Da 5 Bloods, the latest joint – as he famously brands his films – from Spike Lee, explores the experiences of African-American soldiers in the Vietnam War, but its release (trite though it is to point out) couldn’t have felt timelier.
Despite making up only 11% of the American population at the time, black men constituted 32% of U.S. frontline combatants in Vietnam, the Pentagon ensuring disproportionate numbers of them were drafted. Now, against the backdrop of the killing of George Floyd and renewed passionate anti-racist activism, Lee determinedly and engagingly illustrates the too often neglected history of black men in conflict throughout this ambitious drama.
Four African-American veterans – Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) – return to Vietnam on a mission; ostensibly, to recover the remains of their fallen squadron leader and civil rights mentor, “Stormin’” Norman (played in flashbacks by a forceful and charismatic Chadwick Boseman), and to ensure he gets the military burial he deserves. However, their ulterior motive is to retrieve a stash of $17 million worth of gold bullion, buried near the spot where Norman had been slain, and which he demanded to be put towards black liberation at home. They soon find themselves accompanied by Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), who’s eager to patch up his rocky relationship with his dad.
Lee kicks things off with a giddying opening montage of newsreel footage of the war and the civil rights movement, followed by harrowingly graphic snapshots of brutalised Vietnamese civilians, as well as reconstructions of radio broadcasts by real-life Viet Cong propagandist Hanoi Hannah (an ice-cool Veronica Ngo). Lee gets slightly carried away with his extended history lesson, as he showcases photos and explanatory captions of any famous black person who gets a passing mention (we know who Aretha Franklin is, thanks). He also happily falls back on old Apocalypse Now clichés, namely Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” blaring as the gang sets off, after they’ve spent the night partying at a club, subtly called the Apocalypse Now.
Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel’s use of 16mm film for the war flashbacks works brilliantly, but while the presence of the four older leads without de-ageing technology might symbolise their diluted view of the past, that point gets lost when you watch these codgers stumbling through the battle sequences. The soundtrack sparingly and successfully utilises the searing vocals of Marvin Gaye from his 1971 album What’s Going On, but while Terrence Blanchard’s rousing score lifts the most moving scene – a flashback where Norman urges his comrades to restrain their rage after hearing Hannah’s bulletin of Martin Luther King’s murder – at other times it nearly drowns out the dialogue. Remembering Lee’s criticism of Quentin Tarantino for his spaghetti western portrayal of slavery in 2012’s Django Unchained, it feels hypocritical and tonally jarring when the last third of Da 5 Bloods descends into Tarantino-style cartoonish violence.
The cast is brilliant, however, Lindo and Peters in particular. The former initially exudes belligerent defiance in his portrayal of Paul, a MAGA-hatted Trump supporter, who Lee shows not to be entirely alone among African-Americans in voting for the Vietnam draft-dodger, nicknamed “President Fake Bone Spurs” by Paul’s comrades. As the film wears on, Lindo powerfully conveys a portrait of a broken man, his sanity and his relationship with David steadily crumbling under the weight of his PTSD, wrenching sympathy for a character who’s initially hard to warm up to. As Otis, the voice of reason amidst the chaos, Peters is more subdued, but conveys the most intense of emotions with the slightest of expressions. Both actors carry much of an ambitious film that is occasionally let down by its hit-and-miss visuals and narrative.