DIRECTED BY: Spike Lee
STARRING: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman, Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, Veronica Ngo, Johnny Tri Nguyễn, Lê Y Lan, Nguyễn Ngọc Lâm and Sandy Hương Phạm
Da 5 Bloods, the latest film from Spike Lee, focuses on four African-American Vietnam veterans (Paul, Otis, Eddie and Melvin) returning to Vietnam to find the remains of their fallen squad leader Norman Earl ‘Stormin’ Norm’ Holloway, buried out in the jungle and looking to bring him home to have a proper burial. That’s not their only goal however, as they’re also looking to find the gold that they buried near Stormin’ Norm.
After receiving an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his previous feature, BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee returns with his latest war drama Da 5 Bloods, which just become available on Netflix worldwide. The film focuses on four African-Americans that served in the Vietnam War, reuniting out in the country that they fought in long ago. With the unwelcome arrival of Paul’s son David, the group set out to the jungle in order to find the remains of their fallen squad leader and friend Stormin’ Norm, while also looking to find the suitcase of gold that they discovered and buried out there over thirty years ago.
There have been a number of films based around the subject of the Vietnam War, but thankfully Da 5 Bloods is told through the prospective of African-American’s who served in that war and, like a number of Spike Lee’s films before, this film feels timely with the current social climate today. This isn’t Spike Lee’s first film on the subject of war (2008’s Miracle of St. Anna), here he limits the scenes of the Vietnam War and focuses on the character-driven drama story of the four veterans, highlighting how they were drafted to serve for their country, whilst their fellow African-Americans were fighting for civil rights, as well as the protests against the Vietnam War, and how that affected them personality and mentally when they returned home and how little changed. The film provides some archive footage to blend with the discussions amongst Paul, David, Otis and Eddie, talking about the history of African-American history, from Crispus Attucks being the first person in the Boston Massacre during the American Revolution, to Milton Olive III being the first African-American to be awarded the Medal of Honor and Purple Heart in Vietnam, as well as in one important scene, the squad during their time in Vietnam when they learn through Vietnam broadcast radio that Dr. Martin Luther King is assassinated back home, with the Vietnamese presenter asking them, “Black American soldiers, what are you fighting for?” It’s a historical moment that I never thought or learned about and, always the way with Spike Lee, is that he’s placing in these moments of historical background in for us to witness because as the war has ended, the people involved have changed, yet the question today still remains the same.
The film focuses on the journey of these four men and points to them, in some way, having their own form of PTSD, though the one that remains the more level-headed appears to be Otis, and the film seems to highlight that point in how he seems during first during one night that they set camp in the jungle and the rest are woken up by a noise off in the distance. Whether this was to show the difference of Otis’s demons with their own due to him being a medic during the Vietnam War or not is one that intrigued me after I finished watching the film. The one character that stands out however, is Delroy Lindo’s Paul, a MAGA-hat wearing, Trump supporter, whose PTSD has manifested itself to a level of which the rest of his friends can’t even relate to and he is an absolutely fascinating and tragic character to watch on screen and once his mental health deteriorates the further the film progresses, he just captures your attention with every bit of dialogue and every facial expression he delivers. For Delroy Lindo, a frequent collaborator with Spike Lee, he provides easily the best performance of the year for me so far, and I honestly can’t see five other actors being better than him come awards contention in the Best Actor category (even Best Supporting, but I wouldn’t put him in there). That’s not to say the rest of the cast aren’t as good, it’s just that Paul is the most complex character out of the group and Delroy Lindo just commands the screen and demands your attention. Clarke Peters is great as the level-headed Otis, Isiah Whitlock Jr. is also great as the married family man Melvin, and Norm Lewis is Eddie, the wealthy businessman that’s all smiles in reuniting with the group. Jonathan Majors is also really good as David, the son of Paul, and it’s interesting watching this love/hate relationship between him and Delroy Lindo unfold on screen. Chadwick Boseman is also really good as Stormin’ Norm, even though it’s a limited amount of screentime he has the presence to make you see exactly how his leadership and way of thinking was so impactful with the group, even decades later.
For all the great that’s in Da 5 Bloods, there is some aspects that didn’t really work with me. Considering the technology that we have today, it’s admirable that Spike Lee declined to try and use de-ageing technology when we go through the flashback sequences involving the group and Chadwick Boseman and while it’s initially jarring for the first few minutes, I easily got passed it, but I can see why some might be irritated by it. It helps that the aspect ratio changes with the flashback sequences to highlight the difference in the films timeline, framing in 4:3 on a 16mm camera, compared to the films digital cinematography in the present (though that aspect in the present changes from wide to 16:9 when the group go to enter the jungle). But the inclusion of the subplot of these group of white volunteers whose goal is to coal out the landmines in the jungle and how it intersects with the main story, didn’t really gel well enough for me to be invested in their characters, and also Jean Reno’s character is an interesting figure but still feels like I could’ve done with just a few more minutes about his motivations etc. in general.
A look into the Vietnam War from an African-American perspective, Da 5 Bloods is a confidently directed film from Spike Lee, with some great ensemble performances, but the standout, of course, is Delroy Lindo as Paul and he should easily be in contention come awards season.