Da 5 Bloods

Dept. of Long Buried Demons


Delroy Lindo is masterly. Angry and broken, haunted by an unnecessary war, and fed up with a system that has used and abused him, he plays the very embodiment of the inner conflict felt by every black person in America – both in love and in hate with their United States. “We fought in an immoral war that wasn’t ours for rights we didn’t have,” he preaches. So tired of not getting his, as it were, he’s become a Trump supporting, MAGA cap wearing blowhard: “Time we got these free-loading immigrants off our backs and build that wall.” His performance as Paul is so mercurial that it’s impossible to not be completely and utterly enraptured whenever he’s on screen.

There is good reason why Spike Lee chose Vietnam to frame the story of Da 5 Bloods. Besides being a landmark of American arrogance and failure, it is also a particularly important checkpoint in African American history. Vietnam was the first major conflict after the civil rights revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s, and the first in which black soldiers were fully integrated into the military. It is the unredressed root of Paul’s pain.

Jonathan Majors as David , Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Melvin, Norm Lewis as Eddie , Clarke Peters as Otis, and Delroy Lindo as Paul in Netflix's Da 5 Bloods.

There is only one other movie in recent memory – the Hughes Brothers’ hideously underrated Dead Presidents – that successfully draws on the experiences of black men during the Vietnam War and uses it to highlight the social and political traumas of the day. (It’s ridiculous, isn’t it, how in the whole oeuvre of countless Vietnam War movies, you’d be hard pressed to name more than two that centre on the African American experience.)

Spike Lee takes things one step further with Da 5 Bloods. Drawing a straight line from slavery, through Crispus Attucks, through MLK and Muhammad Ali, Morehouse College and Edwin Moses, through Hanoi Hannah and Apocalypse Now, all the way to Black Lives Matter. It is signature Spike Lee. It is that biting blend of history, headlines, and pop culture that doesn’t just question the accepted narrative but seeks to rewrite it.

Da 5 Bloods is an important piece of art. It comes at a time when the world is listening with rapt attention. When previously unacknowledged stories are finally being brought to the forefront of our cultural discourse. Not just in America, but across the world. This is a movie with such dramatic and intellectual prowess, with such transcendent performances, that it feels significant.

I just wish it wasn’t so haphazard.

Da 4 remaining Bloods spend a night out at the Apocalypse Now nightclub in the new Spike Lee Joint.

Da 5 Bloods (which has nothing to do with Lee’s 2015 horror effort Da Sweet Blood of Jesus) centres around four war veterans – Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) – who have returned to Vietnam for one final mission. To recover the remains of Stormin’ Norman, their fallen fifth “blood,” and to retrieve a stash of gold they buried all those years ago.

A spiritual successor to both 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna and 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, this is a war movie, and an adventure, and a caper. Think Three Kings and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre meets Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter.

Da 5 Bloods is, however, a movie in which its individual parts are far greater than its whole.

Da 4 remaining Bloods find the remains of their fallen comrade, Stormin' Norman, in the new Spike Lee Joint.

One of those parts is Chadwick Boseman, who plays the messianic Stormin’ Norman. The only one of the five “bloods” that didn’t make it out of the war alive. He is Malcolm, and Ali, and Black Panther all rolled into one. He is the indisputable leader of the gang. Their mentor. Their spiritual leader. He is the centre of the “bloods'” moral universe. And Boseman’s performance, when paired with Lindo’s, makes for some truly compelling cinema.

Add to that the way Lee frames his flashbacks and what you have is sheer genius. He shifts the perspective of what you’re watching, by pulling in the curtains of his widescreen presentation to a traditional 4:3 aspect ratio, and showing you the war as so many first experienced it. On television. Grainy and distant. And then he does one better. He doesn’t de-age his actors or recast them with younger counterparts. He chooses to show them as they are, fighting alongside their fallen comrade, who is perpetually frozen in time as they remembered him.

With that one cinematic choice, Lee moves swiftly and lightly back and forth in time, giving us a masterful meditation on the unreliable nature of memory, on male virility, and the waning of American superiority. It is, in a word, sublime.

Johnny Nguyen, Clarke Peters, and Delroy Lindo star in Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods.

And it would have been great if Lee had stopped there. Instead, he stuffs Da 5 Bloods with at least half a dozen, far less interesting, digressions involving a lost lover and an illegitimate daughter, a seedy French businessman (played gleefully by Jean Reno), the Vietnamese militia, and a group of anti-landmine activists.

At two hours and thirty-four minutes this is a movie that feels bloated. Where moments of brilliantly executed melodrama are undercut by seemingly pointless diversions. Where stunning set pieces are undermined by an unfortunate lack of harmony with the rest of what’s going on. And an ending that feels like it belongs in another, far inferior, action movie.

The biggest problem with Da 5 Bloods, however, lies in how it frames the Vietnamese. Every local we see in the movie is portrayed through American eyes. And those depictions feel dated and out of sync with reality.

Which is sad. Because even Spike Lee, in trying to tell a different kind of story, in attempting to rewrite a skewed historical narrative, falls into the same trap of showing us the same old clichés and stereotypes we’ve come to expect from an American movie about Vietnam.

Which is a pity. Because somewhere inside Da 5 Bloods is a tighter, 90 minute movie, that is confident enough to just let its five leads take us on their transformative journey.

Da 5 Bloods
155 minutes
Director: Spike Lee
Writers: Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott, Danny Bilson, and Paul De Meo
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman, Johnny Trí Nguyễn, Mélanie Thierry, and Jean Reno

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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