What’s past is prologue, especially in America. In the past weeks we’ve seen the streets of American cities transformed by waves of protests against police brutality following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. America’s failures to confront its past sins have led to its present turmoil. For the past four decades, Oscar-winning writer and director Spike Lee has been sounding alarms about America’s failure to adequately address its shameful history of racism. For daring to speak truth to power, Spike Lee over the years has been dubbed a provocateur, an agitator, and a race-baiter by those who benefit from the broken system of the status quo. Spike hasn’t backed down because he has had the benefit of being on the right side of history in its slow arc towards justice. Now Spike Lee has teamed with Netflix for his latest film Da 5 Bloods, a movie about the Vietnam War unlike any Vietnam War movie ever made. Da 5 Bloods explores themes that have fascinated Spike Lee for decades – Black history, generational pain, and the lingering scars caused by American racism and imperialism.
Four veterans from the Vietnam War reunite at a Ho Chi Minh City hotel. The quartet of Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) reunite decades after the last troops left Saigon with a new mission of their own. The official story is that they’re returning to find the remains of their fallen comrade Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and return his body to American soil. However, that’s more of a cover story so that the four veterans can also exhume millions of dollars in gold lost in the fog of war. Using a Vietnamese contact Tiên Luu (Lê Y Lan), whom Otis had an affair with during the war, Da Bloods plan to smuggle the gold back through a shady French exporter Desroche (Jean Reno). The plan that Da Bloods were hatching gets a bit more complicated when Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) arrives unannounced, tagging along on the journey through the past.
The early parts of Da 5 Bloods shuffle between past and present as Spike sets the stage. The bond that these men formed amidst the chaos of war is illustrated in flashbacks that also clearly establish Norman’s importance to his fellow soldiers, from being a fearless leader to being a mentor teaching his fellow soldiers Black history. As we get closer to these Vietnam veterans we see those early smiles fade as the pain of they thought was left behind and the problems of the present take over their thoughts. This tension that lies under the surface of their proud exteriors rears its head amidst their journey when their boat helmed by guide Vinh Tran (Johnny Trí Nguyễn) stops off in a riverside market that results in an ugly confrontation. The American soldiers who returned to their former battlefield must confront the reality that they’re not the only ones dealing with the lasting pain of what the Vietnamese call “The American War.” These scenes illustrate the reality of how Americans can only look at foreign military action and its consequences through the myopic lens of national selfishness masquerading as patriotism.
The screenplay by Spike Lee and frequent collaborator Kevin Willmott (from an original screenplay by The Rocketeer scribes Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo) takes its characters on a number twists and turns, many of which are incredibly shocking to the viewer. When Da Bloods find themselves closer to their buried treasure they wind up exhuming the ugliness and violence of the past. In seeking the illicit booty from an unjust war, Da Bloods find themselves in a new ugly situation that only gets uglier as distrust sparked by greed spreads like a virus among the once unbreakable bond between brothers.
As Da Bloods seek to profit off their past involvement in a misguided war, they encounter a group working to undo the sins of the past in an activist group that works to remove old landmines from the countryside called Love Against Mines and Bombs (or LAMB), consisting of Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), Simon (Paul Walter Hauser), and Seppo (Jasper Pääkkönen). The group is led by Hedy, an heiress to a French family fortune from a rubber plantation before the war, and her dedication to use her ill-gotten resources to try and right the wrongs of the past stands in contrast to the Da Bloods’ mission of recovering imperialist treasure.
While so much of Da 5 Bloods is looking at scars left behind – such as the haunting flashback where the soldiers learn of Martin Luther King’s assassination from Viet Cong propaganda – the film is very much of this moment. You could call it prescient if not for the reality that Spike Lee has been screaming about the issues that are at the center of today’s ongoing debate for decades. It’s not his fault that white people refused to listen. One interesting wrinkle that Spike brings to his cast of characters is that one of Da Bloods, Paul, is a supporter of the current president complete with the red hat that many have come to see as a modern day hate symbol. The point is driven home that the politics of the current occupant of the White House aren’t simply about racial grievance but also a national grievance, one that must inflict pain to distract from pain. These conflicting emotions are embodied in what is probably a career-best performance by Delroy Lindo as his unresolved issues drive him towards the darkest corners of his soul. It’s a heartbreaking performance but one that never loses the nuance to this tragic character.
There’s a ton to unpack in the two and half hours of Da 5 Bloods, and it’s impossible to tackle them all in an initial review without revealing a ton of spoilers. Suffice to say that Da 5 Bloods is Spike Lee’s latest masterpiece, a darkly comedic, violent, and somewhat cathartic journey through the dark heart of America’s militaristic failings; failings that resemble the nation’s failures with confronting racism. The pain of yesterday and a nation unwilling to confront it is a recipe for disaster, a powder keg building pressure before a violent explosion. Spike Lee has been warning us about the illnesses inherent in the American condition for decades. He’s still out there sounding the alarms. Maybe this time we’ll finally listen.
Da 5 Bloods
Another urgent and nuanced masterpiece from Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods is a Vietnam movie unlike any other with its relentless examination of America’s history of racism and would-be imperialism through the eyes of four veterans returning to Vietnam to recover the remains of a fallen soldier buried beside millions in lost gold.