Black soldiers have fought and died for America from the republic’s inception. They sacrificed for a country that treated them like second class citizens for the majority of its history. Da 5 Bloods addresses that racial disparity with artistic brilliance and masterful storytelling techniques. It weaves a thread from the tumultuous Vietnam War to the troubles of modern times. The film intercuts a spellbinding narrative with newsreels, educational asides, and harrowing archival footage. Da 5 Bloods also shifts aspect ratios and film stock to reflect different perspectives. Director Spike Lee has delivered the most impactful, thought-provoking, and cinematic film of his career.
Da 5 Bloods opens in present day Vietnam. Four black veterans return to Ho Chi Minh City for the first time since 1971. They are on a mission to retrieve the body of their unit leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman); and find a hidden fortune in CIA gold. Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Eddie (Norm Lewis) did their best to adjust after the war. Paul (Delroy Lindo) wasn’t nearly as successful. Angry, erratic, and suffering from debilitating PTSD, Paul is haunted by the memories of Stormin’ Norman.
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The men are stunned by Vietnam’s thriving capitalism. They find it surreal to drink, eat, and associate with a people they fought bitterly against. Otis recruits an ex-girlfriend (Lê Y Lan) and a guide (Johnny Trí Nguyễn) to lead them to the jungle. Paul is deeply suspicious of involving anyone in the search for the gold. Paul’s concerns are magnified when David (Jonathan Majors), his estranged son, surprises them at their hotel. He knows what they’re doing and wants a cut of the action. Their journey into the jungle is fraught with danger, intrigue, and betrayal. The bonds of their brotherhood tested by greed and long simmering guilt.
The veterans reflect on their time as black soldiers during the war. They fought against an unknown enemy while America was embroiled in racial strife. A powerful scene has the soldiers learning of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assasination from Hanoi Hannah, the Viet Cong’s radio propagandist. She wonders why blacks are fighting in her country; when they are being attacked, killed, and oppressed back home. Their rage is mitigated by Stormin’ Norman’s leadership. He gave them faith they would survive.
Spike Lee’s (Do the Right Thing, Inside Man) style choices are frankly ingenious. The film flashes back to the Da 5 Bloods fighting in the war. These scenes are shown on grainy 16mm film in a box format. The present is seen in crisp digital with an ultra widescreen aspect ratio. We also get footage from the characters viewpoints shot like Super 8mm home movies. Paul breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to the camera at times. The back and forth creates an enthralling, distinct visual impression. Spike Lee and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (The Usual Suspects, Bohemian Rhapsody) are in top form here.
Delroy Lindo is electrifying as Paul. His emotional burden is made clear as the film progresses. The war never left him. He is an example of its lasting effects. Paul is unable to find peace with his army brothers and son. The gold and finding Norman becomes his last hope. It is a tragic journey that reminds us of the extraordinary difficulties veterans face.
The Vietnamese people are not forgotten. Da 5 Bloods has several subplots that deal with their reckoning of the past. The deadly legacy of landmines, French colonial occupation, and children left by the American soldiers are difficult themes explored. Da 5 Bloods uses graphic images of the war to illustrate how far the country has come.
Spike Lee has a political viewpoint about racial reconciliation. Da 5 Bloods is his homage to black soldiers and their service to America. The third act compares the events of the sixties and seventies to the Black Lives Matter movement. You don’t have to agree with him to find Da 5 Bloods engaging. The film stands solidly on its own artistic merits. Da 5 Bloods is a production of 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. It is available to stream globally on Netflix.
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Film critic, raconteur, praying for dolphins to grow thumbs and do better.