What to watch on the small screen next, while we wait for the big one to open back up? Well, what could be timelier in these days of Black Lives Matter protests than a new Spike Lee Joint? It’s called Da 5 Bloods, Netflix has got it and – like most any Lee creation – it’s amply deserving of your attention.
That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have a lot of issues, some of them predictable on account of the director’s penchant to make statements instead of stories much of the time. There’s no question that Lee is an essential voice in contemporary cinema, but subtlety isn’t his strong suit. Doubtless some potential audience members still need repeated whacks upside the head about the realities of being a black person in America, and Spike Lee is the one self-appointed to give those to us, with glee and great skill. Know going in that you’re going to be served a big steaming helping of polemics, and you’ll get on fine.
The genesis of Da 5 Bloods was a caper movie titled The Last Tour, with a screenplay by Danny Bilson and the late Paul De Meo, about a group of (mostly white) Vietnam vets going back to retrieve a cache of gold bars that they buried during the war, while searching for a former comrade-in-arms who deserted and went native. Oliver Stone was attached to direct, but backed out of the project in 2016. Lee took an interest and, after completing BlacKkKlansman in 2018, he and co-writer Kevin Willmott reworked the script to make it about African American soldiers who had bonded on the battlefield while their rights were being denied back home.
So that ups the ante to make the story pithier, more sociopolitically relevant, than your garden-variety action flick. It presents a point of view about the Vietnam War’s legacy that hasn’t seen much representation in fiction features up until now. All well and good, but the downside is that Lee often seems to be checking off boxes for argument’s sake when he could be diving more deeply into character development instead. His excellent ensemble cast shines when the characters are relating on an emotional level, but gets stuck at intervals with awkward, expository speechifying about their particular challenges as black vets.
The faults lie in the script, not in the acting, thankfully. The core group consists of Otis (Clarke Peters), a former medic who discovers that he has a hitherto-unsuspected mixed-race daughter in Saigon; Eddie (Norm Lewis), who has come closest to attaining the American Dream of financial success, owning a chain of car dealerships; Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), the joker of the group; Paul (Delroy Lindo), a perpetual malcontent who wears a MAGA hat and is plagued with nightmares about the war; and Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors), who shows up uninvited on the trip and has a long history of tension with his dad. Paul is a towering, formidable character whose inner torment drives much of the story – in a New York Times commentary, Vietnamese writer Viet Thanh Nguyen terms him “a kind of Black Ahab” – and Lindo’s intense, award-worthy performance is the most compelling reason to catch this movie.
Other key characters include Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyen), a young Vietnamese guide who’s trying to let go of his country’s tormented past, and three idealistic employees of an NGO who are in the area to defuse land mines. The original fifth Blood who died in combat, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman, in flashbacks), was a model soldier, their spiritual leader, social conscience and keeper of black history. For narrative purposes, he also embodies the lost innocence of 1960s civil-rights and antiwar activism, echoing the contextual themes that Lee sets up with his framing device of sporadic news clips from the era.
Also helping to set the tone are popular songs from the era, notably several from Marvin Gaye’s iconic album What’s Goin’ On? The lushly cinematic score by Terence Blanchard deserves special mention; it’s reminiscent of so many adventure epics of decades past, reinforcing the gorgeous luminosity of Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography, which makes postwar Nam look like a national park. (Scenes outside the big city were mainly shot in Thailand.)
Less welcome, for this reviewer, were the frequent and sometimes-clunky shoutouts to earlier movies that influenced Lee with this one, such as an obligatory reprise of “The Ride of the Valkyries” from Apocalypse Now (though it’s paired with a Mekong riverboat, rather than helicopters). Heaven help us, he even has a Vietnamese vigilante say, “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.” We could’ve gleaned plot references to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – the toxic influence of gold – without that, surely.
So, there’s Spike Lee’s biggest weakness as a storyteller in a nutshell. He thwaps us with a two-by-four to make his point when he could be tickling us with a stiletto. There’s way too much heavy-handed foreshadowing in this script as well, diluting the fun of some of the plot twists. Still, the experience of black American soldiers, both during and after wars, is a story that hasn’t yet been sufficiently told onscreen, and Lee has moved the game pieces forward. Others will take up the thread – perhaps with less sloganeering next time.
Meanwhile, go watch Delroy Lindo take PTSD to a King Lear level. This is an actor whose time has come.