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Film Review: Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods (2020; Directed by Spike Lee)

Probably the main factor that make the movies of Spike Lee so exciting (even when they aren’t very good or are full of questionable ideas) is how they meld American history, social issues, and racial politics with film history and masterful technique. Lee’s movies are not always resonant and engaging narratives featuring memorable characters and involving themes, but they tap into cultural and political zeitgeists like an alchemist dowser armed with a mystically true divining rod. They are effective visual polemic; you could call them propaganda and be definitionally on the mark. Watch a stunning, shocking scene like the assassination sequence in Malcolm X and marvel not only at the dramatic push-ins and kinetic but never chaotic motion and quick-cutting edits, but the tussling street tension between black witnesses and white police outside the hall, and before that a sequence on a staircase that could be a stealthy Battleship Potemkin homage. Or consider the wells of implication and meaning created through juxtapositional montage during the Birth of a Nation scene in Lee’s recent return to form, BlacKkKlansman: as Harry Belafonte, a living giant of the 1960s civil rights movement, tells gathered black activists a tale of a brutal, horrifying lynching of a black man inspired by the notorious but technically revolutionary D.W. Griffith historical epic film about the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, a crowd of Klansmen screen the film after an initiation ceremony, hooting and hollering and throwing popcorn in a whipped-up racist froth. Do the Right Thing has myriad scenes that contain multitudes like this as well.

Because cinephiles know this, they also know that if Spike Lee is making a movie about the Vietnam War, it’s going to be just as much about how American movies have created an idea of the Vietnam War in the (inter)national imaginary. You would likewise expect, or at least be unsurprised to learn, that Spike Lee’s Vietnam movie examines and likens the white supremacist oppression of African-Americans and the imperialist oppression of the Vietnamese by the Americans, and by the French before them, in a manner that is provocative, problematic, not entirely connected or effective, and neither intellectually nor emotionally sensible. Da 5 Bloods, a film about a quartet of black Vietnam War veterans who return to the jungles of Indochina where they once fought for two intertwined but vastly morally different quests half a century later, is in frequent open conversation with past Vietnam films, especially the colossus of this notable war-movie subgenre, Francis Ford Coppola’s bloated, visionary descent into cinematic and psychological madness, Apocalypse Now (which, in its Heart of Darkness in Southeast Asia high-concept conceit, elides vital elements of and perspectives on the war just as surely as it focuses on its symbolic meaning in the collective American unconscious, but that’s a whole other discussion).

That iconic film’s distinctive, blood-ink title logo appears directly on screen in an early scene of Da 5 Bloods, but Lee undercuts its weighty portent immediately: the Apocalypse Now title image forms a splashy backdrop at a tourist-geared nightclub in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon, the capital of the Americans’ South Vietnamese allies until it fell to the Communist North Vietnamese at the end of the war in 1975), and Lee pulls back from it past a DJ booth emblazoned with a Budweiser logo banner of a similar shade of red and carrying equal representational space in the frame. Even in the foreign urban setting of America’s soul-shaking defeat to an implacable ideological adversary in a conflict (that, lest we forget, was really a civil war over another country’s soul) that irrevocably divided the homefront, global capitalism is ascendant, and more than holds its own against the ultimate idiosyncratically critical work of art about that defeat, which has been commodified to a similar extent as a globally-imported brand of weak beer. Another later Apocalypse Now homage sets a montage of picturesque and light-hearted video-shot clips of the still-friendly party travelling downriver into the jungle to Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, iconic soundtrack to a sequence featuring a fleet of avenging attack helicopters in Coppola’s film.

As the featured movie poster to the right suggests, the colour red is something of a visual motif in Da 5 Bloods. It’s in those suggestively paired movie and beer logos, and of course in the titular bodily fluid, a not-inconsiderable amount of which is spilled before the credits roll and which is the fraternal self-title for the unit of black veterans who reunite in Vietnam. It’s also the prime colour of the Donald Trump presidential campaign’s infamous “Make America Great Again” hats, which have become a visually symbolic shorthand for hard-right white supremacist political positioning in the American culture war, in historical lineage with white hoods, burning crosses, and Confederate battle flags but, for the moment at least, acceptable at the country club. One such MAGA hat features as a central symbol in Da 5 Bloods, worn with seeming incongruity by a black man (who do form the largest block of voting support for Trump among the African-American population). This is Paul (Delroy Lindo), the most haunted and unstable and paranoid and bigoted and confrontational of the four reunited Bloods, all of whom claim to suffer from gradations of PTSD from their war experiences. The others are trip organizer and former field medic Otis (Clarke Peters), who retains a contact with a former Vietnamese courtesan (Lê Y Lan) whom he learns had a daughter by him in the ’60s; trip funder Eddie (Norm Lewis), a well-off used car salesman fallen on hard times; and Melvin, who doesn’t really get much distinctive character development (he knows how to use a metal detector, I suppose), but is played by Peters’ The Wire co-star Isiah Whitlock Jr. so the seasoned viewer is ever on notice for his distinctive delivery of the word “Shiiiiiiiit!” Don’t you worry, he obliges.

These four Bloods, joined semi-reluctantly by Paul’s concerned, college-educated teacher son David (Jonathan Majors), are venturing back into the Vietnamese jungle where they fought and were irrevocably changed on an ostensible mission to find and repatriate the remains of their deceased squad leader, “Stormin'” Norman (Chadwick Boseman). As shown in flashbacks and spirit-visions, Norman is a sort of idealized paragon of enlightened black masculinity, a brave and capable leader and comrade but also a socially-conscious amateur preacher of civil rights justice and liberation theology. He’s a sort of revolutionary warrior monk (and is shot as such by Lee and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, heavenly crepuscular rays slicing through the trees behind him at one point as if a benediction from on high), a Fred Hampton of the Viet jungle, and he suffers a similarly violent final fate. He is venerated as a martyr by the surviving Bloods, especially Paul, who claims to be visited by his ghost. But it’s not only peace for this beloved ghost that the Bloods seek. They also hope to find millions of dollars in gold bars from the American government intended as payment for their tribal Vietnamese allies, which the squad was sent to retrieve in the mission that claimed Norman’s life in the late ’60s and was buried with him for safe-keeping. Norman’s plan was to liberate the gold as reparations to fund civil rights causes and uplift their people; the surviving Bloods want to uplift themselves and fund their own comfort in their waning years, which they feel their service and sacrifice for a nation that continues to treat them as second-class citizens has earned them. It’s a Vietnam-era Three Kings plot concept, with plenty more racial politics thrown in.

Lee and his editor Adam Gough intercut between the Bloods’ modern-day journey and their original 1960s mission with Norman, with occasional supporting archival footage added for emphasis as well (Lee, a sometimes-documentarian, has long preferred this technique as well). This time-period dichotomy further demonstrates Lee’s technical skill and cinematic know-how, as the transition back and forth over the half-century gap is indicated by a shift in historically-accurate aspect ratio and film grain (the older actors playing the older Bloods also play their younger selves in the flashbacks alongside the much younger Boseman; one accepts the choice readily enough, but an aged-down photo near the movie’s end puts one in mind of ILM’s digital de-aging effects work on The Irishman, although such a technique might have as much as doubled Lee’s budget, which although large by his standards is still fairly modest). Lee and Sigel craft classically-pitched war sequences of cinematic sweep during the Vietnam War sequences, firefights with the Viet Cong scored with heroic orchestral swells by Terence Blanchard. They also put together several white-knuckle tension-and-release scenes later in the film involving land mines (so forcefully foreshadowed are the mines, one expects characters to step on them at nearly every point so that it is no shock or surprise when it finally happens) as well as explosive shootouts with Vietnamese tribal gangsters who are after the gold at the instruction of shady-dealing Desroches (Jean Reno), a Frenchman who the Bloods (especially Paul) do not trust one whit but who they must rely on to help them smuggle the gold out of the country.

Impressive craftmanship aside, however, the ideas and themes that underscore these elements are messy, contradictory, and often highly questionable in their reproduction of discriminatory Hollywood war movie tropes and in interrogating the African-American experience to the war and to American imperialist projection. As Viet Thanh Nguyen observes in a critical review of the film in the New York Times, Da 5 Bloods reproduces many of the problematic tropes of prior American films about what the Vietnamese refer to as “the American War” (a phrase used in the early scenes of this film, it should be acknowledged), namely the casting of the Vietnamese as faceless enemies to be snuffed out in rousing battle scenes, a framing that Lee, eager to nod to the genre’s history, is absolutely guilty of here. The war is wrong, Hollywood’s framing has long assumed, but killing othered enemies in that war is not only not necessarily wrong, it can even be exhilarating. Whatever Coppola’s critical intent with his Wagnerian evocation in the chopper assault scene may have been, the aesthetic power of the scene has been embraced by some as a glorification of war, as a scene referencing Apocalypse Now in Jarhead demonstrates. Lee does not shift this perspective one inch here, it must be said.

Nguyen also highlights a discomfiting scene of Paul tossing a racial slur at an insistent Vietnamese vendor at a floating market, although Jeet Heer responded to this criticism on Twitter by noting the context is important (Paul is couched as highly troubled, his friends call him out immediately for what he says, and Lee has long made a point of using offensive racial language openly in dialogue in order to make purposeful points about how racism operates). Another thoughtful perspective on this element of the film is provided by Hoai-Tran Bui at Slashfilm, who says almost entirely what I would say about how Da 5 Bloods considers black trauma and the larger imperialistic implications of “the American War” and again finds that the film frames the Vietnamese people above all as victims (millions of them died, but one faction did defeat a world superpower and unite the country, after all), although the Bloods’ local guide Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen) is characterized a bit more and becomes a comrade-in-arms before the bloody end.

Vinh is one of the focal points of the way that Lee, who did a re-write of the original script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo with previous collaborator Kevin Willmott (director of the laughably blunt agitprop mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America), uses conventional themes of fatherhood to deal obliquely with the complex and guilt-ridden legacy of American involvement in Vietnam as well as its history of black oppression. Vinh’s father was in the ARVN, the South Vietnamese army that fought alongside American troops against the V.C. and the Communist army of the North, and was sent to a re-education camp after the South’s defeat (a better fate than many of American’s allies in the country met, as he notes); like his father, he fights alongside Americans, even embraced by Paul at one point as an honorary Blood, a “yellow n***a”. Paul himself has a strained relationship with his educated, bourgeois son, resenting David for his wife’s death in childbirth and symbolically and emotionally associating this resentment with his guilt over the death of Norman, and the laboured double-reconciliation with both his living son and his dead idealized mentor is a key part of Paul’s complex arc (Lindo gives a spectacular, intense performance with this meaty material, devolving in the end to mad biblically-inflected ranting alone in the jungle; no one has any idea what the Academy Awards will look like next spring with the pandemic-effected dearth of theatrical movie releases, but if they happen, the long-undervalued Lindo should be remembered for this performance). And Otis finds a fatherly sense of fulfillment in the denouement, meeting and embracing his half-African-American, half-Vietnamese daughter Michon (Sandy Huong Pham) before the two of them are given the honourific treatment of Lee’s signature double-dolly shot.

While this thematic focus on fatherhood is an approach that renders knottier ideas about difficult legacies in an emotional form that is relevant and identifiable to audiences, it has a way of eliding more penetrating questions about the war and the role of African-Americans in it that Lee merely gestures at (for example, the My Lai Massacre, the most notorious American war crime of the conflict, is used as a pre-shootout taunt by the lead Vietnamese gunman, played by Nguyen Ngoc Lam). Lee’s touchstones of political philosophy, moral instruction, and cultural commentary are firmly planted in the Vietnam War era: he opens his film with Muhammad Ali’s famous quote that “no Vietnamese ever called me a n****r” and closes it with an excerpt of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech (given exactly a year before his assassination), includes a scene of the Bloods learning with rage of King’s death while in Vietnam, and peppers the movie with Marvin Gaye songs both diegetic and non-diegetic, especially from his seminal album of socially-conscious R&B, What’s Going On. There’s also the liberation theology rhetoric underpinning Norman’s beliefs and Paul’s ravings.

Lee is grounding the ideas of Da 5 Bloods in the activism of the era that the Bloods recall with a mix of nostalgia and traumatic horror, and that’s valid enough, I suppose. But it’s another instance that seems to lay bare that Lee, an activist artist of a previous generation, is out of step with the social justice movements of the present, which view the Vietnam War with a much more witheringly anti-imperialist eye and are less seduced than he is by romantic fantasies of soldierly fraternity or martial heroism that might buttress black experience and fights for equality. As Bui notes, for all that Lee invokes pregnant associations between American imperialism, systems of anti-black racism, and the threads connecting the two in Da 5 Bloods through dialogue, spliced-in archival clips, and visual technique, the film doesn’t finally manage to say anything definitive about their symbiotic linkages, coming just to the cusp of doing so before reaching for Hollywood convention and a satisfactory narrative and emotional conclusion. The closest he comes is in having Desroche don the vanquished Paul’s red MAGA hat at the conclusion of the climactic shootout, this central symbol connecting American white supremacy and European colonialism, acting as a literal scarlet thread between the two. But even this isn’t without a neoliberal counterpoint of an anti-landmine advocacy organization called LAMB run by a French woman named Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), who become enmeshed in the conflict over the gold between the Bloods and Desroche’s goon squad. Hedy’s family became wealthy from plantations in Indochina under the French colonial regime, but she is redirecting that wealth with all the white guilt she can muster towards charity non-profit do-gooding. Imperialist wealth can be bad or it can be good, says Spike Lee. Both sides!

In the denouement of the Da 5 Bloods, Lee includes a scene in which the once-wealthy Eddie’s portion of the gold spoils is donated to Black Lives Matter, an in-text statement of solidarity with their cause from Brother Spike. Much of the rest of Da 5 Bloods, however, like BlacKkKlansman before it, betrays Lee’s generational, socioeconomic and ideological distance and divergence from the less-compromised and more militantly impatient BLM and their allies. His previous film closed with his trademark double dolly shot being utilized to suggest the future of black liberation lay in an alliance between activists and law enforcement. If that symbolic thesis statement seemed more than a little out of step in 2018, it is even more so in 2020, amidst massive popular protests demanding more significant advances in racial justice and defunding or even abolishment of the police, especially coming from a filmmaker who was literally paid by the NYPD to help improve their public image. The problem of unified purpose is a consistent problem of political activism on the Left and in the African-American community, and Spike Lee’s latest film embodies that lack of unified purpose in its invocation without reconciliation of American global imperialism and white supremacist racial hierarchy.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews
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