Spike Lee’s latest film “Da 5 Bloods” is a film that speaks to the times, loud and clear. When Lee was filming the movie last year, how could he have known that it would be touching on exactly what we are going through right now? That question is answered in many ways throughout this allegorical piece but none as stronger as the scenes which bookend this firecracker of a movie.
The very first shot is footage of Muhammad Ali’s famous press conference where he stated his reasons for refusing the draft that would have sent him to fight in Vietnam.
The final shot is of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. giving a speech one year to the day before his assassination. In the speech that could very well have been the one that got him murdered, King states, “America would never be free, saved from itself, until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear.”
By film’s end, these two scenes take on a power and relevance that forces them to hit harder and deeper.
“Da 5 Bloods” tells the story of four African American Vietnam veterans (Clarke Peters, Delroy Lindo, Isaiah Whitlock Jr. and Norm Lewis) who come together in Ho Chi Minh city to find the remains of their fallen brother (Chadwick Boseman) and retrieve some lost gold they left behind. For some, the gold may be more important.
While the main plot is Lee’s homage to John Huston’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” anyone who knows Spike’s work can be assured that the viewer is in for much more.
Lee and his co-screenwriters Kevin Willmott, Paul De Meo, and Danny Bilson have a hell of a lot to say. They are here to address the fact that history fails to recognize the impact of the black men who fought in Vietnam and in other wars. They are here to expose the racism in Hollywood’s apparent refusal to fund films about unknown historical black heroes. They aim to wipe away the false sense of American exceptionalism. They are here to expose America’s blatant hypocrisy in the distortion of its own history. Make no mistake, there are messages, but Lee never forgets to entertain through his great cast and filmmaking.
The main four bloods are wonderfully drawn characters. Not one is perfect nor unrelatable. Eddie (Norman Lewis) is a rich entrepreneur who may be hiding his failures. Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) is a man who has made it through the years with a good outlook and sense of humor. Otis (Clarke Peters) is the medic who seems to have it all together but carries a deep regret. Delroy Lindo is Paul, the one who is not happy to be back in country, although he wants very much to bring home the remains of their long dead friend “Stormin’ Norman” (Boseman). Norman was their teacher and, in well-structured flashbacks, educates them on black history that is not taught in schools. He is what gave them the mental power to find their manhood and survive the war. He was their teacher and their light and the bond that made them Da 5 Bloods. Yet, Paul carries with him a crippling secret that has haunted him through the years and suffers from PTSD.
All the main actors are at the top of their game but Lindo stands out most. The character of Paul is contradiction: a black veteran who has been sidelined by his government and society yet proudly wears a MAGA hat. Paul doesn’t give a damn about immigrants in America due to the way black people are still oppressed, going as far as saying, “build that wall!”
Paul has a son (estranged familial relationships are another theme of “Bloods”) who joins the men on their journey, much to his father’s dismay, although a sense of regret and true father-son devotion comes about later. Jonathan Majors is quite worthy as Paul’s son David. He never lets himself overtake his father’s quest, but he does not stay silent about how he believes he is owed both respect from his father and a piece of the treasure.
Another memorable character is that of Vinh Tran (Johnny Gyuen) who helps them get into the jungle is the face of how modern Vietnam sees America’s involvement in their war.
Along the way, the film introduces three more characters: Seppo (Jasper Paakkonen, persuasive as the white supremacist in Lee’s “BlacKKKlansman), Simon (Paul Walter Hauser), and Hedy (Mélanie Thierry). These characters meet David in a bar and, later in the jungle, stumble unto the men after they have found their gold, causing a serious ruckus.
One of the film’s few flaws is the fact that these characters do not fully enhance the story. They become a part of it through the screenplay allowing them to. This is not to take anything away from the three actors. Paakkonen is solid, as is the great Paul Walter Hauser, who should have been Oscar-nominated for last year’s “Richard Jewel.” I just wanted a bit more for them to do. Thierry is great as well, as her character exists to symbolize the modern thought process on French Colonialism in Vietnam.
Lan plays a woman from Otis’s past who has been marginalized in her family and society for having his child. This character should have been allowed more screen time, as it would have added to the sentiment of their relationship. She also connects the Bloods with a moneyman called Desroche (a hammy Jean Reno in the Sydney Greenstreet role) who will turn their gold into cash. We meet Otis’s daughter (Sandy Huong Pham) making for an even bigger reason for him to, once again, make it out of the jungle.
Lee even allows this film its own Greek chorus in the form of Hanoi Hannah (Van Veronica Ngo) who gives the Black G.I.s updates on how they are being treated back in the world, fueling their disdain for fighting in the unjust conflict. This is a narrative device that Lee has used a few times before and it works perfectly here. In a film full of homages to war films, this one is almost a tip of the hat to the DJ narrator from Walter Hill’s “The Warriors.”
In spite of a plethora of characters competing for our attention, Lee brings it all home with great skill, “Da 5 Bloods” delivering a message that’s wrapped in complex drama with a side of action and Lee’s incisive wit.
Visually, “Da 5 Bloods” is a pleasure to take in. Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography (the film was shot in Vietnam and Thailand) helps to make this one of the best-looking Spike Lee joints in many years. Sigel uses every inch of his frame in the modern scenes, using the 2.39:1 widescreen to show the beauty of Vietnam. For the flashbacks, Lee and his cameraman go for a 1.33:1 ratio using 16mm reversal film stock. To all Americans at home, the Vietnam War played out on television. That is how it is remembered by those who weren’t there. This is how Lee chooses to show it. It is a brilliant decision.
Lee’s longtime friend and collaborator Terence Blanchard does his biggest and best score for a Spike Lee film. It is a bold piece of music with a full orchestra that infuses choruses and operatic voices to convey the pain and regret and struggle of the black Vietnam vet and the emotions of the characters who experienced it.
Spike Lee’s film burns with urgency and spirit. Is it serendipity or fate that Lee released this film at this time in our country? What crystal ball does he have? The answer, a simple one, is on repeat right now. Black America is in the most horrific state of danger and the country is in the worst civil unrest since the riots of the latesixties. Lee is no psychic; but he is an attentive observer, a filmmaker who has seen and experienced racial injustice all his life. And now he is seeing this America he’s been telling us for thirty years on film gleaming with the embers of hatred.
Spike Lee has borne a film that demands we heed the words from “The Tempest,” “the past is prologue.” These words force us to hear the screams of Lee’s previous films, “Wake Up!” Most importantly, it tells us that the racially divided America of today can be no more and that justice for Black Americans in every aspect of society has well-exceeded long overdue. School is in, sit up and pay attention. As the Vietnam-era song from The Chambers Brothers says, “Time has come today.”