It seems appropriate that considering the current political climate in America Spike Lee of all people would release a new film adding to his growing line of pictures focusing on the lives, culture and mistreatment of African Americans in the United States. However, his latest picture isn’t simply a film targeting racism or African American identity. It doubles as a war drama simultaneously addressing the role of black soldiers in U.S. history while also tackling the powerful aftereffects war can have on those that live it even decades later. “Da 5 Bloods” is Lee’s first Netflix exclusive release and focuses on four black Vietnam War veterans who return to seek out a treasure they left behind during the war and find the remains of their fallen commander in the process. Originally written as “The Last Tour” by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meoto and meant to feature white soldiers, Lee teamed with his “BlacKkKlansman” cowriter Kevin Willmott to put their own spin on the story and thus what is undoubtedly one of Lee’s most important films to date was born.
“Da 5 Bloods” stars Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock as the four Vietnam veterans who seek closure and riches in the battlefield they once traversed. Their story is told in both the present day and through a series of flashbacks where all four actors, with minimal alterations, play their younger selves while Chadwick Boseman plays their doomed commander who serves as a leader in both combat and in life imploring his soldiers to respect their American identity but also their black heritage. Every actor on board this picture is fully invested in bringing Lee’s vision to life with Delroy Lindo and Chadwick Boseman specifically standing out but for different reasons.
Lindo plays Paul, the most damaged of veterans who suffers from severe PTSD and feels he has been left behind by the world to the point where he is an open Donald Trump supporter feeling the controversial president represents him even better than his own people. It’s a sly nod to the voter base that made helped the president rise to power. Boseman on the other hand plays a more understated commander, one who values the struggles of his people but also believes they have a duty to be better human beings because of it. Lindo’s performance is the heart and soul of this film, posing as somewhat of an unintentional antagonist as he becomes the biggest roadblock for both his comrades and even himself to overcome during their journey. Lindo, who is a frequent collaborator of Spike Lee’s, absolutely owns his opportunity to present a divisive perspective on the struggles of black America as well as Vietnam veterans bringing to light a physical representation of the struggles of both African Americans and soldiers of the infamous conflict in a way that forces viewers to struggle with balancing their distaste for him and their empathy for his inner turmoil.
That one idea, respecting two groups that traditionally have had to fight for their due respect in American society, is for me what makes “Da 5 Bloods” such a fascinating piece of cinematic art and possibly Spikes Lee’s most universally relatable picture to date. The four men who come together to find closure from their past with hopes of a better promise for their future literally and figuratively embody both the American Dream and the hopes for American soldiers to return home with respect and integrity intact. They literally return to a battlefield to face their demons hoping that struggle will make them rich but discover their treasure is hard, maybe near impossible, to obtain. It’s a spectacular and symbolic representation of how difficult it was and still is for soldiers to truly earn respect for their involvement in conflict and for black Americans to rise above the limitations set before them for a better life and it’s very well hidden behind a simple but engaging narrative that, on its own, work very well even without the subtext. Even on a surface level we see direct examinations of the impact of war and racism on all four of these men. They were warriors in a conflict that Americans hated born into a race that already felt as if they were second class citizens. These men had no friends coming home, not the liberals and not the conservatives, and they all feel the impacts of living in such a reality especially Paul who suffered the most extreme damage to his psyche that still haunts him so many years later.
It’s not just the actors and story though that make “Da 5 Bloods” so engrossing. The entire picture feels painted like a work of art from the setting and shooting style to the music and even simple artistic choices like inter-cutting moments of black American history into the narrative for some added subtext. As with many of Spike Lee’s films his handling of subjects and themes can be a bit off-putting, but that’s what makes movies like feel like real art. It has something to say, finds creative ways to say it and Lee once again refuses to compromise for the sake of pandering to a wider audience. It’s risky, it’s complicated, and in a lot of ways it’s profound especial since it takes Lee’s message beyond traditional race issues to tell a story that’s just as important to understanding American history and the plight of the American soldier as it is about understanding black America. This film is a huge and much needed slap in the face for America in general forcing us to see the impact we’ve had on the people we’ve neglected, whether they be heroes that helped our country through its many conflicts or a race that is a huge part of our identity but always ends up on the back burner to white history. It’s an uncomfortable reality, but one Spike Lee fearlessly and unapologetically forces to the forefront.
“Da 5 Bloods” isn’t undeniably flawless though as there were several elements of the story that I felt stood out as minor flaws. The end of the film feels like a bunch of pieced together sub-stories that are rushed to their conclusions with not as much weight as the buildup deserved. I’m sure there was some artistic reason for this approach but it was lost on me as a viewer and unfortunately took me out of the movie slightly in the final act. Also while I do commend this film for being able to tackle two horrible realities at the same time, America’s poor race relations and the poor treatment of Vietnam veterans, it’s doesn’t always succeed in blending the two themes together. There are moments where “Da 5 Bloods” feels torn between which issue it’s going to tackle or how to manage both in unison and these minor failures stick out even more thanks to how well the rest of the film captures this blending of ideas. Overall though the good far outweighs the bad and I feel like the only people who won’t like this movie are those who are already determined to dislike it or who find Spike Lee’s particular style and to be contrary to their personal tastes.
These small issues do nothing to detract from how great “Da 5 Bloods” is as I still consider it one of the best Spike Lee joints I’ve had the pleasure to experience. “BlacKkKlansman” was an incredible film but “Da 5 Bloods” ups the ante by taking Lee’s talent for social commentary and bringing it beyond the racial issues of the United States and forcing viewers to also understand how we’ve mistreated Vietnam veterans and forgotten the role many races have played in building this great country. It’s a daring and inspired feature that feels right at home in Lee’s filmography and showcases the immense talents of every performer involved. Even though there’s some room for improvement and I wouldn’t call it an unquestionably flawless picture, “Da 5 Bloods” is a perfectly timed and unyielding eye-opener meant to fuel the flames of America’s ongoing cultural awakening and does so with vigor and determination.