Da 5 Bloods is an intense look at the particular duality present in Black American psychology. The film drops at a time when the country is being forced to face how it has treated its marginalized masses. It follows a group of Black Vietnam veterans as they return ‘in-country’ to make good on their promise to retrieve the remains of their fallen squad leader and the treasure buried with him.
By no means is Da 5 Bloods a quintessential ‘Spike Lee joint’. There were four writers, including Spike, Oscar-winner Kevin Willmott, and video game industry legends Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo. Varied presentations of character and exposition throughout underscore the writing collaboration. To call the cast an all-star assembly would be a disservice to their performances. This is a Dream Team of melanated talent drawn from the annals of the last two decades of stage and screen. Clarke Peters (The Wire, Treme), Norm Lewis (Phantom Of The Opera), Isiah Whitlock Jr (The Wire, 25th Hour), Delroy Lindo (Malcolm X, Crooklyn), Chadwick Boseman (42, Black Panther) and relative newcomer Jonathan Majors (Last Black Man in San Francisco).
What’s Good, Blood?
The film stitches a clever patchwork of the Black experience at large by examining one of its’ most polarizing intersections: being Black in the military. What does it do to a soul to fight on behalf of the interests of a country that does not respect it? Da 5 Bloods delivers on highlighting the dichotomous relationship between Black people and these United States. Extrapolating the damage it has wreaked on generations of Black people by juxtaposing Vietnam’s colonial experience.
Blood In, Blood Out
There is a metaphysical feel to Da 5 Bloods. One that makes its presence known at the onset with the opening montage and shows up in moments throughout the film. Acts of Black heroism in wartime that give off a Profiles in Courage vibe. Each of these selections exists in a sandwich of scenes that show the best of Black men at war for the worst reasons. Herein lies the ‘meta:’ the duality of fighting for your life to ensure your oppressor can subjugate another. The paradox that faced every Black and Brown person drafted for the Vietnam War.
Da 5 Bloods draws heavily on the knowledge, experience, and technique of Spike Lee. The performances, cinematography (by Newton Thomas Sigel), and scoring (by Terrance Blanchard) do their due diligence in bringing the pieces to the table. About halfway through the two and a half hour runtime, you recognize that Da 5 Bloods is a love letter to Black men who have served in the military. Paying homage to the humid, verdant landscapes of The River Kwai, Sierra Madre, and Apocalypse Now while slandering their politics.
Technique is the name of the game in Da 5 Bloods and Spike Lee used every trick in his bag plus two new ones. Scenes in D5B are a little long for what passes as standard fare these days. Minimal cuts and quite a few places where actors actively improvise while the camera is still running. Aspect ratio shifts multiple times between three configurations designed to capture three states of being. Candid moments are shot in 13mm film to emulate wartime documentary footage. Add to that monologues that verge on soliloquy that break the fourth wall and have actors looking directly into the camera. Cap it off with a death and the slow dolly shot. And boom, you got yourself a Spike Lee joint. Much of this happens in the last thirty minutes. What we are left with is a piece of film that tries valiantly to relay an important aspect of the Black male psychosis. Doing so at a time where Black identities are moving towards centering its many ‘othered’ and marginalized facets.
Thicker Than Water
Da 5 Bloods is symbolically strong and technically sound with a deep story at its core. It leans beautifully on the music of Marvin Gaye’s soulful and somber tones. The heavy-handed ending takes a haunting tale about father-brother-son fraternity amidst systemic intergenerational trauma and almost trivializes it. If the current anti-colonial uprisings weren’t flaring right now, Da 5 Bloods might not hit this hard. This movie is messy by careful design, much like the Vietnam War, much like life in the U.S. today. Love it or hate it, this movie has something to say that needs to be heard.
Da 5 Bloods releases Friday, June 12th on Netflix.