Lee’s powerful pacifist manifesto centers anguished Black war veterans’ cries against a perpetual U.S. government war machine
Film Review: “Da 5 Bloods”
Release date in the U.S.: Tonight at midnight (all time zones) on Netflix
“The war is never ending, whether in the mind or in reality,” a contemporary character says during a trek for buried gold left in the minefields of 1968 Vietnam by a fallen comrade in Spike Lee’s powerful pacifist manifesto “Da 5 Bloods”. Rigorous and intense, Mr. Lee’s epic is the first Vietnam War film centering the experiences, pain and tumult faced by Black men fighting on foreign soil for the U.S. amidst social and racial upheaval back home.
Those men are “Bloods”, an all-Black soldier troupe whose blood, sweat and tears are shed in an American theatre of violence and hypocrisy, which Mr. Lee illustrates to great and visceral effect in a series of jolting clips from the Sixties. Of them Muhammad Ali’s morally centered voice cuts through, a cousin to the film’s lone voice of clarity, the not-accidentally named Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), dubbed “the best damn soldier there ever was”, a talismanic figure for the four comrades who return to ‘Nam to secure Norman’s remains and the gold that was left with them. “Share the gold with our people” is Norman’s refrain, which will be tested.
Mr. Lee’s film, which alternates between 1968 and the present, is a plaintive petition to the U.S. government for redress. The director, a lecturer as professor for nearly 30 years at NYU Tisch School Of The Arts in New York City, is also teaching his film audience. Throughout “Da 5 Bloods” he cares, implores, instructs, compels and demands, agitating for the protagonists and for continuing generations of Black men and women caught in an inherently violent American system that asks them to be violent for Old Glory abroad but is violent against them at home. “Da 5 Bloods” amplifies that sentiment with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech as a forceful exclamation point. One of the film’s most effective choruses are the anthems of Marvin Gaye, a poet of peace who met his own violent death at the hands of his father in 1984, an even Mr. Lee recaptured and fictionalized in “Jungle Fever” (1991).
Aside from the U.S war profiteering machine the most troubled presence in “Da 5 Bloods” is the voluble Paul (an excellent Delroy Lindo), his severe PTSD, a fog that can’t quell his justifiable ill-temperament. Paul’s contempt for everyone including his son, in Vietnam to check on his estranged father, mirrors the man he’s an avowed supporter of: Donald Trump. Paul can’t stop thinking about Stomin’ Norman, whose name he shouts out in the night and during the day. On the Vietnam 2020 landscape are also a trio of white anti-minefield activists looking to defuse the violence of war but their presence only brings more tensions as do some of the locals never far from reminding the Bloods of their atrocities. A French arms dealer (think: arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and Reagan’s Iran-Contra crime scandal) played by Jean Reno mocks the notion of the death cult of “Make America Great Again” to cheeky, damning effect. All of this is a chessboard of guilt, hypocrisy and complicity that enables Mr. Lee’s knife-edged theater to be near stellar at times when in high gear, and yet at other times tepid and meandering.
What is unmistakable is that throughout “Da 5 Bloods” is tense and it’s about the psychological violence and scars American government imposes on Black men and inevitably on the choices they make that affect their lives and the lives of others. What is also unmistakable is that as always Mr. Lee makes a throughline to the present day in his films, and The Chambers Brothers great classic 1967 song “Time Has Come Today”, heard midway through “Da 5 Bloods”, is a call to action.
Clocking in at a lengthy two hours and 35 minutes Mr. Lee, who needed a stronger editor here, chronicles a mission of patriots who only want what’s due them for their 400 years of blood-filled tears as warriors in a war machine that discards them as cannon-fodder. This assembly line slaughter of Black soldiers (disproportionately) in Vietnam is a vicious systemic cycle that American white male political leaders don’t have the courage to fight themselves. Footage of LBJ (“I shall not seek the nomination of the Democratic Party”) in 1968 after his own Gulf Of Tonkin lie four years earlier, of Nixon who kept Vietnam going (“I shall resign the presidency effective noon tomorrow”) in 1974, and one film character’s reference to “Agent Bone Spurs” points directly at Trump, who like predecessors is only too eager to generate low intensity warfare that makes Black men cannon fodder in order to remain in power.
The timeliness of “Da 5 Bloods” to the recent events around George Floyd’s murder, protests and Trump’s politicizing of both couldn’t be more timely. Still the U.S. war machine roars on internally and externally, and so, against hundreds of years of violence in the U.S., do Black lives. The forty acres and a mule that is Mr. Lee’s company namesake that was promised Black people still awaits, even with the prescipice of major change that the U.S. is witnessing right now. The men of Mr. Lee’s film aren’t struggling for their moral center. They know what that center is and they are reacting to oppressive systemic pressures and realities. The appeal for morality and humanity is directed at those we don’t see at all in the film’s fictional moments: the U.S. government.
With: Isiah Whitlock Jr., Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Melanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Paakkonen, Johnny Tri Nguyen, Le Y Lan, Nguyen Ngoc Lam, Sandy Huong Pham.
“Da 5 Bloods” is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong violence, grisly images and pervasive language. The film’s running time is two hours and 35 minutes.