Dir: Spike Lee. Starring: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Mélanie Thierry. 15 cert, 155 mins.
“America has declared war on black people.” These defiant words – spoken by civil rights leader Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) the morning after Martin Luther King Jr’s 1968 assassination – are captured in the opening monologue of Spike Lee’s latest, Da 5 Bloods. The wisdom of Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and boxer Muhammad Ali – all central figures of black empowerment – appear alongside them. The temptation is to call the moment “timely”, now that police forces across the US have launched a full-frontal attack on Black Lives Matters protesters. But Ture was speaking to one of the foundational truths of American history. His words never lost their relevance.
Lee seems especially drawn to these unwavering connections between past and present of late. In 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, which chronicles detective Ron Stallworth’s efforts to infiltrate the KKK in the Seventies, the director paid tribute to Heather Heyer, who was murdered by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Da 5 Bloods attempts a similar treatment of the Vietnam War – a vast, bloodied web of colonial atrocity, US interventionism, and deep-rooted prejudice. Lee takes hold of every tendril, drawing things into a distinctly modern context. Trump, Black Lives Matter, and the words “fake news” all feature. His imagery is as direct and provocative as it’s always been – but, despite its hefty two-and-a-half-hour runtime, the film still feels oddly compressed.
With a nod to John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Da 5 Bloods sees four black Vietnam veterans return to their old battlegrounds, seduced by the promise of treasure – a crate of gold bars they buried during the war, hidden from both their commanders and the Viet Cong. Their hope, too, is to recover the remains of their beloved squadron leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman). The reunion between these men – Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Otis (Clarke Peters), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) – kicks off as most reunions do: with some old jokes and reminiscences, dayglow cocktails in hand.
But there are phantoms here that cannot be quieted. The voice of the Hanoi Hannah (Veronica Ngo), whose propaganda broadcasts attempted to frighten and shame US soldiers into leaving their posts, echoes in their heads. She had broken the news to them that King was dead and that the subsequent protests were being brutally suppressed. In flashbacks, we see her proselytise over the airwaves: “They kill them while you fight against us, so far away from where you are needed.”
Lee not only switches between past and present, but between genres: Da 5 Bloods is comedy, tragedy, horror, and jungle adventure all at once. He’ll adopt the stylistic trademarks of Vietnam movies past – think helicopters rising against an orange sun – with both sincerity and irony. Early on, the veterans visit a damnably tacky Apocalypse Now-themed nightclub. But the director’s also clearly invested in how memory is warped by film, propaganda, resentment, and guilt. In the flashbacks, he has his actors play their younger selves, without any of Martin Scorsese’s flashy de-ageing technology.
These memories take their toll on the men. A brotherhood they believed was unconquerable starts to crack. Much of the tension lies with Paul, a man so embittered by his own disenfranchisement that he’s morphed into a full-blown, racist Trump supporter and turned venomous against his own son (Jonathan Majors). Lindo is phenomenal here, his face wracked by grief and rage – the human equivalent of a shattered mirror. But Lee offers up a string of conventional tragedies to explain his psyche, flattening the thornier implications of his character. His exploration of the Vietnamese perspective – and the idea that black GIs had more in common with those they were fighting than those who gave the orders – also feels cut short by Lee’s desire to keep faithful to his rollicking adventure yarn. Da 5 Bloods is so busy with ideas, thoughts, and passions that, at times, it feels like it’s drowning in them.
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