Da 5 Bloods
In an era of extreme racial tensions, the voices of black artists are more needed than ever. Therefore, it was a godsend to have a new Spike Lee film debut on Netflix. The veteran American filmmaker had “returned to form” with his previous film BlackKklansman (2018), which proved to be a hit both critically and commercially (it also finally won him his first competitive Oscar), thus this follow-up only added to high viewer anticipation.
Da 5 Bloods (2020) takes place in modern day Vietnam. Four African American vets: Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Eddie (Norm Lewis) return to recover the remains of their fallen squad leader from the war, Norm (Chadwick Boseman in flashbacks) as well as a stack of gold bars they buried back in the day.
Like all of Lee’s films there is a jumble of different messages that the filmmaker is trying to convey. In his best films, he is able to focus on one particular exploration or theme and have it lead amongst other commentaries. Such was the case with interracial relations in Do the Right Thing (1989) and with the analysts of racists in BlackKklansman. In Da 5 Bloods the core of the film seems to be seeing the scarring that vets, and particularly African-American vets, continue to have, which after fighting and dying in a pointless war, were beaten and killed back home (Mudbound (2017) similarly explored this with black American WWII vets). In many ways, our protagonists were never able to escape the war, and this is made apparent with a very clever choice by Lee in flashback scenes. Instead of having younger actors or heavy make-up, the older cast simply play themselves in scenes from the past. This is a clever method not only in saving money for the budget, but in showing the sense of stagnation and the way that memory works in each of the characters.
As the film goes on, however, the story becomes more fractured and the particular focus on veterans and their psychological troubles begins to waver. We begin to have conversations of political ideology, as one of the veterans is a Trump supporter, historical objectivity, the echoes of the war on Vietnamese themselves, and the moral and ethical issues of recovering the gold (are they reparations? Should they each keep it for themselves? Should they use it for activist causes?). And towards the third act of the film, the narrative devolves into something out of an action film, clashing incongruously with the initial thematic set-up.
Violence can assuredly be used effectively to show injustice and shock viewers. But the deaths that we see in Da 5 Bloods seem to be taken so matter-of-factly by the rest of the characters that the character set-ups seem to be completely wasted. This might well be a commentary of Lee’s about how normalized death has become for our protagonists, but its execution seems more like a rushed job than a psychological statement.
Thus, the core message about veterans and war trauma seem to be lost in the finale with the rather careless violence and action. However, this thankfully doesn’t take away from Lee’s other comments. I was particularly intrigued with his exploration of Paul’s character, who is the Trump supporter, and seeking to understand his incredibly anger and frustration that led him into such a state. Lindo is able to handily deliver the most complex performance in the film, for a character that could easily have slipped into a stereotype of “angry black man.”
In the end, Da 5 Bloods proves to have some important messages, some of which are executed well. However, the core narrative of veterans and their reconciliation with the past is slightly bungled with a jarring final act. However, Lee’s voice in times of such overdue racial upheaval is sorely needed, and this film proves to be a balm for such times.