Artnewspress : Spike Lee explores the legacies of American racism and the Vietnam war in his remarkable new Netflix film.
Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee’s epic and introspective meditation on the Vietnam war, is another reminder of the filmmaker’s considerable storytelling skills irrespective of what genre he chooses to work in. Bolstered by an absolutely mesmerizing central performance from Delroy Lindo, the film is a raw and rewarding deep dive into two countries’ still-open wounds decades after the intractable conflict that stitched them together.On the one hand it’s tempting to say how amazingly timely it feels given our nation’s current painful national discourse surrounding race and violence. The death of George Floyd, the subsequent protests, and the renewed focus on the Black Lives Matter movement lends the subject matter a “ripped from the headlines” immediacy. But in truth that’s just a sad reflection of how timeless Lee’s themes continue to be. After all, we’re now thirty-one years removed from the release of Lee’s seminal Do The Right Thing, and it might as well have been filmed last week.
Da 5 Bloods began its life in the early 2010s as an original script called The Last Tour, penned by Danny Bilson & Paul DeMeo (The Rocketeer), about five veterans returning to Vietnam to search for hidden gold. While Oliver Stone flirted with directing that version, it got picked up somewhere in the development pipeline by Lee, who wanted to more specifically reflect the perspectives of black soldiers, and reshaped it (along with co-writer Kevin Wilmott) into the Netflix version.
And just as Lee’s equal-parts rousing and chilling BlacKkKlansman two years ago used a narrative framework set in the 1970s to critique 2017 America (it’s not exactly subtle when you cast Alec Baldwin — SNL’s Donald Trump of record — as a KKK grand wizard talking to the camera with presidential music underneath), so too does he spin Da 5 Bloods — which could easily have been a standard issue riff on Treasure of the Sierra Madre (or, if you prefer, The Simpsons’ third season episode “Three Men and a Comic Book”) — into a powerful meditation on race, retribution, and the tainted legacy of American involvement in Vietnam.
By way of a mission statement, the film begins with a newsreel of Muhammad Ali eloquently explaining his refusal to go to war (“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”) before launching into a montage of archival sounds and images encapsulating the complicated role of African-Americans with regards to the Vietnam War, fighting for their country abroad while their country was often fighting against them.
From there we join four of the five “bloods” promised by the title: Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Otis (Clarke Peters). Five decades removed from their original tours, they’ve reunited in Southeast Asia partly to pay tribute to their deceased unit leader, “Stormin’” Norman (seen only in flashbacks as played by Chadwick Boseman) and return with his remains while also hoping to retrieve the shipment of lost CIA gold they had secreted somewhere in the Vietnamese countryside.
Of course, with an airy 2 hour and 34 minute runtime, you know things are substantially more complicated than that, and it’s not long before things start taking turns — both structurally and stylistically. As Lee does so well, he masterfully juxtaposes the high-def here-and-now with archival footage and inserts still images for maximum emotional impact, all the while employing an interesting technique of framing war-era flashbacks in grainy 4:3 as if evoking the only way most Americans experienced the conflict, on their television screens.
Also, instead of casting younger lookalikes and unlike the vogue of using de-aging CGI (a la fellow Netflix flick The Irishman), Lee makes the novel choice of having his modern day actors play their fifty-years-younger selves in the flashbacks. This has the unique effect of showing senior citizens Lindo, Peters, et al, sitting in rapt fascination as they listen to the much younger Boseman, holding forth on black history (“He was our Malcolm and our Martin,” they say at one point), preserved in amber in their memories.
This conceit could easily have been jarring, and while there’s admittedly some momentary dissonance while one adjusts to the stylistic feint, it passes quickly and we are soon immersed in the subjective reality of their memories. The sense that, for them, no time at all has passed. This in turn adds greater weight to the present day storyline, as our various leads reckon with what life has given them in the intervening decades and what may be in store on the other side of this experience.
Spike Lee has still got game. One thing you can say about him is that in nearly forty years of filmmaking, he’s never repeated himself, always doing new things in new ways. And Da 5 Bloods is no exception. While it covers thematic terrain that’s very familiar for him and us, he does it in a way that feels fresh and insightful. Benefitting from a strong story held together by a solid ensemble, Da 5 Bloods works as a caper, it works as a drama, and it works as a searing commentary on our current cultural moment.