Da 5 Bloods: Spike Lee brings the Vietnam War home

Lee’s bravura, brakeneck war drama follows the blood line of America’s racial wrongs, from the Civil Rights era to Black Lives Matter.

Da 5 Bloods (2020)

▶︎ Da 5 Bloods is on Netflix.

Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods fires shots at American revisionism of the Vietnam War through the viewfinder of African-American soldiers. Using his now familiar Brechtian storytelling style, Lee continually breaks the fourth wall, mixing archive footage, stills photography and fiction to link past and present and weaving a tale in which a turbulent father-and-son relationship and the murder of Civil Rights leaders is an allegory for historical American wrongs leading to the Black Lives Matter movement.

In this Vietnam-set adventure, Paul (Delroy Lindo) arrives at a Ho Chi Minh City hotel with his best pal Otis (Clarke Peters), where they meet with two men who they fought alongside, Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and businessman Eddie (Norm Lewis). Ostensibly, they have reconnected to recover the body of a fallen soldier, their squad leader Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) – but really, they just want the gold they buried alongside him.

While Lee gives a Vietnamese perspective of ‘The American War’, involving tales of broken families and post-war Communist re-education of Southerners, he still manages to underuse his Vietnamese characters. Admittedly, he does this less than movies the film implicitly praises – an overkill of Apocalypse Now references – or the many awful crackpot revisionist movies with white soldier hero narratives damned by the characters (“those fugazi Rambo movies”).

Da 5 Bloods (2020)

Da 5 Bloods is quite some undertaking. By and large Lee succeeds, even if along the way the story hits some cul-de-sacs with cursory plotting involving Jean Reno’s evil trafficker, the work of landmine removal, and a pot of gold taken straight out of John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Where the film does chime magnificently is in the performance of Delroy Lindo as Paul, and the suggestion that past failings undermine present-day relationships. The opening salvo, featuring archive footage from America and Vietnam from the late 60s and 70s, including speeches by Muhammed Ali, Kwame Ture and Angela Davis, feels like it could be for a Black Lives Matter rally. Here, Lee asks the audience to make a connection between Paul’s failure to come to terms with his past, which has led to him voting for Trump, and America’s inability make reparations for slavery and its murder of black citizens leading to the Trump presidency.

Fractured filial relationships have been a feature of Lee’s movies from the get-go. In his 1986 debut, She’s Gotta Have It, Lee’s real-life father Bill Lee (a jazz musician who composed the score for the director’s first four films) plays the father who Nola Darling disappoints by quitting piano. In 1994’s semi-autobiographical Crooklyn, the father – here called Woody – is so wrapped up in his musical pursuits that he doesn’t pay the electricity bill. Woody is played by Lindo, the paternal heart of Da 5 Bloods.

Here, Lee offers two tales about fathers. The one the movie is less interested in sees Otis visit old flame Tiên (Lê Y Lan) and discovering that he sired a daughter, Michon (Sandy Huong Pham), who as a mixed-race child grew up bearing the brunt of racist abuse.

Da 5 Bloods (2020)

The second comes with the unexpected arrival of Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors), heralding the film’s crucial conflict, one as contentious as the basketball battles between Denzel Washington and Ray Allen in Lee’s He Got Game (1998).

Songs from Marvin Gaye’s seminal album What’s Going On (1971) serve as a constant reminder of the black experience in America. Paul leads the guys singing What’s Happening Brother as they re-enter the jungle, stepping back into the past. (Pertinently, given the turbulent father-son relationship, Gaye was fatally shot by his dad in 1984.)

The savvy decision to allow the actors to play their younger selves in flashback sequences reinforces the film’s central thesis that past and present are intertwined. Paul’s PTSD, which sees him descend into the heart of darkness, is a reflection of America’s broken conscience. By closing with a Martin Luther King Jr. speech and an end-credit intertitle about his assassination, Lee – with mixed success – positions the Civil Rights leader as present-day America’s father, whose assassination is the country’s Rosebud.

Further reading

“Why fight for a country when they lynch you?” Spike Lee on Da 5 Bloods and American lies

Lee’s new action-adventure tale Da 5 Bloods negotiates landmines, snakes and a stash of buried loot as it reflects on the legacy of the Vietnam War. Here he talks about the experience of black American soldiers during the conflict and his determination to humanise the traditional demons of Hollywood cinema, the North Vietnamese.

By Christina Newland

“Why fight for a country when they lynch you?” Spike Lee on Da 5 Bloods and American lies

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