Spike Lee has always been an ambitious filmmaker with a strong desire to delve into social issues that demand complex and convoluted narratives. Sometimes this tendency to tackle nuanced stories clashes with the narrative itself. For example, in his sex farce She Hate Me, there is a long digression about Frank Wills, the guard who caught the Watergate robbers. In Bamboozled, Lee includes a long series of clips featuring racist depictions of African-Americans in American media. In Da 5 Bloods, his latest in a decades-long career, his ambition clearly has not flagged as he takes a script that was a reworking of The Treasure of Sierra Madre and turns it into an expansive reflection on the ravages that the Vietnam War wrought on Black soldiers.
The titular Bloods, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), are four Vietnam War veterans who have returned to Vietnam after over 40 years to find the bones of their fallen comrade “Stormin’” Norman Earl Holloway (Chadwick Boseman). In truth, their quest has the ulterior motive of retrieving a fortune in gold bars that the Bloods had been in charge of escorting to the Lahu people who helped the Americans fight the Vietcong. The four men and Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) embark on the treacherous trip, while having to battle a hostile environment peppered with land mines and bandits.
For all of these vets, their personal demons and the burden of the past prove just as much an obstacle as the physical environment; for no one is this more true than for Paul. Paul clearly suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, although he is reluctant to admit it. Years of struggling with the disorder has made him embittered and angry. He is an ardent Trump supporter and xenophobe. He seethes with self-hatred, scoffing at Eddie’s declaration that he would donate his share of the loot to the Black Lives Matter movement. Delroy Lindo plays Paul as if he were a case of old dynamite, liable to explode at even the slightest provocation. In a cast filled with excellent performances, Lindo gives the most commanding, and the early Oscar buzz around him is well-deserved.
There are also many of the bravura touches of Spike Lee’s style throughout Da 5 Bloods, and they do far more than add to the running time of the movie. A beginning newsreel shows the famous images of the Vietcong soldier being shot in the head and the young Vietnamese girl scalded by napalm. While many people (especially people who went to school in America) would be familiar with these images, not as many have seen the actual footage of these atrocities. By choosing to show this footage, Lee is changing history from a static to a living, bloody, overwhelming force.
While the Vietnam War may be firmly in the history books for younger generations, it has certainly never left the four surviving Bloods. When the film flashes back to the war, the Bloods are played by the same actors with no attempt to de-age them. The exception is of course Stormin’ Norman, who the recently deceased Chadwick Boseman plays with a fierce virility. Boseman is so memorable in his performance that it makes perfect sense that these men would idolize him even after many decades.
Lee’s willingness to plunder many different sources for his film even extends to his own filmography. There is a scene that features a North Vietnamese radio announcer Hanoi Hannah (Veronica Ngo) reminding Black soldiers that they are fighting for a country that would never grant them the same freedom that they are promising Vietnam. This is not only a historical event, but it’s also a call back to a similar scene in Miracle at St. Anna, Lee’s WWII picture about Black soldiers, that featured a German announcer advising Black soldiers the exact same way. This scene is crucial because it’s clear that Lee wants to show us how history is cyclical, and how it will remain cyclical as long as we choose to ignore it. He is telling a story not just with a single film but with all of them, providing a rich, complex history of Black Americans and America itself.
If there is a legitimate criticism to be made of the overstuffed nature of this film, it would be that certain stories do not get as much attention as they should. A story about Otis, his ex-lover Tien (Le Y Lan) and the mixed-race daughter they had together is hinted at, even though Lee clearly would have wanted to delve into their story even more. Also, as a pure action thriller, the film drags during the most exciting scenes, and the sense of danger is waylaid by character-driven digressions. It definitely feels as if Lee took another writer’s script and filled it with whatever he wanted, which is exactly what happened. Yet Lee has still managed to make another bold, passionate film that is very much about the issues that have permeated his filmography and has arguably struck the right balance between genre and thematic exploration in the process.