Spike Lee’s most recent feature film, BlacKkKlansman, which finally won the filmmaker an overdue competitive Oscar, was set in the 1970s but had a biting, traumatizing epilogue that brought the film into the present day, with Trump’s ‘very fine people on both sides’ speech and footage of Heather Heyer’s murder in Charlottesville. Reminding us that David Duke, played by Topher Grace in Lee’s film, had every reason to celebrate the rise of Trump in the lead up to the 2016 election. The 45th President of the USA, and what his occupancy of ‘da White House’ represents, is again present in Lee’s latest film, Da 5 Bloods, in the form of a Trump voting, MAGA hat wearing central character. The film launches on Netflix Friday June 12th and adds an urgent, vital and clear voice to the current national conversation focused on societal and institutional racism.
As the film opens we are immersed in archive footage of Black soldiers at war in Vietnam, juxtaposed with contemporary commentary from figures such as Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. on the way that African Americans are treated at home. Images of the protest filled streets of the 1960s are strikingly similar to the those we’ve seen over the past few weeks, as are scenes of the response by militarised police and the national guard, with Lee listing the names and ages of the protestors killed. As we head towards November 2020, Angela Davis’ words from November 1969 feel particularly relevant in her fear that “we may very well face a period of full blown fascism”, as does Bobby Seale’s April 1968 acknowledgement that Black men’s reward for fighting abroad in American wars, including Vietnam, has been not freedom in their own country, but “racist police brutality”. All of this over just a few minutes, set to one of the six Marvin Gaye songs used in the film, the soul stirring Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) from 1971’s What’s Going On, with the lyrics like ‘trigger happy policing’ echoing what’s on screen. It’s one of the most compelling, emotional and intellectually stimulating openings to a film I’ve seen in recent years.
Moving to present day, we meet four African American Vietnam veterans – Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) – who’ve decided to return to the country they fought in during the 70s to recover both the remains of their fallen squad leader Stormin’ Norm (played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman) and the case of gold they buried with him. The men are unexpectedly joined by Paul’s son (Jonathan Majors) who despite their complex relationship is concerned about his MAGA hat wearing father who has been particularly deeply affected by the loss of their former squad leader Norm. Movingly, each of the men reference their own experiences of PTSD that they’ve been living with over the past four decades. Just one aspect of the lasting affects of the war, along with fields filled with American landmines. As the film occasionally moves back and forth from the 70s to the present day, the actors remain the same, emphasising that these are the same men who fought in these battles, as well as conveying how our memories work; when we look back to situations we’ve been in, we tend to picture ourselves as we are now, no matter how many decades ago.
With excellent performances throughout, it is Delroy Lindo who delivers a truly exceptional one as Paul; beautifully layered, both terrifying and heartbreaking in equal measure, he becomes unnervingly confronting as some of his lines in his most tortured moments are delivered direct to camera. It’s a performance as worthy of awards recognition as they come, and whenever the Oscar ceremony might be held next year it’d be great to see him in the running.
With Da 5 Bloods, Lee joins a raft of highly acclaimed filmmakers in making his own Vietnam movie, albeit a highly unconventional one, with references to other iconic films such as Apocalypse Now, in both visual imagery and music. While its theme and plot can be read as a reworking of Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale and the literature and films it inspired by such as John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The characters themselves discuss Hollywood’s take on Vietnam vets with Rambo in First Blood. Meanwhile, Terence Blanchard’s original orchestral score feels intentionally overblown, perhaps a comment on the frequent glorification of war on film, but at times it becomes a little distracting from the action unfolding on screen. The richness of the film’s opening stays with you throughout, contributing to Da 5 Bloods not only succeeding as an entertaining action heist thriller, but also as a stinging commentary on the Vietnam war, its legacy and America’s continued mistreatment of its Black citizens. If you haven’t yet joined the current Black Lives Matter protests, and you are healthy and able, this might just be the catalyst to get you out on to the street.
By James Kleinmann
Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods launches on Netflix Friday June 12th.