The most prominent filmmaking voice in the battle for civil liberties is Spike Lee. The director has made a career with films about racism, inequality and abuse of power. Lee’s unique body of work includes Do The Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), 25th Hour (2002), Inside Man (2006) and Blackkklansman (2018). Amazingly, his incredibly heavy subject matter is entertaining in addition to being socially provocative. Even though Lee ranks with directing legends like Scorsese, Coppola and Spielberg, his filmography is not as widely seen. He recently got the recognition he deserves with his Academy Award win for the phenomenal Blackkklansman. Thankfully, he has followed that success with, Da 5 Bloods (2020), his most ambitious film since Malcolm X (1992).
Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Junior) are brothers in arms who served their time fighting in the Vietnam War. Their former squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) was a inspiration to them all, keeping their spirits up throughout the conflict. Sadly, Norman never made it home, but the group found a box of gold bars before he passed. Taking the gold back with them was an impossibility during the war, so the squad vowed to one day return to Vietnam, finally bringing the gold (and Norman’s remains) back home. Norman’s dream was to distribute this wealth among underprivileged African-American communities, but as time has passed the surviving squad members may have different priorities. This journey forces the group to reflect on the war, as well as relive some of it in shocking ways.
Similar to Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee’s knowledge and admiration of cinema informs the film’s presentation. Lee draws direct attention to the genres and styles which most influence this narrative, resulting in a final product that defies conventional classification. The premise itself leans towards a reflective character drama and the first half plays out as such. The typical plot beats you’d expect are subverted to allow for an emotional and shocking tonal shift around the mid-point. There’s an intense u-turn from introspective character piece, to disturbing war drama. Radical evolutions of tone can be off-putting, but it’s put to incredible use here as it compliments the growing tension and character depths. Lee plays with our understanding of genre tropes and crafts unique story elements out of them.
It goes without saying there’s plenty of historical references and flashbacks about the characters role in Vietnam. On one level, Lee knowingly evokes the memory of enjoyable Vietnam centred films like First Blood (1982) by portraying the conflict with the same kind of excitable action. On another level, these sequences are staged to appear like they’re shot on the grainy film stock used to photograph the real war (which was famously aired on television). The juxtaposition between fun action and harrowing war violence is made abundantly clear. This not only raises questions about how the war has been treated in film previously, but also brings the dark realities of the conflict back to vigorous life. If that wasn’t enough, Lee seamlessly blends documentary touches into the film’s structure by confidently including real life stock footage of the infamous war crimes.
There’s an insistence to remind audiences just how similar the crimes of the past and the crimes of the present are, which is exactly what the characters themselves are experiencing. Looking at the narrative strictly on its own terms, it’s an engaging parable of men grappling with their traumatic youth. They were oppressed individuals who were unwillingly fighting the wrong fight. Even with self-awarness of that fact, the war has effected the squad so profoundly that they can’t grow beyond their darkest times and thus struggle to force the changes they need to. The tragic irony is that these men (like so many others) were placed into this perpetual nightmare by a world that also fights the wrong fight and never grows beyond its worst mistakes. Viewers may be overwhelmed by how insistent the thematics are, but the basic story beats and character arcs still function on their own merits.
Lee is a master of making audiences understand the weight of societal mistakes. Various plot threads and story twists force the characters (and viewers) to experience just how horrifying the violence was and continues to be. Despite most of the film taking place in modern day, multiple key action sequences occur as a direct result of the damage created by the war. There’s no way to prepare for just how gut wrenching these moments are, as they transport us to our very own slice of Vietnam. Most amazingly, Lee connects the hardships the heroes face to hardships happening in the world today. If Do The Right Thing and Blackkklansman didn’t have you convinced that Lee is a societal fortune teller, Da 5 Bloods proves he has his finger on the pulse of social change the world demands years before they demand it. The violence and provocative messages might be too much for some, but it’s still deeply effective.
For such a thematically loaded and narratively packed film, you need an incredibly talented team of actors to carry it. Happily, Lee has assembled a phenomenal cast of respected character actors, including Clark Peters, Norm Lewis, Jonathan Majors, Isiah Whitlock Junior, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Mélanie Thierry and Jean Reno. Chadwick Boseman is particularly noteworthy as Stormin’ Norman. The character is described as the group’s Malcolm X and Martin Luther King rolled into one, which Boseman impressively embodies. Boseman juggles compassion, wisdom and leadership without breaking a sweat, proving once and for all that he is modern cinema’s inspirational leading man. However, the standout is Delroy Lindo as Paul. His performance is empathetic yet terrifying, raising his chances for awards consideration in the coming months.
Director Spike Lee doesn’t shy away from risqué content, which always makes his work interesting yet controversial. For all his talents, Lee’s work isn’t known for being subtle. Even when compared to his previous films, Da 5 Bloods is overwhelmingly loud and clear with its various social and thematic points. The kind of stories Lee tells don’t require subtlety, as he uses history, cinematic references and genre tropes to send the strongest message possible. Lee has Quentin Tarantino’s literary mind without being self-indulgent, and the topicality of Oliver Stone without being manipulative. As an example of powerful entertainment delivered with artistic nuance, Da 5 Bloods comes close to the front of the pack. Even with its staggering length and multiple narrative threads, Lee effortlessly keeps things spectacularly engrossing.
Best way to watch it: If you’re still isolating and can’t go to a protest (If you can go to a protest, watch it anyway).