Sometimes a movie finds its moment. Other times, a director has been making visionary work for 35 years, and the moment finally catches up to him. I don’t know if “Da 5 Bloods” is actually one of Spike Lee’s best films. His films are always good, be they fiction, documentary, or marketing (he’s made some of the best TV ads I’ve ever seen). It’s when race relations offscreen start to simmer and boil that his films feel extra vital.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Lee was seen as the father of a new crop of black filmmakers responding to urban crime and police violence with films like Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” as well as “Boyz N the Hood” and “Menace II Society.” In 2006, “When the Levees Broke,” his documentary on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, was seen as an important rebuke to the Bush administration’s failure to protect black communities. Fast forward to 2018, when his “BlacKkKlansman” was celebrated as his response to escalation of white nationalism under the Trump administration. It’s a reading of Lee as a filmmaker who responds in real time that e himself caters to; he tacked on to the end of “BlacKkKlansman,” which was set in the 1970s, archival footage from the recent white nationalism rally in Charlottesville just to drive his point home.
In between he made a dozen other visionary films, so it’s hard to know exactly how high to rank “Da 5 Bloods,” an operatic ode to black pain that seems to encompass four hundred years of suffering, while also responding to this exact moment. The story is irresistibly simple: Four Vietnam veterans return to the site of a traumatic battle, after 50 years, to recover stolen gold. They were supposed to deliver it to the Vietnamese but after losing one of their own in a sneak attack, they decided to bury it and keep it for themselves. It’s a messy but mesmerizing film of intense feelings, and it vacillates between moods at a slapstick pace. One minute you’ll be laughing along with old friends. The next, there is a gruesome death. Blink again, and your heart will be roused by an image of pure and unfiltered love.This is not a film a white director could have made.
It opens, much as his last film closed, with a montage of real-life racial violence in America and abroad, featuring footage of Muhammad Ali, the Kent State shootings, and the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém. From there, we flash forward to meet our four heroes, played by longtime character actors Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. They play four of the five “bloods,” an all-black battalion in Vietnam. In the present day, they meet up in Ho Chi Minh City to begin a journey to recover the gold they buried, along with the remains of Norman (played by Chadwick Boseman in flashback), the fifth Blood, who they lost fifty years prior.
Lee films their journey as a mosaic of the black American experience with a postmodern bent. He has never been shy about acknowledging his influences – the famous “Love vs. Hate” speech from “Do the Right Thing” was a clear tip of the hate to Robert Mitchum in “The Night of the Hunter” – and here he includes overt references to “Apocalypse Now,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” For some viewers, this might be distancting, taking you out of the movie just as you’re starting to feel immersed, but for Lee, that’s clearly the point. Watching “Da 5 Bloods” is a lot like living your life. It would be a lot easier to feel things if you weren’t so distracted by pop culture’s constant narration.
Some of its references are more incisive. Early in the film, one character laughingly contrasts their journey to all those return-to-Vietnam films of the 1980s, in which vets played by Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris went back to the battlefield to rescue imaginary POWs. Those films were comfort food to Americans who were shamed over the first war they didn’t win. Lee frames “Da 5 Bloods” as both a subversion of those films – they’re trying to rescue a dead man’s remains instead of a prisoner – and a glorious homage. In the action-heavy second half, however, the soldiers engage in gun battles that wouldn’t look out of place in a Rambo movie.
It’s a startling contradiction, but that is what we have come to expect from a filmmaker who put dueling quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X on the need for violence in achieving racial justice at the end of “Do the Right Thing.” Has there ever been a filmmaker who disagreed so openly with himself? Here, the protagonists of “Da 5 Bloods” are heroes but also thieves. The film argues that they deserve the money as reparations for years of racial injustice, but it also acknowledges that the Vietnamese might deserve it more. Then there are the land-mine activists they encounter on their journey, depicted as spoiled white kids, who also happen to be doing heroic, life-saving work.
Yes, it’s a film that speaks to our current moment, when black suffering has captured the attention of our nation. Still, its victories are somehow even broader. In this era of deep polarization, when a slight disagreement can feel like a personal attack, the deep formal, narrative, and thematic contradictions of “Da 5 Bloods” feel like a necessary shake-up. It’s a blazingly original movie and a persuasive argument that there is more than one way to look at history, the world, and ourselves.
Da 5 Bloods is available to stream on Netflix.