback combat sequences. Lindo, Whitlock Jr., Peters and Lewis play both the younger and older evolutions of their characters, underlining the running concept that though they’ve left the war, it hasn’t left them. The line of demarcation between past and present is just as occluded as the waters they penetrate.
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Lee creates a film that is as much an education as an entertainment experience, peppering the narrative with references to Black American history that deserve to gain currency in the public consciousness. It all but welcomes viewers to look up and discover a people’s history far richer than the slaves-and-sit-ins SparkNotes version that American schoolchildren are loosely taught. But because the United States is a country of dualities, and always has been, Lee complicates the Bloods’ pride with an unforgiving reckoning: images of military brutality and war crimes grace the screen, sustained reminders in vivid color. The messiness is necessary.
Brechtian devices abound, alienating the viewer and serving to remind them that all the world’s a stage, including the one they’re watching. Fourth wall breaks and jarring narrative interruptions (like still photos over dialogue, and the sound of a firearm cocking with editorial cuts) work to confront the audience with the fact that they’re watching a movie, prompting critical thinking about who we watch and identify with. Fittingly, Lee’s characters are deeply flawed and marinated in moral relativism: the veterans are claiming the gold in a foreign country as their own, for their people, and the argument can be (and has been) made that the Vietnamese have just as much claim over the stash of precious metal. A reversal of the routine “Americans good, foreigners bad” trope occurs when a squad of Viet Cong are allowed some dialogue before they are ambushed, revealing that they, like us, talk about their loved ones back home. In a stark reflection of America’s cultural climate, the distinction between the good guys and the bad guys exists on an ever-fluctuating spectrum of hurt people hurting people. The messiness is necessary.
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Among Lee’s many trademarks, he is known for a vibrant expedition of the urban realm (as seen in Crooklyn and Summer of Sam, among countless other productions in his filmography), which is understandably missing in Da 5 Bloods. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel showcases the setting’s natural beauty with lush green spaces and sprawling rice paddies, all the while tag-teaming with Lee to provide the director’s beloved fourth-wall break monologues and kinetic camerawork as the situation destabilizes. Terence Blanchard’s musical compositions elevate the visuals beautifully, until they don’t. Several of Da 5 Bloods’ most hard-hitting instances of humanity are muffled by too much score when the actors should simply be trusted to hold the frame and captivate without musical competition, as they’ve demonstrated that they could do throughout. Lee’s other unfortunate trademark is a lack of time and care given to black women amid the pro-Black sentiments, and Da 5 Bloods continues that tradition, albeit tribute is paid via archival footage and a quick Aretha Franklin reference. What Lee does do is shoehorn in a largely unnecessary woman character in the form of French bomb disposal volunteer Hedy (Mélanie Thierry). One exceptional femme role, that of real-life radio propagandist Hanoi Hannah (the ever-chill Veronica Ngo), stands as a complicated doppleganger to Do the Right Thing’s Senor Love Daddy (played by repeat Lee collaborator Samuel L. Jackson). Both radio personalities of both films serve as a Grecian chorus of sorts, echoing inner sentiments and providing unorthodox solidarity to the main players on the stage.
In Da 5 Bloods, past and present blend, as the past is still relevant to the present today. In a burst of wide-eyed righteousness, Stormin’ Norman declares during the film, “I’m saying, the U.S.A. owe us. We built that shit.” It’s a hearty moment just days after a real-life, pale-faced pundit, apropos of a Black rebellion, claimed that “the worst people in our society have taken control. They did nothing to build this country.” William Friedkin once mused that the responsibility of an artist is to raise questions, not to provide answers. As always, Spike Lee asks all the right questions, and it’s up to us to recognize that even though the answers may not be ones we want to hear, we need to grapple with them all the same.
And that’s the double truth, Ruth.
Anya Stanley (@BookishPlinko) is a horror-centric columnist and film critic. Her work can be seen in Fangoria Magazine, Rue Morgue, Dread Central and Birth.Movies.Death as well as her website anyawrites.com.