To say that Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is ripped from the headlines is to give those headlines too much credit. Filming wrapped last summer, but the movie is more rooted in this moment than the latest breaking stories. Even its flashbacks have more to say about the present than the 24-hour news networks.
Like in his previous two works, Chi-Raq and BlacKkKlansman, Lee tears apart any notion that fiction should be separate from the world around us. He’s as much a political tactician as he is a cinematic technician. Lee isn’t just asking important questions. He’s demanding immediate action.
Fifty years after serving together in Vietnam as part of the 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One), four African American veterans reunite in Ho Chi Minh City to fulfill a promise to their fallen commander, “Stormin’” Norman (Chadwick Boseman). The survivors are Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.).
The promise is more than just symbolic: While on duty, the Bloods, as they call themselves, buried gold deep in the jungle to be retrieved after the war. At the time, Norman framed it as part of the struggle for reparations and black liberation, but back home, the years have not been equally kind to the Bloods. The love was never lost, particularly for Norman, and the bonds of shared war experience cannot be erased, but circumstances beyond their control force them to decide if they’re in this for each other or for themselves.
Everything you’ve heard about Lindo’s bravura performance as Paul is true. For decades, Lindo has been a familiar face portraying memorable characters in excellent films, but we’ve never seen him like this. We meet Paul as the MAGA hat-wearing Trump supporter who is the least comfortable returning. He is the quickest to anger and paranoia, whether aimed at the Vietnamese people they encounter or his fellow Bloods. His rage is free-floating, looking for somewhere to attach itself. He is certain that he is not getting his fair share in life.
Lee has always been eager to have villains espouse the political beliefs of people he hates, as when David Duke (Topher Grace) all but quotes Trump directly in BlacKkKlansman, but Lee loves Paul and wants us to do the same. He believes that this man has been robbed of his chance at happiness. Though Lee does go for Trump, Paul is not a punching bag to attack his supporters. He can’t stand Paul’s candidate, but he feels Paul’s pain.
Lindo steals the show, but the entire ensemble is excellent. The flashbacks of the five Bloods before Norman’s death show all the actors at their current age; we’re not seeing what happened, but how the events live on in their minds. The lighting, emotional music, and narrowing aspect ratio in these scenes show how Norman is a legend in their minds—Boseman, who made his name depicting historical figures and superheroes, is a perfect choice.
Bolstering the emotional, sociological, and artistic achievements of Da 5 Bloods is the way it contextualizes things we may already know but fail to understand. This can be minor, such as using “We don’t need no stinking…” from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as more than homage, signaling the true narrative and political sentiment of foreign invaders having the gall to demand identification from the local population. This can be major, as when we hear the conversations between Viet Cong soldiers before they’re ambushed. They’re humans with their own story, not just obstacles for the heroes. Context also factors into radio broadcasts from Hanoi Hannah, the famous radio propagandist, portrayed here by Veronica Ngo during the flashbacks. She is the enemy, but the things she says about the state of black Americans to demoralize U.S. troops are accurate. Her intentions are not honest, but if what she says is true, does that make her wrong?
Da 5 Bloods began as a script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, the pair most famous for The Rocketeer, and was to be directed by Oliver Stone before Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott took over. It was then that the perspective shifted to that of the black veterans. One can imagine the story as a straightforward adventure/thriller, with four men who never fully left the war behind them. That sounds like a fine film, but if it had been produced as written, we never would have had the immediacy of Da 5 Bloods. The film opens with archival footage of Muhammad Ali questioning why he should fight when the Vietnamese are not the ones subjecting him to racism. When a Blood, who fought for rights that he did not have at home, comes into conflict with a Vietnamese person who lost family in the war, there is no resolution. Both have a shared history of colonization, yet were pushed into conflict by forces that did not treat either as human beings. Everyone’s lives were deeply affected by the war, but no one’s was improved. The memories remain, sometimes as PTSD, sometimes as landmines. The war does not end when the last shot is fired. It remains with everyone it touched. Da 5 Bloods is not just a war film or a story about these particular men. This is America put under a microscope in the sun, and we need to understand what we’re looking at before it all catches fire.
Da 5 Bloods / R, 155 minutes/ Streaming (Netflix)