"...both historical and contemporary at the same time."

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(071120) 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 reparation.)

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 The Last 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 dad.

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 situation.

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.

Directed by:   Spike Lee
Written by:   Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee
Starring:   Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters
Released:   06/12/2020 on Netflix
Length:   154 minutes
Rating:   Rated R for strong violence, grisly images and pervasive language

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org and www.chicagopoetry.org. His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also avaliable.

DA 5 BLOODS  © 2020  40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks
Review © 2020 Alternate Reality, Inc.