Da 5 Bloods: Going to War with Racism and Intolerance

Warning: This post, a review of Da 5 Bloods, is political.

Oh wait, all I had to do was mention four words.

A SPIKE LEE JOINT.

The activist-filmmaker has been at it for decades now. His movies entertain. They educate. But, more often than not, they seek to challenge. It’s who he is and what he does. If Lee’s not your cup of tea, you’d better “X” out now…….

…… Still here? Wow, really? Great!

Okay.

Let’s go!

Da 5 Bloods is a heist movie of sorts. The story revolves around four Vietnam War vets – who call themselves “The Bloods” – returning together to the country that bonded them together decades before. There is the jovial Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.), level-headed medic, Otis (Clark Peters), the low-key Eddie (Norm Lewis) who has achieved the most post-war success, and quartet’s angry, aggressive leader, Paul (Delroy Lindo).

Their reasons for returning to ‘Nam is three-fold: Making peace with their experiences there, retrieving the remains of fallen friend and soul of the Bloods, “Stormin'” Norman (Chadwick Boseman, chilling given the actor’s recent death), and unearthing a trunk of CIA gold bars, discovered and buried during their tour. That’s where the heist angle comes in.

Accompanying the four former soldiers is Paul’s son, estranged son, David (Jonathon Majors). Also playing prominent roles are Tien (Le Y Lan), a war-time prostitute who had a connection with Otis; tour guide Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen), helpful to the audience as a Vietnamese point of view character; a foreign “entrepreneur” (Jean Reno); and Hedy, an idealistic French woman who specialized in removal of leftover landmines from the war.

“[Boseman’s] character is heroic; he’s a superhero. Who do we cast? We cast Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and we cast T’Challa. Chad is a superhero!”

– Director Spike Lee, on the casting of Chadwick Boseman in the role of ‘Stormin’ Norman

But centering the film is Boseman’s almost mythic character, Norman, presented in flashbacks. The role is small, but pivotal.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Spike Lee talks about how he immediately knew that Boseman was the man for the role. He said, “Here’s the thing for me. This character is heroic; he’s a superhero. Who do we cast? We cast Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and we cast T’Challa [all characters played in prior films by Chadwick Boseman]. Chad is a superhero! That character is Christ-like! Notice the way [the cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel] shot him. There’s light from heaven coming down from above on him…. That’s the way the other Bloods saw him. They’re speaking about him with reverence. He was their superhero.”

No, this film does not move us in the warm, fuzzy sense. It is technically a war film, after all. But that doesn’t mean it is devoid of some great beats that provoke emotional and intellectual response.

While the movie suffers from some pacing issues and it could have benefitted from some “trimming of the fat” in its 154 minute run time (cutting an unnecessary romantic subplot involving Paul’s son, perhaps?), it is arguably Lee’s most ambitious offering to date.

Plus, you know, Boseman (say it with me, you know you want to…. WAKANDA FOREVER!).

The standout, however, is Delroy Lindo. His Paul is a tragic figure and the monologue he delivers as the film hurtles towards its conclusion is the high point. He is looking into the camera. It feels like he is talking to us.

Not America Without Us

The film is multilayered, exploring themes of racism, war, greed, brotherhood, and redemption. The third act was clearly inspired John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), even having a character tossing out a tongue-in-cheek paraphrase of the classic “stinkin’ badges” line.

One gets the sense that Lee moves with an urgency with his creative choices from the opening montage of historical clips and figures from the period such as Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Martin Luther King Jr, recalling the Civil Rights struggle and the subsequent screenplay seeks to remind that these same battles are being fought today.

The film’s messaging is sometimes as subtle as a sledgehammer. Take this little piece of dialogue:

Stormin' Norman: War is about money. Money is about war. Every time I walk out my front door, I see cops patrolling my neighborhood like it’s some kind of police state. I can feel just how much I ain’t worth.

The ensemble cast really sells the tension involved with the idea of hypocrisy of fighting for freedoms while those back on the home soil are simultaneously fighting for equal rights.

And then there is this startling statistic: 11 percent of the United States’ population circa 1970 was black, but about 35 percent of the men fighting in Vietnam were of that race. 

In their interview with vibe.com, the cast says the movie carries a hopeful note, but it also conveys the importance of confronting and reckoning with America’s past, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

“Make sure this isn’t just one chapter of your history that you know,” Peters told Vibe. “Now, use this as the portal to everything else over the past hundred years, the good and the bad. The successes of the scientists, the mathematicians, the inventors, as well as the atrocities. There’s a huge disparity in all of that stuff. And America would not be America without us.”

Based On a True Story?

Some may ask: Is Da 5 Bloods based on a true story? Well…. no and YES. The characters and situation were certainly fictional, but considering the angle that they are the voice of the black veteran experience?

Welp.

Also the film is littered with pop culture and historical references, highlighting events from the past and even the present. Woven throughout the film is real historical footage, woven into an uncomfortable, yet necessary portrayal of racism, imperialism, and patriotism.

Why study black history? Because our nation’s present problems with racism and intolerance don’t make sense if we don’t know the history behind it. So let’s not just limit ourselves to the month of February, shall we?

I highly recommend reading Vulture’s “study guide,” which does an excellent job breaking down all of the film’s pop culture and historical references and Easter eggs. There are so many!

Asking the Tough Questions

The screenplay has many of its best moments when its characters are arguing with each other, praising each other and confessing to each other.

Likewise for us, entering into this space is part of living in healthy community and integral to personal growth. However, it can be an uncomfortable place, particularly when confronting our own blind spots and implicit biases. But things cannot change or get better without these conversations.

Lee, like he has done so many other times over the course of his career, has The Bloods (and we, the audience) being challenged with the question: What does it mean to do the right thing?

So there you have it – Da 5 Bloods. It took a while to get around to watching this one, because let’s face it, it’s hard to get into the mood for a movie about the Vietnam war, particularly one that deals with such weighty issues that hit so close to home!

What do you think? Feel free to share in the comments below!

Let’s Move

To recap:

  • Study black history! Get acquainted with the film’s many historical references and their relevance to the black experience by visiting Vulture’s study guide.
  • Ask the tough questions and enter into healthy dialogue in the spirit of community.
  • Remember that watching movies and reading books are only the beginning. Be prepared to put in the work to quell racism and intolerance. WE CAN MAKE THIS A BETTER WORLD FOR ALL OF US!

Where to Watch

Da 5 Bloods is currently showing on Netflix.

Da 5 Bloods (2020)

Director: Spike Lee

Screenwriters: Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott, Paul De Meo, Danny Bilson

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Delroy Lindo, Jean Reno, Jonathan Majors, Norm Lewis, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Clark Peters

RATED: R (strong violence, grisly images, and pervasive language)

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