A harsh welcome back to Vietnam.
Acclaimed Director Spike Lee's latest cinematic entry, Da 5 Bloods, is not only an agonizingly emotional tale of comradery, loss and war, but is also a loaded gun; firing on all cylinders when it comes to Americas morally absent history of imperialism, and its repeated and institutionalized discrimination against its black citizens.
Da 5 Bloods follows the story of four Vietnam war veterans, Eddy (Norm Lewis), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Otis (Clarke Peters) and Paul (Delroy Lindo), who reunite one more time in search of the remains of their squad leader, Stormin' Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and a stash of old CIA gold they stowed years prior. While the story starts as a fun and joyful reunion between old friends, this pleasant exterior is chipped away piece by piece, resulting in a feature that will take you on an emotional, intense, and thought-provoking journey, as we see these men struggle and reminisce on a past not long forgotten.
Lee does well to avoid the tropes of the Vietnam war movies of the past, by not really making Da 5 Bloods a war movie at all, instead using this as a way to commentate and dig deep on the effects of war; on those involved, and those not. From the very second the movie starts, Lee makes his position clear, drawing attention to the immorality and horrific nature of war, rather than glorifying and morally justifying it like many of the films that came before it tried to do. Perhaps most importantly, this is internalised by Delroy Lindo's character of Paul, who, among the eponymous Bloods, is the most deeply affected by their time in Vietnam. Paul is a stand out among the group, actively acting hostile towards his surroundings and the people in Vietnam, as though he still perceives the country as the enemy, even refusing to raise a glass in unity with two Vietnamese war veterans, who buy the group a drink in a bar. He openly admits to the group that he struggles with PTSD, but refuses to acknowledge the affect it has had on him and those around him, which results in him coming into conflict with his fellow Bloods, leading to a variety of questionable decisions and actions on his part throughout the film. In a movie full of fantastic performances, Lindo's portrayal as Paul has to be the stand out, as he delivers a powerful and intense portrayal of a broken man.
Lee also interweaves a variety of historical clips throughout the movie, which serve as an unexpected, yet welcome educational addition to the film. These clips range from the informative, to the outright horrifying, showing some of the atrocities committed by US troops in Vietnam, and the oppression of black communities by police back in America. The effect the war had on Vietnam is ever present, with the Bloods and locals alike constantly acknowledging the existence of the conflict which has left a lasting effect on the country and people, on both sides. The memory of not just the Vietnam War, but war itself is one that is ever present, and haunting, leaving a damaging and lasting effect in its wake, something that director Spike Lee makes abundantly clear.
Alongside the movies commentary on the nature of war, is also a look into American imperialism and the prevalent racial discrimination towards black citizens in the USA. A big part of what separates Da 5 Bloods from other films of its setting, is its subject matter, that being the role of the black community in the fighting of the Vietnam War. While many of white Americans were lucky enough to avoid being drafted into the US military, many within the black community in America weren't so lucky, making up the bulk of the American frontline in the Vietnam War. At the same time, back in the United states, the black civil rights movement was taking place with Dr Martin Luther King Jr. at the helm, which, following his assassination, led to nation wide protests and acts of violence; all the while black American troops fought in a foreign country, for a power that continued to oppress and de-value them. In one scene, we see the Bloods listening to a radio, where the Vietnamese broadcaster, Hanoi Hannah, addresses all of the black American troops, informing them of MLK's assassination and the consequences that followed, and asks them to question their loyalty and role in the war. Through this, Lee brings into question the importance of allegiance and the vague nature surrounding it, particularly for black communities in America, who were the first sent to fight a war against an enemy they had no animosity for, by a power that continually showed animosity towards them as a people. Many of these men sent into Vietnam were never recognised or rewarded for their service, something the Bloods often acknowledge throughout the movie, aware that they were effectively used as cannon fodder by an imperialist, and oppressive America. Lee's use of this underrepresented perspective makes this movie a uniquely relevant piece of film, especially in the current social climate, which makes it even more of a welcome addition to our screens.
The way the film is shot only reaffirms the level of quality Lee brings to this movie, with unique flashback sequences, stunning visuals and touches of cinematic callbacks. At several points in the movie, we are shown flashbacks to the Bloods in their youth, as soldiers in the Vietnam war, alongside their deceased squad leader, Norman. When we cut to these scenes, they are viewed through the lens of an old 1960's/70's era camera, square and grainy, making it feel as though you are watching a classic Hollywood Vietnam war film. Several of these scenes feature a lot of action too, with the Bloods fighting off an ambush of Vietnamese soldiers, accompanied by a heroic backtrack, making these scenes even more reminiscent of its cinematic predecessors. Notably, the surviving Bloods of the film in these sequences aren't made to look young, instead looking the same as they do during the present day of the movie, something I feel was deliberate on Lee's part, perhaps to show that these men are still in those moments they lived long ago, and that those moments have stayed with them for all their lives. The setting of the movie is also a departure from Lee's traditional colourful, urban aesthetic, instead showing us the present day Vietnam, from the bustling market canals, to the rice paddies and mountain valleys of the Vietnam Jungle, that while at times dull, is still beautifully shot and gorgeous to look at. The movie also features several visual nods to classic Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now, evident when the movies title is blatantly present behind a DJ set at the start of the film.
What also stands out about Da 5 Bloods, is the emphasis on comradery and friendship, and the importance of connection and unity. Despite the unfortunate circumstance of war which brought the Bloods together, it is also what made them so close, and something that made them more than soldiers, but also brothers. Much of this connection they share is influenced by their bond with their fallen Blood, Norman, and how he was not only a strong leader, but also a uniquely educated and progressive thinker among the Bloods. Normans death is something that haunts the remaining Bloods, and while it affects each member differently, all share the same goal; to get their fallen brother back home. From the first, to the last time we see them together, they are like one family, bonded by blood and a shared love; and while they often fight and come into conflict with each other, they still share that bond and love for one another, which is something that at many times throughout the movie is not only powerful, but deeply emotional.
Da 5 Bloods is not only a culmination of insightful and thought-provoking concepts, but also an emotional tale of brotherhood and loss, one that's not afraid to show a lot of heart. It is overwhelming in its level of emotionality, driving you to raise your fist in empowering celebration, while also investing you in the heartbreak, grief and anguish shared by the Bloods. Da 5 Bloods is not only a film for the ages, but importantly one for the modern age, asking the viewer to challenge the way we perceive our history and the affect it has had on society today, and beckons us to love and look out for one another, even in a world of hate.
Da 5 Bloods is streaming now, only on Netflix.