New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: BLACK SOLDIERS’ LIVES MATTER IN “DA 5 BLOODS”

Original caricature by Jeff York of filmmaker Spike Lee flanked by his cast of DA 5 BLOODS. (copyright 2020)

In any other week, the opening of Spike Lee’s new movie DA 5 BLOODS, about four African-American senior citizens who return to Viet Nam to retrieve a fellow soldier’s bones, would generate a ton of buzz. Lee’s that kind of filmmaker, one whose every film is an event due to his artistry and searing social commentary. That this, his 24th film, happened to open as the Black Lives Matter protests are at the forefront of the news is uncanny in its timing as well as all it has to contribute to the examination of how America treats black men. This is a vital and intense film, original and affecting, making a powerful case that black soldiers’ lives have never mattered enough to a nation that repeatedly asks them to fight its wars.

Lee’s story, co-scripted with Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, and Kevin Wilmott, has four African-American veterans journey back to the former war zone to find the remains of Norm (Chadwick Boseman, their fallen friend. The five called themselves “Da 5 Bloods” back in the late ’60s during their tour of duty, and the living members now have varied feelings about their lives after the war. Eddie (Norm Lewis) has become an upbeat and successful business, looking at the get-together almost like a class reunion. Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock, Jr) is boisterous and brash, wanting to enjoy Ho Chi Minh City the way he couldn’t back in the day. Otis (Clarke Peters) is a sweetheart, but also secretive as he has some unfinished business to attend to with his former Vietnamese lover Tien (Le Y Lan).

The last Blood, Paul (Delroy Lindo), is a haunted and angry man who has never been able to get past the war. He still loathes the Vietnamese with a frightening fervor and is furious at the way he was treated by the States when he came home from doing his duty. His bitterness has turned him into an angry, MAGA-hat wearing hard-ass, and his rage gets triggered at a moment’s notice. He almost comes to blows over a stray chicken on a riverboat, and his fury isn’t exactly vanquished when his adult son David (Jonathon Majors) shows up in Viet Nam as well. His son ends up rounding out the group about to trek into the jungle for their mission. Adding additional intrigue is a cache of CIA gold that went down in a helicopter crash during Da Blood’s tour, one that they’re anxious to find as well.

Before their journey,  tour guide Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen) remarked that once you’re in a war, it never really ends, and that’s certainly true here. Memories and guilt keep the men fighting with each other and the flashbacks of their combat only add to the angst. As if all that isn’t difficult enough to manage, soon da Bloods are having to fight off some greedy locals who are interested in getting their hands on the gold as well.

Lee throws a lot into the mix including tones that vary from the comedic to the tragic, and genres from action-adventure to character study. The filmmaker weaves in lots of newsreel footage from the ’60s too, turning the film into a clever history lesson too. He also includes all kinds of still photos, pop culture clips, and searing commentary from the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali, and Angela Davis about America’s oppression of people of color both at home and abroad. There are also some cheeky references to classic films like THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and APOCALYPSE NOW too.

It is all consummate Spike Lee and it works. His daring pays off brilliantly when he showcases the flashback scenes with his aged actors playing the war scenes along with the decades younger Boseman. It plays because such is the memories of these old men and the war is still within them.

Additionally, Lee’s rich color palette, clever use of period music, and needling sense of humor are vividly present too. (One of his better laughs is when Lee refers to you-know-who in the film as “President Fake Bone Spurs.”) And the director’s handling of his cast is excellent as always. Of course, Whitlock, Majors, Lewis, and Peters are stand-outs, but Lee does well by all his supporting players too including Jean Reno as a conniving French businessman, and Melanie Thierry, Paul Walther Hauser, and Jasper Paakkonen as student activists trying to rid the world of land mines.

The most praiseworthy performance belongs to veteran character actor Lindo. He gives a career-best turn as the true antagonist in the plot, a performance that should make him a major Best Actor contender come awards season. Even while wearing his red MAGA hat, and demonstrating as much bigotry as he’s rallying against, Paul is never an out-and-out villain. Rather, he’s a tragic figure, a man so lost in his past that he cannot see the present. For a number of late scenes in the film, Lee has Lindo talk directly to the camera, a gamble that could’ve come off as too self-conscious, but it works wholly because Paul is railing at the world, no matter who is his audience.

DA 5 BLOODS is riveting 2 hours and 34 minutes, one of Netflix’s finest films yet. It will stay with you, not just because of its gut-punch dramatics, but because Lee brilliantly drives home just how awful our nation has treated black men for centuries. He also draws a direct line from Nixon’s ‘law and order’ mantle in the 7os to Trump’s similar posturing today. Bullying, Lee argues, is hardly heroic, be it as a tenet of our foreign policy or in our police forces. The veterans in DA 5 BLOODS earned their moniker of hero, even if for them, the war never really ended.

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