Director/co-writer Spike Lee leaves a lot of layers to unpack in Da 5 Bloods. Lee clearly has a lot on his mind with his latest project, which explores the largely ignored story of the black soldier experience in Vietnam. It’s not his most focused or strongest effort, but Lee undeniably has the ideal time period to share this thought-provoking tale.
It’s telling that so much of the earlier clips and conversations about black America’s shoddy treatment by a government that proudly proclaims “liberty and justice” for all feels like Lee could have shot it a week ago.
Da 5 Bloods is a defiant rebuke of the ‘stand for the flag’ patriots who loudly talk about the sacrifice their fathers and grandfathers made during wars. Those claims reinforce how lightly regarded black involvement in fighting America’s wars has been over the decades.
Four Vietnam veterans — Paul (Delroy Lindo, This Is Us), Otis (Clarke Peters, Jessica Jones), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr., BlacKkKlansman), Eddie (Norm Lewis, Just Mercy) — reunite to finish some long overdue business. Relocating the gold trunk they discovered and bringing the remains of their platoon leader, Stormin Norman (Chadwick Boseman, Avengers: Endgame) back for a proper burial.
Lee makes a curious choice in the flashback scenes by opting against using younger actors and actually having Lindo, Peters, Whitlock and Lewis in action alongside Boseman.
Typically the same actors are used in flashbacks for comedic purposes, but these sequences lost something as there’s never a sense of how Da Bloods were as younger men. Maybe Lee and his co-writers Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo and Kevin Willmott were showing how war robs young men of their youth, but they fail to fully show everything that was lost.
Lee stages the few action sequences so cleanly that I found myself wishing he’d do a more action-oriented war story from the black soldier perspective.
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Of the four surviving Bloods, Paul has been battered by life the most. It’s probably not a coincidence that the less filtered, psychologically scarred war vet is an ardent Trump supporter proudly displaying his MAGA hat.
Whichever way Netflix pushes Lindo — be it best actor or best supporting actor — he’s worthy of a nomination for this performance. Lindo has been one of those actors whose understated greatness is easy to take for granted, but this take on a mentally shattered, bitter soldier is heartfelt, devastating and too hard to forget making for one of his career best efforts. In this current climate Da 5 Bloods stands a decent shot of racking up numerous nominations although in any year, Lindo’s performance should be undeniable.
Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco), crashes the reunion in hopes of getting some quality time as he fears Paul is close to losing it. Paul barely sleeps, keeps having visions of Norman, has a love/hate relationship with his son and is highly uncomfortable being back in Vietnam. Paul and David’s journey is a highlight.
Majors has the look of a performer who is going to have a lengthy, award-worthy career. He plays off Lindo well and fully grasps the metaphor of a father/son relationship that’s like navigating a minefield. Sometimes it’s a peaceful journey, but at any moment it can be explosive.
The rest of Da Bloods are happy to be reunited and aren’t as affected returning to the former war zone. Otis reconnects with an old acquaintance and gets a fence, Desroche (Jean Reno), to help them get the money into overseas bank accounts. Peters and Whitlock provide welcome strong performances. They’ve largely been in background supporting roles so it was nice to see them enjoy some quality screen time in meaty roles.
Some of the film’s most effective scenes were the flashbacks featuring Vietnamese radio personality Hanoi Hannah (Van Veronica Ngo) as she read prepared propaganda aimed at making the black soldiers question their involvement in the war. The irony is the cold truth and logic behind the scripts, which asks what black men gained from fighting in America’s wars.
While the story is largely told from the soldiers’ perspective the absence of black women’s voice save archival footage of Angela Davis was disappointing. Lee shows weeping sisters and daughters, but they’re never given any lines as if their experience watching family members in a war or picking up the pieces afterward wasn’t as important.
Lee largely forgoes being subtle whether in the messaging with archival clips, the still photos of historical black figures that were killed in combat and the endless struggle for equality. That was true back with Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing and it seems just as essential a message today. The execution can feel more than a little heavy-handed at times. Longtime Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard’s score and some of Marvin Gaye’s biggest hits are used to milk maximum emotion that feels occasionally overblown.
Extended monologues often felt out of place and disrupt the flow. The lack of subtlety also negatively impacts some pivotal plot points.
A throwaway conversation David has with a woman (Mélanie Thierry) about her crew searching for mines may as well have a pop-up saying “this is important!” and Lee telegraphs the eventual payoff so much it loses its impact. And having the main adversary wearing a Trump-catalog edition suit and MAGA hat in the final act is cartoonish.
While BlacKkKlansman felt like a surgical sniper shot calling out the ludicrousness of racism, Da 5 Bloods is more of a bombardment of the black soldiers’ story. It’s not as clean or effective, but gets Lee’s point across.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Photo Credit: Netflix