Director: Spike Lee
Stars: Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Chadwick Boseman
First, a little bit of business
Before I get to my thoughts on the film, here are links to reviews written by Black film critics that I’ve found elsewhere with a quick search.
Leila Latif for Little White Lies
Odie Henderson for RogerEbert.com
Kambole Campbell for Empire Magazine
Travis Hopson for Punch Drunk Critics
Robert Daniels for The Playlist
Emma Simmonds for The List
Ashley Ray Harris for AV Club
Carla Renata for The Curvy Film Critic
Sharronda Williams for Pay or Wait
As usual I haven’t read anyone’s reviews yet, so as not to prejudice my own experience of the film, but I’ll be looking at the above properly once my post is up. If this site has been silent on Black Lives Matter and the ongoing struggles worldwide for justice and equality, it has simply been because this didn’t seem like the best platform. Movies are – generally speaking – trivial. I’m a privileged white male living on the Devon coast in the UK. My reach is small. My viewpoint isn’t the most profound or necessary at this moment. Sometimes listening is better.
Still, I want to support Black film critics and their position in the current arena of film criticism. Hence the links above, featured prominently on this review because, well, it’s a new Spike Lee Joint and within it’s sprawl are thoughts and feelings on the Black experience in America. I’m sure my more capable and qualified peers have erudite thoughts to bring to the table. I encourage you to read along with me.
Now my for bit
Now entering his fifth decade at the forefront of American filmmaking, Spike Lee shows little sign of slowing down. America is a complex place and articulating its traumas, conflicts and contradictions can be a daunting task. Clean soundbites aren’t easy, and frequently don’t do justice to those ellipses, footnotes and caveats that make the place so fascinating (and terrifying). Still, Lee has risen to the challenge time and again, from the likes of Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X and Clockers through to his recent critical and commercial hit BlacKkKlansman. His career at large tells us that there are many ways of approaching what it means to be a Black American, and he’s not through yet.
His latest – available to stream on Netflix now – is a Vietnam epic of a different stripe.
Four aging Bloods reunite in modern day Vietnam – veterans of the war coming together again for a belated and personal mission that’ll take them back into the jungle. The absent fifth is part of their reason for coming together. Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) never made it out of Country back in the day. They’re returning to reclaim his body… and also the considerable stockpile of gold that they, as a group, buried in them there hills.
Norman is seen in flashbacks, where he is flanked by the actors playing the four living members; Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Otis (Clarke Peters) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.). He speaks with passion and principle, convincing his friends with ease that seizing the gold for themselves is an act of reparation. Norman’s ideology will become muddied in the minds of some of his comrades over the years, as we shall see.
Brotherhood is a powerful thing and a major theme at play here, as the older platoon members become reacquainted and ready for their journey into the past. Lee scales his film as an epic. It’s an hour before these men get out on their quest proper. That hour lays in the character dynamics and allows these actors to flex. Particularly Delroy Lindo and Clarke Peters – both great character actors here given gifts that rank among the choicest in their respective careers.
Lindo’s Paul is hypnotic. A Trump-voting, MAGA-hat wearing bear of a man, losing a battle of wills with PTSD. He drives all of this forward from a position of knotted pain that only truly becomes known toward the film’s end. Joining them as an unofficial and unexpected fifth member is Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) – a further open wound that Paul struggles to cauterise. His fellow Bloods are more chilled, and Peters’ Otis is frequently their combined voice of reason, himself discovering new links to Vietnam that he had not formerly anticipated.
This opening section is the film’s cleanest (in spite of Lee’s penchant for messy and distracting ratio changes). It plays like a combination of travelogue and road movie. Imagine, perhaps, an old timer’s Stand By Me reunion and you’re close to the spirit here. Or, if we remain in Stephen King territory, the grown-ups reuniting in IT. These men may have grown older separately but when reunited they’re a unit. At least, until they find what they’re looking for…
Said discovery comes early in the back half of Da 5 Bloods, placing us on the back foot – what else is there to do? Plenty, it turns out, as the film becomes a fractious and increasingly bloody account of how greed begets selfishness, suspicion and violence. And, as Paul’s flimsy relationship to sanity slackens further, the Vietnamese jungle becomes hell all over again. It may be a wounded stagger to the finish line, but Lee commits to it with a confidence that steers us through. His film isn’t a Vietnam war flick in the sense we’ve come to expect. The bare minimum is set back in the day. It isn’t a period piece. Instead he brings the same sense of brokenness to the present, as though the spirit of past chaos is inflicting itself on those who have dared to dig up its bones. Da 5 Bloods envisions war as a possessing spirit. Madness is inevitable.
The film is – as to be expected from Lee – bracketed by pointed allusions to both the past and the present, and the ways in which Black America has been failed by the majority. There’s a strong sense of the Vietnam war itself being a trauma inflicted disproportionately on young Black men by a country that viewed them as a disposable workforce. At worst canon fodder. What are the appropriate reparations for that? How do you quantify the cost? Is it a net amount per individual, or is it redistribution back into the cause?
These are further questions Lee places at our feet while watching. His cinema has always had this sense of confrontation about it. He may tell us stories and entertain us, but he also looks us in the eye – his characters as his proxy. It’s part of what makes his work feel urgent, even when it’s a little rough around the edges, as is the case here some of the time. If Da 5 Bloods isn’t peak Spike Lee, it’s in the upper bracket of whatever comes after that and a reckoning that this man isn’t through talking to us. And Delroy Lindo’s work here ought to be recognised come statuette season.