By Afra Nariman
Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Stars: Delroy Lindo, Chadwick Boseman, Jonathon Majors, Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Four African American veterans of the Vietnam War return to Vietnam to find the remains of their fallen squad leader and the gold fortune that they buried decades earlier.
Da 5 Bloods may be Spike Lee’s most ambitious film yet. It manages to be both an epic and a character study, action-packed and political, entertaining and meaningful. When I first saw the trailer to this film months before it released, I immediately thought of Muhammad Ali and his criticisms of the Vietnam War. As it happens, Lee begins the film with an extremely powerful montage beginning with an interview of Ali explaining why the war is wrong and why it didn’t make sense for he or any African Americans to go fight in that war. Ali’s video is followed by brutally real clips and photographs of real footage from the war, of black soldiers, of activists, protests and the numerous displays of police brutality of the time.
Before I seep further into the politics, meaning and depth of Da 5 Bloods, I want to bring attention to the brilliant production of the film. Lee writes and directs with such liveliness and energy. To match that energy, the film’s cinematography, sound and visuals are incredible as well. We see the landscapes of Vietnam, both the city and the jungle; and the film’s soundtrack dictates our varying moods and levels of emotion, intensity and engagement throughout the film. As the film depicts both the present and parts of the past from the characters’ time during the Vietnam War, the screen skillfully differs based on the two time periods illustrated in the film. When the past is being depicted, the screen shrinks into a square and there is a slight tint on the camera. All of these tactics help to make this film incredibly immersive and flow with a certain style.
The film’s objective is to bring to light the reality of African American soldiers during the Vietnam War. It is expressed numerous times throughout the film, by the characters themselves and in the flashback scenes, when the host of Radio Hanoi shines light on it as well: The Vietnam War was not their fight. Their fight was back home, in America. While they were fighting an immoral war for the rights and freedoms of people in another country, their brothers and sisters in America were still fighting for their own rights and freedoms, for their own lives. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, protests were breaking out in over 120 cities across the United States, and police brutality was a major issue that the black community was still (and is still today) facing. In a powerful moment towards the end of the film, Paul (played by Delroy Lindo) says to his captors, who are requesting that he give them the location of his friends and his son:
The experience of black soldiers in the Vietnam War must have been unimaginably difficult. Spike Lee did a beautiful job at providing us with a film that highlights just how difficult it was. Radio Hanoi also provides us with a statistic that African Americans at the time made up 11% of the U.S population, but 32% of American soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Radio Hanoi adds that nothing is more confused than to be ordered into a war to die when it isn’t your war and you yourself are not granted the rights you are fighting for.
Lee incorporates many educational moments throughout the film, both through the conversations between the characters and through actual videos and photographs that he includes in the film. These aspects of the film, provide us with information about the history and the plights of African Americans at the hands of the United States. The film also mentions many details of American history that are often ignored, forgotten or simply just not taught; such as the fact that George Washington owned hundreds of slaves.
Da 5 Bloods also shows us the long lasting effects that the war had on everyone involved, including the people of Vietnam. The numerous minefields that are still active around the country often handicap or even take the lives of citizens, including children. We get an up-close demonstration at just how devastating and scary these minefields are in the most intense and anxiety-inducing scene of the film. After Eddie unknowingly stumbles into one, everything is already extremely tense. Shortly after, David, Paul’s son steps on an active plate and what we see transpire for the next few minutes is one of the most intense, emotionally exhilarating scenes of any film you’ll watch.
Paul and David’s relationship is up-and-down the entire film, and it has been since the day that David was born. The evolving and unstable father-son relationship between Paul and David is another theme that the film focuses on at many points. Although the film is an extremely grand and all-encompassing epic in many respects, it is also a character study of Paul through its portrayal of his relationship with his son, his personal struggles with the past and present, and the slow deterioration of his mind because of it all.
Paul has lived a life of struggle and it was too much for him to handle. He was sent to fight in an immoral war while his fight was still in his own country, returned home with an extreme case of PTSD, his wife passed away, he has nightmares, and blames himself for the death of Stormin’ Norman, his squad leader and the 5th blood. He admittedly sees ghosts of him. He feels as if the world has let him down time and time again. At one point, he expresses his mental and spiritual problems to his friend, Otis:
In perhaps the peak moment of the film, during a monologue in which Paul is speaking to himself, he mentions the atrocities that he has lived through, many of which were perpetrated by the government. As he is trying to fight for his survival yet again, he says:
After his chaotic, yet poetically important monologue, Paul sees the ghost of Norm once again. Norm’s ghost forgives Paul for everything and Paul comes to terms with his past and his nightmares. Much of what he goes through in the film represents Lee’s portrayal of the very real and long lasting effect of PTSD that veterans come home with. Although the entire group has PTSD, Paul’s case is much more severe. In notable moments, we see Paul (and at times the others as well) react to things in a way that is caused by their condition. Paul’s multiple panic attacks/freak outs when being pushed into forced conversations or interactions with locals are very telling examples of the severity of his condition. Lee also uses Paul’s character in different ways, to take clever, subtle, but clear shots at the current occupants of the oval office, without once saying their name.
The last 20-30 minutes of Da 5 Bloods, which includes Paul’s iconic monologue, are extremely reflective and powerful. Leading up to an action-packed shootout, each character reflects. One quote, said by their Vietnamese guide, Vinh, encapsulates the overarching message and essence of the film and what Lee is ultimately conveying through each aspect of the film:
Whether it’s the reality of Vietnamese families and children who have been and are still affected by the lasting effects of the war, the active minefields that still claim the lives of many, or the inescapable nightmarish effect of PTSD; the Vietnam War is still asserting a negative impact on those affected by it.
The final montage of the film shows that the money from the gold they recovered is sent to the families of their fallen bloods and organizations such as Black Lives Matter and one that focuses on making life safer for people who are still being affected by the war. The song that is not only played multiple times throughout the film, but that’s energy pulses through the story, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, plays at the end once again, leading into a final clip of part of a speech by the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, where he quotes prominent African American poet Langston Hughes, who says:
Lee often ends his politically infused films with a powerful message that causes the audience to really think about the world we live in. After displaying the interview, the film concludes with a text that comes onto screen explaining that Dr. King was assassinated shortly after giving that speech. That is what we must think about. Dr. King spoke for African American rights and fought to create an America that was America for black people. He was met with violence and disdain. Today, people are still fighting for that reality.
The numerous real-life photographs, videos and informative dialogue makes Da 5 Bloods extremely educational, political and relevant. Often times, history, as it is taught in the classroom, ignores, forgets to mention or just skips over much of the truth. To fill in the gaps of history, we rely on art. Spike Lee is a staple in politically educational films. In Da 5 Bloods, his presence is felt deeply, both in the script and it’s production. His mind dictates the film’s arch and multiple meaningful messages. The story of the countless African American soldiers who fought in Vietnam is one of the details of history that we are often not told in full. Lee’s Da 5 Bloods provides a necessary portrayal of that reality, as well as highlights the tragedies and long lasting negative impacts that inherently come with war, especially a war like this one.
This film can be watched and thoroughly enjoyed as an action/adventure film about four friends on a hunt for a long lost treasure. The film’s production is superb, the scenery is immersive — it’s possible to watch the film that way and love it… The fact that it has so much underlying depth to it makes it that much greater. Da 5 Bloods is a film about family, brotherhood, and the consequences and sufferings that war entails. It highlights a side of the Vietnam war that we have not been exposed to nearly enough in cinema. Delroy Lindo’s performance as the broken and ailing Vietnam Veteran on the brink of a collapse into madness and chaos is especially spectacular — and is likely the strongest aspect of the film.