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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Spike Lee goes to Vietnam with his politically muddled war movie <i>Da 5 Bloods</i>

Spike Lee goes to Vietnam with his politically muddled war movie Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee’s cultural messaging for once fails him in the politically muddled Da 5 Bloods. With the film, Lee offers his submission to a history of bloodied, masculine Vietnam War movies. Sadly, he’s more concerned with making a Vietnam movie that looks Black than one that actually takes on the complexities of Blackness, war, and global imperialism. The original screenplay, written by Danny Bilson and the late Paul De Meo, was intended to be a story about four white soldiers, and that seems to drive the film’s tonal disconnect. Lee partners with Kevin Willmott, his BlacKkKlansman co-writer, to center Black male soldiers, but only in the most superficial way.

Set mostly in the present day but with flashbacks to the ’60s, Da 5 Bloods follows Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), four vets who return to Vietnam to retrieve the body of their fallen brother, Norman, and a bunch of gold they hid during the war. As soldiers, they formed a bond and began referring to themselves as Da Bloods. While the gold the men hid was intended as payment to a native tribe, Lee’s film decides they deserve it because they were victims of hypocrisy: They fought for freedoms abroad that they did not receive in America as Black men. Upon arrival, the men journey through the Vietnamese wilderness, where they’re forced to come to terms with what they actually do deserve—an approach that’s worked for some of the war films Lee references throughout Da 5 Bloods. Bilson and DeMeo provide the foundation for a fairly generic parable on war: The men face their demons and come to terms with the past. They question each other but ultimately build a deeper friendship.

Lee uses a cast that’s familiar with his style. Peters and Whitlock Jr., former castmates on The Wire, are particularly delightful. The two swagger around the country as unbridled old war heroes and provide the film’s most entertaining moments. Lewis, making his debut in a Spike Lee joint, is less successful with Da 5 Bloods’ tonal dissonance. There’s a theatricality to his performance that works when humor is required, but he lacks the gravity to always convincingly deliver Lee’s more dramatic dialogue.

Lee makes direct references to films like Bridge On The River Kwai, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, and Apocalypse Now but ignores the more complex subtext that a Black Vietnam War movie could offer on its own. As in Lee’s previous stab at combat cinema, Miracle At St. Anna, the focus is on absolving Black soldiers within the context of a white war, but that doesn’t work. Films like Apocalypse Now condemned both the system and its soldiers as villains capable of evil. Da 5 Bloods fails because it refuses to be as harsh with the atrocities its Black characters have committed. There is a deeper darkness to be explored when Blackness is at the heart of the matter.

Da 5 Bloods ignores more difficult subject matter to instead celebrate patriotic Black moments in U.S. war history. At one point, Otis remarks that it’s unfair Black Vietnam veterans were called babykillers when they returned home while veterans from previous wars were celebrated. Later, Lee shows a montage of the atrocities committed at the Huế massacre as the men admit they were there. It’s odd that Lee is willing to use images of murdered children but refuses to have any of the men engage in meaningful discussion around their own role in that violence. It’s even more confusing when Lee uses a quick photo and history lesson on Crispus Attucks to suggest the Bloods are heroes of equal stature.

Paul, played by Lee regular Lindo, is a racist Black Trump supporter. The actor has the most experience handling Lee’s tangents and soliloquies and does his best with Paul’s unclear characterization. While Paul could serve as an example of the violence Black men are capable of producing on behalf of white power systems, Lee refuses to address this too. Instead, Paul is a sympathetic figure, whose blatant racism and support of Trump is written off as the product of PTSD and poverty rather than addressed as anything truly insidious. The film’s only explanation for Paul’s horrific behavior seems to be that he just needed therapy.

Lee’s usual directorial choices, which showcased injustice in films like Do The Right Thing and Crooklyn, fall short in Da 5 Bloods. Images of Aretha Franklin and real historical Black war protestors don’t do enough to absolve Eddie, Otis, Paul, and Melvin of the acts we see them commit. Lee understands that war and American imperialism are part of the same system that violates Black communities across the country, but he somehow also believes the five soldiers at the center of Da 5 Bloods deserve to be glorified even as they enact violence across present-day Vietnam. Instead of contemplating the hypocrisies of these men, Lee spotlights larger villains like the French and global racism, as if to suggest that this makes it easier to watch five Black vets kill Vietnamese officers.

Additionally, the montage of Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis, and Malcolm X speeches that begins the film proves Lee does know better: The Bloods didn’t fight for democracy abroad, they allowed themselves to be tools of the American war machine, and now they’re back to get their gold and do it again. During one flashback, when the Bloods find out Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated, they’re moved to quit the fight against Vietnam by Hanoi Hannah, the North Vietnamese propaganda radio personality. They’re calmed by their leader, Stormin’ Norman (played by Chadwick Boseman), who says they can’t allow the Vietnamese to use their anger against America. Even though Norman is considered the political leader of the group—the gang’s “Malcolm and Martin”—his words amount to platitudes. While the surviving Bloods remark on his genius and inspirational leadership, it’s difficult to see him as anything but another terrified soldier in his few scenes.

Illustration for article titled Spike Lee goes to Vietnam with his politically muddled war movie Da 5 Bloods
Photo: Netflix

Da 5 Bloods foregoes CGI de-aging (or the simple act of casting younger actors) in its flashbacks. In an interview with The New York Times, Lee said this choice was, in part, to show the physical impact of war on veterans, but also it was simply due to the fact that Netflix didn’t give him the money. Either way, it’s a choice that doesn’t work. Boseman simply looks young and childish educating elders like Lindo, Peters, Lewis, and Whitlock Jr. on the battlefield. Lee’s script doesn’t give Boseman much to do outside of this confused, Christ-like characterization and never exposes Norman’s own naïveté. Despite everything, Lee insists these men are heroes.

Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors, from The Last Black Man In San Francisco), joins Da Bloods as the film’s stand-in for younger generations of Black men who don’t understand the reality of war. David is a Morehouse graduate and is mostly around for comic relief. When a group of Europeans blame America for electing Trump, he delivers a speech saying it’s not Black people’s fault Trump got elected, even though his own father proudly wears a MAGA hat that he never addresses. While Da Bloods are seen as heroes, the film offers little respect or admiration for younger generations, despite a quick Black Lives Matter reference near the end.

Without a clear political message, Da 5 Bloods is forced to rely on the strength of its narrative as a buddy movie; it benefits from being viewed more as a celebration of Black male bonding than a war picture. The film wonders what it would be like if Black soldiers had the chance to be Rambo, and the answer is largely unsatisfying. While Da 5 Bloods uses realistic flashbacks (shot on era-appropriate 16mm), its modern setting further illuminates the duplicity of its message. This is not an interesting look at the intersection of Blackness and imperial power; it’s just a gory war movie about veterans who go on a looting mission with the full support of the United States behind them.

Ashley Ray-Harris is a stand-up comic and writer.