Da 5 Bloods, directed by Spike Lee, starring Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, and Clarke Peters.
For those artists whose subject matter focuses on the lives of Africana communities, and whose intention is to tell those stories with social and political gravity, the application of the term artist often eludes them. For director Spike Lee, imbuing his art with his political concerns and embellishing those same concerns through his aesthetic vision, are his hallmarks. Spike Lee is a political artist and with each film, those visions wrestle for position in his work.
Questions of race, ethnicity and class remain front and centre in Lee’s work, his most notable examinations being Do the Right Thing (1989), Clockers (1995), Bamboozled (2003) and most recently Black Klansman (2018). Often unremarked upon are Lee’s intense cinematic examinations of white racial identity in Jungle Fever (1991), Summer of Sam (1999) and 25th Hour (2002). Lee has also examined these concerns through historical presentations such as Malcolm X (1992), wherein he brings attention to what he considers underserved figures and areas of African American history. We see this in Miracle in St Anna (2008), Lee’s unveiling of the experience of African-American soldiers in World War II and now we see it his recent Netflix work, Da 5 Bloods (2020). What Lee shows us in this film is not only his mission to cinematise aspects of the Black historical experience but also his filmmaker’s debt to the Vietnam War film.
The film tracks the efforts of four African-American Vietnam war veterans (or as termed by the Vietnamese “the American War”) as they return to contemporary Vietnam to find and reclaim the body of their fallen squad leader, “Stormin” Norman, played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman. Despite the 50 years that have passed, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Otis (Clarke Peters), each maintain a foot in the unresolved past of their experiences in Vietnam. As their local tour guide, Vihn Tran (Johnny Tri Nguyen), tells Otis, “After you have been in a war, you understand it never really ends.” Like the characters, the film itself, by alluding to other Vietnam era films, never allows for them or their forms to end. Lee’s tongue and cheek nod is to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), as the bar the “Bloods” settle into their first night back “in country” is called “Apocalypse Now”.
The veterans’ search for their lost friend commences with a journey by river that mirrors Lt. Willard’s search for Col. Kurtz in the aforementioned 70’s film. More to the merger of Lee’s aesthetic and political concerns are the depictions of the experience of African-American soldiers in Vietnam in Platoon (1985) and Hamburger Hill (1987). The inner lives of the Black Vietnam vet are revealed through the culture of survival and recognition that these films reveal as having developed amongst the soldiers. The forms of identification through their complex hand salutations, private language and the interiority of their thoughts about being Black men themselves colonised, serving as the shock troops of colonisation against other colonised peoples, describe a specific experience of the war depicted in film. This particular point comes to the fore initially in Lee’s opening prelude, a collage of images from the 1960s juxtaposing stock footage of Black soldiers in Vietnam, celebrating their bravery and the expanding Civil Rights/Black Power movement in the US, which generated conflicts in their role in the fight. Marvin Gaye’s iconoclastic recording What’s Going On (Motown Records, 1972) serves as the counterpoint to Lee stalwart composer Terence Blanchard’s score. Lee demands the viewer pay attention to the interstitial position between Black freedom and American imperialism in which these soldiers live. Lee underlines the contemporary fault lines of that position as the veterans debate Trumpism and the political consciousness of contemporary African Americans. Filmed before the George Floyd inspired uprisings against police brutality, Lee’s “Bloods” would be pleasantly surprised at the rise of a “movement” for liberation among their children and grandchildren.
And here we chance upon the dramatic tear in the film. Lee’s consciousness as a cineaste threatens what could have been a powerful statement. Much like Willard of Apocalypse Now, there is a mission within a mission as the “Bloods” along with the remains of their fallen leader are searching for the 17m dollars in gold bars reparated and hidden by them, for future recovery, during their tour of duty. Here is where the ghosts of Lee’s cinematic debts spin out of control. Paul, unresolved with his experience in Vietnam, a MAGA supporter, tortured and triggered by the demons of the war, goes full on Fred C. Dobbs in a distracting and overwrought take on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The film’s big reveal is Paul’s epiphanic resolution (an example of the overwrought nature of this narrative line) of his unsettled past with the memory of the Messianic “Stormin” Norman, whose critique of the role of America in Vietnam and whites in America, strengthened the Bloods’ brotherhood and radicalised their thinking. Says Clarke Peters’ Otis, “He was our Malcolm and our Martin.” The heavy-handed religious symbolism (“Stormin” Norman is often shot from low angles with the sun beaming over his haloed afro), echoes Platoon’s character of Elias (Willem Dafoe). The film is infused with this distracting side narrative, and an undermining make-up choice to have the four actors play themselves as their 40-year-younger characters next to the 44-year-old, Marvel Cinematic Universe fit, Boseman, overstuffs what could have been a powerful meditation on the legacies of soldiers trapped between the demands of duty, the call of freedom and the scars of that experience.
Wallace Terry’s book, Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History (Haymarket Books, 1985) serves as an obvious but unspoken and under-developed foundation for this film. Considering Lee’s masterful capabilities as a documentarian, that form would have properly served his pedagogical and aesthetic ambitions. Lee ends the film with a powerful crescendo of narrative resolution where he shows the results of the choices the characters make in regard to the gold. It remains pedantic but relevantly so as a thread is established between the outspoken voices of Black liberation in the 1960s and today’s Black Lives Matter Movement. All character’s sins are washed clean in a sweeping flood of sound and images. This is a command of the medium that would have better served the lengthy middle of the film. Lee’s warring ambitions, his clear excitement for the material and his bursting commitment to reframing the characterisations of the Vietnam War film, override his narrative discipline and leave the viewer with a heavy handed, powerful and yet not unusual Spike Lee joint.