Right from the start, as the film opens with historical clips of American flashpoints, Spike Lee’s new film Da 5 Bloods alerts us to the fact that he’s interested in engaging in a conversation – actually multiple at once – about America’s history and its relationship with its Black citizens. What’s fascinating though is that Lee’s film immediately does something far more revolutionary.
Beginning with the introduction of the surviving Bloods in the current moment, the narrative zeroes in on how the Bloods communicate with each other, to a certain extent with their families, and the larger world. These exchanges, as they unfold throughout the film, might feel jarring to mainstream audiences, because we are rarely given the chance to see and hear Black men, with varying degrees of emotional complexity, talk about their lives, both political and personal in such forthright ways.
It’s even crazier when you consider the roots of this material. Before Lee and screenwriter Kevin Willmott (Oscar-winning co-screenwriter of BlackkKlansman) assumed control of the project, the story (as written by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo) was going to be a far more straightforward action-oriented thriller about a group of treasure seeking soldiers. Lee, in his fashion, saw more in the bare bones of the premise and thankfully brought his vision to life, focusing on a group of Black Vietnam veterans who, decades later, return to the country to retrieve the remains of their revered commanding officer Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and a lock box full of US gold intended as a payment to our Vietnamese allies that had been stranded after the plane carrying the gold was shot down in enemy territory.
Nominally speaking, the central conversation involves the hot-tempered leader of the surviving Bloods Paul (Delroy Lindo) and the more thoughtful and reserved Otis (Clarke Peters). These two men have what appears to be the tightest bond amongst the veterans – Otis is the godfather of Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) – but when the two men are placed on the ideological spectrum, they seem to represent opposite poles. Paul is steadfast in his independence, to the point of pushing even those closest to him away, while Otis is more conciliatory, interested in bringing the Bloods together.
Paul finds himself in several of the key dialogues taking place over the course of the film. He’s in a communication of sorts with Stormin’ Norman. Paul, with prodding from David, admits to having nightmarish talks with Norman nearly every night, which points to the strength of his relationship with Norman back in ‘Nam, but there’s also a sign that Paul has trauma from the war that he can’t relinquish.
Norman is a Christ-like figure – think Willem Dafoe’s Sgt. Elias from Oliver Stone’s Platoon – with a surprisingly humanist outlook even in the midst of animalistic carnage and the horror of war. Boseman is perfectly cast, having brought to life a series of archetypal characters, both real (Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall) and fictional (T’Challa/Black Panther). He marries righteous purity and virtue with a steely real-world pragmatism that Paul and the other Bloods would be willing to die for.
Sadly, Paul has a contentious relationship with David that opens up during the course of the story. Against his father’s wishes, David winds up joining the four veterans on their journey back to Vietnam – becoming a de facto 5th Blood – but it is plain that Paul cannot see and appreciate his son for the man he has become, and certainly not as a “replacement” for Norman in the group.
David’s presence sets up an exchange between Black men today and the larger white society of today’s world. The four veteran Bloods live and communicate as Black men in relation to their Black experiences in a foreign land during war, while back home Black Americans fought to be accepted as equal members of society.
David, as the next generation, embodies an uncomfortable evolutionary step. He attended a historically Black college (Morehouse) and has a role as an academic, which his father sees as less manly, but we also watch him meet and engage in a flirtatious conversation with Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), a French woman in Vietnam who has forsaken family privilege and money to work with a small team (Jasper Pääkkönen and Paul Walter Hauser) to find and detonate bombs and mines left in the aftermath of the war. For David, she is an example of the movement forward from a strict focus on racial identity and the past. This is an element that has always lurked in either the background or the foreground of most of Lee’s signature works.
Returning to Paul though, his relationships with the two other surviving Bloods, while not as dynamically conceived, speak to intra-racial fissures. Eddie (Norm Lewis) is the most successful member of the crew. Following the war, he was able to start and build businesses (car dealerships) trading on his name and easy-going charm. We come to realize that he also had a few failed marriages, but he’s helping to bankroll the trip back to Vietnam, which leaves Paul feeling uneasy. Paul refuses to let Eddie pay for his room at the hotel when they arrive in country, which introduces Paul’s political affiliation with President Trump and the Make America Great Again movement. The Bloods quickly express their concerns with Paul’s incongruent siding with the conservative ideology, but we come away with the sense that not even such adherence to the dog whistling carnival could come between these men.
Sadly, the least defined dialogue is between Paul and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr), who serves, for the most part, as comic relief. Whitlock Jr has been a staple in the Lee oeuvre – known for his ability to extend a one syllable term for excrement into a symphony of meaning with enough sound and fury and stench to numb even the hypersensitivity of Marvel’s Daredevil. At the end of the day, even Melvin proves his place and worth among the Bloods.
The Bloods share complicated and complex dialogues with present-day Vietnam, working closely with their guide Vinh Tran (Johnny Nguyen) who straddles the divide between the warring sides within his own country, but stands by and with the Bloods on their journey. There is also Otis’s relationship with his import/export contact Tiên Luu (Y. Lan), his Vietnamese lover from the war and the discovery of Michon (Sandy Huong Pham), the offspring he never knew about from that relationship. Looming in the past is Hanoi Hannah (Van Veronica Ngo), the radio voice of the Viet Cong, playing music from home and offering commentary on the plight of Black soldiers fighting in a war against forces who they probably had more in common with than they realized. She reminds the Black troops of home and the sentiments of folks like Muhammad Ali, who refused to be drafted.
The final figure speaking to the Bloods – in the present, but hovering over the past as well – is Desroche (Jean Reno), the shady French operator brokering the deal to help the Bloods get the gold out of the country and into accounts which they can access. He constantly reminds them that white men will always have a hand in their affairs and a knee on their necks.
All of Lee’s works – from Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X to 25th Hour and BlackkKlansman – feature moments of interrogation from his film’s characters, where they rage and shout, seemingly at another character, themselves, God, or directly at the audience. It is his way of dragging us, sometimes kicking and screaming into the messy thick of things, into arguments we’re afraid or unwilling to have, into accepting shame and complicity for the truths we would rather remain oblivious to, and especially at this moment, we deserve this treatment. He’s shocking us with a reckoning that goes beyond the immediacy of police brutality against Black and brown communities across the country. Da 5 Bloods samples a host of historic clips, in a dense collage and weaves them into this propulsive time-shifting narrative melody about how trauma burns, twists, and scars the Black psyche, yet creates identities capable of surviving.
That’s a tall order for any filmmaker, even a widely celebrated craftsman like Lee, but his work illustrates that he’s never operating alone. Whether working with former partners-in-crime like Lindo (Malcolm X, Crooklyn, and Clockers), Clarke (Red Hook Summer) and Whitlock Jr. (25th Hour, She Hate Me, and Chi-Raq) or enlisting new players into his growing slate of the usual suspects like Majors, who betta be on his way to becoming a major force in the industry, Lee finds ways to celebrate talent by allowing it to sing and shine, scream and cry in sorrow and joy.
And here, it is Lindo who exerts the strongest gravitational pull on the narrative and our attention. Playing a character who swings and shifts in dramatic and dizzying fashion, Lindo makes sure we never experience a sense of emotional whiplash as we go on this wild ride with him. His voice and presence takes us firmly by the hand and heart, holding steady as Paul rages and roars like the wildest of storms. It is a brave performance because, in the end, we watch this Blood enter a cinematic confessional and labor mightily to achieve some semblance of grace and penance. (Now showing on Netflix.)