Spike Lee, when he’s in the zone, is never boring. I’d rather Lee make a million uneven, ambitious works like Da 5 Bloods than whatever he was doing with the remake of Oldboy. While his latest feature isn’t as tightly crafted as his Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman, Lee continues to show he’s one of America’s most necessary filmmakers as he turns his attention to the paradox of African-Americans fighting for a country that has betrayed them at every turn. The central question Da 5 Bloods seeks to explore is how it’s possible to build a better future when the demons of the past are always present, not solely in the context of war and trauma, but also the traumatic scars of being black in America. While Lee’s exploration isn’t always successful, its vast scope and excellent performances, especially from Delroy Lindo, make for a compelling experience.
Paul (Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), and Otis (Clarke Peters) fought alongside their commander “Stormin’ Norman” (Chadwick Boseman) in the Vietnam War. During a tour of duty, they discovered a cache of gold intended to pay off the Vietnamese. The soldiers decide to bury the gold and retrieve it after the war, but Norman is killed in combat and then the valley was napalmed so they lost all their markers. However, a recent mudslide has revealed the possible location of the gold, so the surviving members of the Bloods go searching for both the gold and Norman’s remains, with Paul’s estranged son David (Jonathan Majors) coming along for the ride. As the men return to the jungles where they fought, old wounds resurface and getting the gold out of the country becomes the least of their problems.
The film starts with the turmoil of the 60s and 70s to reflect our current moment because Da 5 Bloods is primarily concerned with ghosts of the past haunting the present. For his protagonists, there’s their individual pasts like Paul’s strained relationship with David, Otis’ love affair with a Vietnamese prostitute, or how the group still grieves the loss of Norman, who they say “was our Malcolm and our Martin.” Norman represents revolutionary 1970s ideals, and yet the men have drifted away from that to varying degrees to the point where Paul is now a Donald Trump supporter (Paul’s “Make America Great Again” hat becomes a cursed object of sorts throughout the story). The question posed to these men as they go looking for the gold is what kind of future will they plan to build when the past is always present?
There’s a lot happening with Da 5 Bloods, and it constantly threatens to collapse the movie under its own weight. The theme of how black people have been fighting and dying for America ever since Crispus Attucks is enough to sustain a single feature, but it’s merely one thematic thread in the tapestry Lee seeks to weave here. The film also explores American culpability in the Vietnam War and how Vietnam may have rebuilt and moved on economically, but the scars still linger between the two countries, whether it’s from the American veterans or the descendants of Vietnamese who fought and died in the war. Reclaiming the gold also becomes a reparations story of sorts where the Bloods are taking money that should go to black people but was being pissed away on a futile war effort. And then there’s the story of legacy as various members of the Bloods consider what they want their futures to be.
When you take all of these ideas into account, it makes sense that the film runs over two-and-a-half hours, and yet I can’t help but feel like Da 5 Bloods would be stronger if it had narrowed its focus a bit. However, it’s clear that Lee feels that these ideas are all connected. He’s not wrong, but the connective tissue isn’t always there, and the story sometimes feels spread a bit thin as a result. Characters like Melvin and Eddie don’t get much texture because so much attention is paid to Paul and David along with all the racial and political ideas Lee wants to address directly.
Thankfully, Lee’s maturity and skill as a director manages to hold Da 5 Bloods together as he uses the filmmaking to match his ambition. For example, rather than try to digitally de-age his actors, he cleverly keeps them at their present-day ages in the flashback scenes to show that the war has never really left them. Sure, it saves money on VFX, but it also adds thematic weight to the past/present/future conflict that Lee explores in the rest of the movie. Lee also remains unflinching as always and there are some graphic and disturbing historical images of dead Vietnamese children to hammer home that this isn’t a story where American heroes come back and reclaim what’s theirs while Vietnamese people simply serve as background.
But the strongest element of the film is the cast, and Lindo is the standout. Paul is the most complicated character, a black Trump supporter, and while the movie starts out by joking about this seeming incongruity, the film works to add depth and texture to Paul to show where his wounds and damage come from, not only from the war, but from a transactional view of humanity where even his relationship with his son is based on what his son can do for him. In a lesser film, it would be easy to write off Paul as a villain, but Lee and Lindo clearly have a lot of sympathy for the character’s complexities, and it makes him one of the richest figures to ever grace a Lee movie.
You never know what you’re going to get with a filmmaker like Lee. He’s so prolific and his interests so varied yet linked that sometimes you get something fantastic like Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, or BlacKkKlansman and other times you get something inexplicable like Oldboy or Red Hook Summer. He’s impossible to pin down, and in that way, Da 5 Bloods is a quintessential Spike Lee joint. It may not be among his best features, but it shows him continually wrestling with big ideas about race, history, and America, and right now, we need stories like this. Lee may not always win the fight, but I’m glad he’s in the arena.
Da 5 Bloods is now streaming on Netflix.