Three decades into his career, Spike Lee has returned with a film that questions the legacy of Vietnam. It might be his most relevant yet. Donate to Black Lives Matter here.
“I wish I could turn back the hands of time, but I can’t. Nobody can.” Paul (Delroy Lindo).
Could Da 5 Bloods, the latest offering from polemical director Spike Lee, have been released at a more appropriate moment? It is a film about history; about how it is written and recollected, and how this influences the lived experience of the present. Through a mixture of subject matter and fortuitous timing it has truly captured the zeitgeist.
A description of the plot may not initially relay this. The narrative takes the form of a heist movie, as a group of four black veterans return to Vietnam in search of gold that they buried decades earlier. At times the tone verges on comedic, with early scenes eerily reminiscent of 2017s elderly-crime-caper Going in Style. I maintain that that movie should have been called Octogenarian’s 11.
Da 5 Bloods moves beyond this territory through its characters. Each of the four ‘Bloods’ has a distinct personality that plays off the others. The most striking of these is the Maga-hat-wearing, Trump-voting Paul (Delroy Lindo), who resents his son (Jonathan Majors), and has translated his PTSD into an erratic political outlook. It might be slightly problematic to attribute political opinions to mental illness, but he is believably complex and has the film’s most satisfying arc. The group is rounded out with the sensible one, Otis (Clarke Peters), the successful one, Eddie (Norm Lewis), and the comedian, Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.).
It may have been noted that, in contrast to the film’s title, this only amounts to four. That’s because the fifth member never made it home. Apart from retrieving the gold, the group have also returned to ‘Nam to find the remains of their fallen comrade. Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) is a totemic figure for the Bloods, the man who taught them about black history, a history that they, as black men, were largely oblivious to. Norman, through his death, becomes a part of this history in the form of a martyr. Lee emphasises this by drawing attention to other black martyrs such as Crispus Attucks, who was killed in the Boston Massacre of 1770. And like Attucks, he is largely forgotten.
But not for the Bloods. His ghost haunts their dreams; his voice reverberates through their heads, shaping their outlooks and actions. For them, he is as much of the present as the past. The return to Vietnam is resultantly a journey of reconciliation, an attempt to come to terms with the past in order to understand not just the present but also the future. This requires a reappraisal of what has come before. As the Bloods carry out their quest they quite literally dig up the past, and this is a process that proves to be both volatile and explosive.
As he did in 2018s BlacKkKlansman, Lee utilises historical footage to conflate the 1960s civil rights movement with the present day. What is new here however is the films conversation not just with the legacy of Vietnam, but also the legacy of Vietnam movies. While the group are partying in Ho Chi Minh City they visit a nightclub called Apocalypse Now. What was once incendiary is now safe enough to be the name of a business.
If this implies the Vietnam War is over, Lee undercuts this through a shifting aspect ratio. While present day scenes are shot in widescreen, flashbacks feature a narrow 1.33.1. This provides a distinct sense of time and place. The stroke of genius here is to keep the same actors, with no de-ageing technology, in the flashbacks. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Yet perhaps Da 5 Bloods most subversive element is its diverse cast. In response to the primarily white cinematic lineage of Vietnam movies, Lee attempts to give a voice to the voiceless through a focus on the black lives that were lost and forgotten. He even switches sides and includes a scene in which, instead of discussing killing, members of the Viet Cong discuss poetry. Is this revisionism, or is it an attempt to get closer to the truth? Da 5 Bloods answers with the latter.
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