As Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” moves back and forth between the past and the present, Vietnam and the United States, open war and hidden, it becomes clear that we are watching Lee is at his best. More than that though, we are watching this cast—which includes Delroy Lindo; Isiah Whitlock, Jr.; Clarke Peters; Chadwick Boseman; and Norm Lewis—at their best. It is one of those movies where absolutely everything works, where everything fits, where every decision made at every step of the way pays off. To say it is a work of brilliance is to undercut it as there are many people who had to deliver brilliance in order to bring it about.
The basic structure of the story finds four Vietnam veterans—Paul (Lindo), Otis (Peters), Eddie (Lewis), and Melvin (Whitlock)–return to the country in the present day. They are there to collect the body of their friend, Norman (Boseman), and to pick up gold bars they left behind. The journey is a harrowing one, full of friends and enemies and surprises and sadness and hope and joy and anger.
What the movie makes exceptionally clear is that these men don’t just live in the present, they are also still in Vietnam in 1971, at that fateful moment they found the gold and lost their friend. Although Lee offers up a different aspect ratio for the film during this earlier time period (in fact, the aspect ratio changes several times during the movie), he chooses to keep Lindo, Peters, Lewis, and Whitlock playing themselves nearly 50 years early. Not noticeably, terribly, de-aged versions of the actors either, it is them as they are. The war, the message is, is not behind them, they are still there every day of their lives. It is a unique and powerful choice.
It is also a choice made better by the performances that the actors give in both time periods. All four men are given the opportunity to make the audience feel deep, abject, sorrow, and all four men succeed. The emotions live in their voices and faces like a live wire, ready to burn anyone who explores them too closely.
Lindo, in particular, is astounding. A Trump-loving man (and the movie makes it clear that our President is a wretched human being), Paul is regularly at odds with his friends, just as he is at odds with his son, David (Jonathan Majors), who shows up in Vietnam without warning. He is all temper and rage, but Paul is not a villain in the piece. That would be an easy out for a character who votes for Trump, but there are no easy choices in this movie. Paul is, consequently, a tragic figure. We come to understand Paul and his distresses over the course of the movie and while we may not forgive him, we know why he is the person he has become. His friends try with him, but Paul doesn’t want their help. Or, doesn’t want it in the way in which they can give it.
From the outset, the film is very clearly situated in our world and returns to truths about our history throughout its length. In this way, Lee starts off by cutting a wound in the audience. He and his cast and crew then pour salt into it. Not in a gratuitous way, but rather in one designed to cause one to open their eyes to the tragedies which surround us and in which we play a role.
Arriving at it does at this moment in our nation, a moment when the fight for rights and against oppression is once again at the fore, “Da 5 Bloods” may seem prescient. It discusses, in no uncertain terms, the horrific way African Americans have been treated in this nation. The point though, the thing everyone must recognize, is that it isn’t prescient. It isn’t wondrous that the movie is being released just as the current wave of protests are taking place. The point is very much that such protests keep happening because we, as a nation, have not yet made the situation better; have not yet fixed the issues which cause the problems.
Spike Lee is a filmmaker who has repeatedly told us about racial injustice and strife and repeatedly told us to do better. With “Da 5 Bloods,” he delivers the message again and does so in even more potent form. Do not miss it and do not fail to heed its warnings.
photo credit: Netflix