Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is a rich, dense, ambitious and exemplary film that
explores the issues of race, bias, capitalist driven militarism, imperialism and
greed. In this explosive time of racial tension and upheaval this is just the
type of thoughtful film on these issues that Americans need to see.
It includes some of the most vivid, shockingly violent and memorable scenes of
the year, but like many of Lee’s films it is slightly uneven, but it contains as
much good stuff as any other film I have seen all year.
Lee expertly weaves together real newsreel footage in montages with fictional
sequences, and the news footage helps to create a distinct sense of time and
place. The film begins with a classic historical clip of Mohammed Ali
rationalizing why he would not go to Viet Nam. He implies that they are not the
real enemy when he says, “They never lynched me. They never set dogs on me.”
Footage of black panther Bobby Seale, saying “Now here we go with the damn
Vietnam War and we still ain’t getting nothin’ but racist police brutality,’
particularly resonates in the post Floyd murder era.
The film depicts the point of view of four Viet Nam veterans who get together
again in Ho Chi Minh for a secret mission. They are motivated to regroup there
for two reasons: they want to recover the body of a fellow dead soldier that
they all idolized (their commanding officer) as well as collect a chest filled
with extremely valuable gold bars ( the dead officer called it a form of
The men often gather at a bar titled (not coincidently) Apocalypse Now and the
film often seems to pay homage to that movie and in some ways seems designed to
be a corrective to it (the script changes the white characters in the original
screenplay to African Americans). In one scene the men travel in a riverboat
while Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries plays.
The characters are all distinct and well developed. Eddie (Norm Lewis) is a
cinephile who is constantly filming the men’s interactions and the Viet Nam
landscape with his super 8 camera. Melvin seems to be the moral conscience of
the group while the flawed Otis (he is a medic who became an addict) takes on
the role of the group’s authority figure. Coming along for the ride and adding a
more youthful perspective is David (played by Jonathan Majors from
Black Man in San Francisco) who is Paul’s estranged schoolteacher son (Otis’s
godson) who sees the trip as a chance to heal his damaged relationship with his
Otis may have another ulterior motive for pushing for the trip. While he was
stationed in Vietnam, he had a torrid romance with a Saigon based woman (Sandy
Huong Pham) and he yearns to relive the past in a reunion. When they finally
meet, he is shocked to see that she has an Asian/African American daughter and
he immediately deduces that he fathered her. She shares some painful tales of
how she was abused and harassed because of her mixed heritage, showing that
bigotry exists everywhere.
For me, the most interesting, well developed, multi-faceted and contradictory
character is Paul (unforgettably played by Delroy Lindo). He is a MAGA hat
wearing Trump supporter who thinks that illegal immigrants are taking too many
black jobs. At first, he is a source of amusement, but the others begin to feel
pity for him once they realize that his suffering has made him an emotional
train wreck. He feels deep guilt over his wife’s death during childbirth; he
suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome; and he feels extreme anger towards
his former Vietnamese enemies and Asians in general.
Spike Lee also includes many flashback scenes that show the younger versions of
the men in their Viet Nam days. Unlike The Irishmen, Lee uses no de-aging
technology or makeup, but Lee visually differentiates the scenes from the rest
of the film by shooting those sequences in a different aspect ratio which makes
them look like older film stock.
Some of the best and most teachable moments occur during these flashbacks and
they often revolve around the character Storm ‘in Norman (well played by the
Black Panther star, Chadwick Boseman).
Norman shares his considerable knowledge with the men and helps keep their
spirits up even in the face of possible death and institutional racism (the
military always treats the black soldiers as if they are much more expendable.)
Norman is a superb inspirational leader who is very knowledgeable in history (he
shares some character traits with T’challa) and at one Otis even says, “He is
our Malcolm and our Martin.” In one of the most memorable scenes in the film,
Norman calms down his fellow soldiers and urges them to resist violent revenge
and stay peaceful like King would have wanted (the sequence includes cuts to
footage of King’s funeral). This of course draws certain natural parallels to
contemporary society and mirrors the different reactions to the George Floyd
The gold that they are looking for was supposed to be sent by the U.S. army to
pay off South Vietnamese fighters, but the plane crashed. The soldiers were
given the mission of finding the gold, but Norman’s wish was to hide the gold
and come back to get it later to make up for the oppression of black Americans.
The only problem is that the men later encounter a group of Vietnamese men that
believe the money rightfully belongs to them.
It is refreshing to see a movie that tells extended Vietnam War era stories from
viewpoints of African Americans . In many war films (Platoon comes to mind)
African Americans are part of a troop and they get killed rather early.
Unfortunately, the Asian American characters are put in the margin in the same
way that African Americans were sidelined in many white Viet Nam films, but
every movie cannot be everything to everybody.
The film ends with great lines from Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes,
“O, yes/ I say it plain/ America never was America to me/ And yet I swear this
oath—America will be!” The quotation perfectly sums up the film’s message and
the intent of some of the protesters, demanding that the U.S.A at long last live
up to its potential, and become a true democratic land of equal opportunity.
Da 5 Bloods is an absorbing, timely and mesmerizing first-rate piece of
cinematic art that manages to be both historical and contemporary at the same
time. It should be remembered during the awards season and when critics are
making their top 10 lists.