Da 5 Bloods movie review: Spike Lee turns Vietnam War into ambitious manifesto on racism and reparations
Gifted with chilling foresight, Spike Lee offers a meditation on current circumstances by looking through the prism of the past.
castDelroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Melanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Paakkonen, Johnny Trí Nguyen, Jean Reno, Chadwick Boseman, Le Y Lan, Nguyen Ngọc Lam, Sandy Huong Phạm, Van Veronica Ngo
Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989) was an allegorical touchstone event — one that came to define the black experience in America, and a deep-seated anger over racial discrimination. The film came out two years before riots erupted over the beating of Rodney King by police officers. Now, over three decades later, as an unarmed George Floyd suffered the same tragic fate as Radio Raheem did in the seminal 1989 film, it is hard not to see Lee as a prophetic realist.
Timed to perfection, Lee's new film Da 5 Bloods illustrates a war within a war. It's an ode to all the black men who fought for the democratic freedoms of South Vietnam when they did not enjoy those very freedoms back home in America. As Delroy Lindo notes in the film, “We fought in an immoral war that wasn’t ours, for rights we didn’t have." After all, war has been as much a part of America's identity as racism — and there's an urgency that courses through Lee's story about four grizzled Vietnam War veterans who never quite left the battlefield.
Fifty years after they served in this "immoral war", Paul (Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Otis (Clarke Peters) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr, who draws out one glorious "sheeeeee-it") return to Ho Chi Minh to recover the body of their squad leader, Stormin' Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and the cache of gold bullions buried along with him. Lee gives us a clear picture of each protagonist, the still-open wounds left by the war, what unites them and what divides them. The bond they share goes beyond the treasure and their secret handshake; it is their mutual admiration for Norman, who was their moral guide of sorts: “Our Malcolm and our Martin”, as one of them describes.
Lee also brings in new blood: Paul's son David (Jonathan Majors), who acts as an arbitrator between his father and the other Bloods. Still haunted by the ghosts of war, Paul has turned into a MAGA-hat wearing Trump-apologist. As the plot progresses, the genuine sense of camaraderie at the beginning makes way for mistrust and hysteria, before ending in a complete mental breakdown. Lee even throws in a few life-and-death hurdles: a group of native Vietnamese soldiers, and a shady French money launderer (Jean Reno), who personifies the European chapter of white exploitation colonialism.
For the most part, Lee maintains his focus on Paul, who is full of contradictions. But Lindo still pivots our sympathy and attention around his chaotic axis. Paul has moral conviction but he is full of anger — and Trump gives his anger someone to blame: immigrants, Vietnamese, media among others. His support for “President Fake Bone Spurs” (as they call him) is nothing but a misdirected middle finger. This is evident when he looks straight into the camera and launches into a tirade, projecting all his pain, guilt and resentment. So, everyone becomes his target: the Bloods, his son, the government and the viewers.
If Tarantino takes a revisionist approach to history, Lee takes a reparationist one. If Django Unchained offers retributive catharsis for past atrocities, Da 5 Bloods believes in therapeutic empowerment through restitution.
The gold, supposed to be payment for locals fighting the Viet Cong, is used by Lee to provoke a debate over reparations for black people, who have suffered centuries of racial discrimination and worse in America. The Bloods too argue over it: Eddie and Otis want to use it to advance black causes back home, like Stormin' Norman had wanted; Paul disagrees and feels the world owes him for all his struggles.
The Vietnamese have their own war trauma. For them, it was an "American War", one which turned Vietnamese families against each other, not some noble crusade against communism in Asia. The group of Vietnamese soldiers, who clash with the Bloods, believe they are owed reparations too.
Going through this land-mined terrain, Lee unfortunately ends up tripping a couple himself. The Bloods question why films on Vietnam War, like Rambo, only record the white point-of-view. Edie jokingly replies that Hollywood tried to win a war America couldn't. It’s a valid point, but watching the Bloods return 50 years after the war to kill more native Vietnamese, exposes a blindspot in Lee's approach. It empowers the Bloods while other-ing the Vietnamese, even when Lee is well-aware they are both tools in "a white man's war." Also, the character Hedy (played by Mélanie Thierry) could have been a rich exploration of white guilt. She was an heiress to a French family fortune built by operating a rubber plantation in Vietnam but she severs ties with them to establish an NGO which sweeps the country for landmines. Only, Lee reduces her to a mere love interest.
Being back in Vietnam renews the Bloods’ bitterness over fighting a war for a country which repays them in hate and violence, a country which killed their civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr. The film accordingly opens with archival footage of Muhammad Ali asserting his position on Vietnam: he refuses to enlist in a war against Viet Cong because it isn't Viet Cong who enslaved, segregated, and lynched people of his colour. Lee follows it up with a speech by Malcolm X, who compares black people being drafted to fight for a cause other than their own to slavery. Interspersed between archival footage of speeches from black civil rights icons and the anti-war protests in America are stills of anti-government protests in Vietnam and children fleeing a napalm strike. When these stock images and flashbacks (shot on 16mm) are intercut into the middle of the film, it can feel like you’re watching a PowerPoint presentation. But they’re intended as a dialogue between the past and the present of a continuing struggle.
If Lee uses agit-prop archives as dialogue, he uses homage as a style. One of the endearing aspects of Lee's films has always been the fact that he's as much a film geek as a filmmaker. The needle drops on Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries' as the Bloods make their journey upriver in a clear homage to Apocalypse Now. The film’s treasure hunt thread brings to mind that of John Huston's The Treasure of Sierra Madre. He even recreates the "Stinking badges" moment.
Terence Blanchard's score however feels out-of-place here, often over-playing the emotions. In the combat sequences, the orchestral elements bombard the diegetic noises and take away their urgency and tension. The use of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On is a fitting — if a little too obvious — choice. But there's no doubt his music and message still resonate with the unrest over racial inequality.
Racial politics aside, Lee's latest joint still doubles as an entertaining enough buddy adventure flick. It's pulpy and perceptive at the same time, in a way that could only have come from Lee's mind. Da 5 Bloods is nowhere near Lee's best work but he yet again captures a pivotal moment in American history and tells a powerful story through the black perspective. Still gifted with chilling foresight, he offers a meditation on current circumstances by looking through the prism of the past. Consequently, he brings to light a racial stasis for the last 50 years. For black people in America, it seems the war never ends.
Da 5 Bloods is now streaming on Netflix.
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