DA 5 BLOODS (Spike Lee). 134 minutes. Premiere Friday (June 12) on Netflix Canada. Rating: NN
In a Treasure From The Sierra Madre-style mission, four Vietnam veterans – and various hanger-ons – go back to the land they once waged war on to retrieve stolen gold they buried alongside a fallen comrade’s remains. That logline-perfect premise turns out to be the least interesting thing about Spike Lee’s latest joint, Da 5 Bloods.
Lee has compared his first movie for Netflix to a gumbo, the Louisiana soup mixing up all kinds of ingredients. Borrowing elements from John Huston’s aforementioned film as well as Apocalypse Now, Da 5 Bloods is alternatively a war movie, a comedy, a melodrama, a caper and an angry look back at the devastation the U.S. has reaped on Black and Vietnamese bodies. Throwing every genre at the audience is nothing new for Lee, and sometimes that tendency gets the best of him, as with Da 5 Bloods, a ragged, rambling and occasionally careless movie where tangents and observations are far more compelling than the whole.
As with so many Spike Lee joints, there’s an uncanny urgency and relevance to Da 5 Bloods that cannot be denied as police violence and protests after George Floyd’s death continue. The movie contains 50-year-old footage of civil unrest and injustices and words from Malcolm X, Angela Davis and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of which could be easily recycled for today, and closes with Black Lives Matter protesters rising up.
Da 5 Bloods opens with Muhammad Ali defiantly telling reporters in 1968 why he refused to kill Vietnamese people who never oppressed him the way Americans do. That introduces the key tragedy that drives Da 5 Bloods, a film that was originally about white soldiers until Lee and his writing partner Kevin Wilmott got a hold of Danny Bilson and Paul Demayor’s script and flipped it. Their movie honours Black soldiers who made up 23 per cent of all combat troops in Vietnam in 1967, and 25 per cent of all combat deaths because they were shoved to the frontlines, while only representing 11 per cent of the U.S. population.
Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isaiah Whitlock Jr. and Norm Lewis play the veterans returning to Vietnam, recollecting their service under the command of their fallen comrade, Chadwick Boseman’s Stormin’ Norman. The older actors are not de-aged for flashbacks on the front, where we see them in combat or gathered around contemplating the injustices they face in war and at home.
In one powerful flashback sequence, the men are gathered around a radio listening to famed Vietnamese personality Hanoi Hannah, who Veronica Ngo plays as a silky but pointed figure who knows how to user her comforting voice to slip and twist the knife. She speaks directly to Black GIs reporting on Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination, and then tenderly asking why they fight the Viet Cong on behalf of their oppressors.
Throughout Da 5 Bloods, Lee throws to archival images from protests and unrest in the U.S. to the horrifying violence committed in Vietnam, My Lai included. The film is unsettling and purposeful when its characters have to confront the contradictions of their presence on that land.
Delroy Lindo’s Paul is the one feeling it the most when he faces the children of people he potentially killed in combat. He suffers from PTSD, which informs his tragically strained relationship with his tag along adult son and disconnect from human connections in general.
He’s also a MAGA hat-wearing Donald Trump supporter who is, at times, reminiscent of Kanye West.
“My brother is not the only person who supports Agent Orange,” said Lee, when I brought up that comparison during a recent interview. As he’s done repeatedly in the past, Lee refers to Trump as the chemical weapon the U.S. deployed in Vietnam. He points out that 13 per cent of Black men voted Republican in the last U.S. election, and he taps into the anger and disenfranchisement that could have led to that decision in Da 5 Bloods.
Lee doesn’t seem all that invested in the dull treasure hunting aspect of Da 5 Bloods. That plot may ultimately be a vessel for the incisive observations and footnotes about history that often interrupt the plot. But the gold element also undermines the movie’s strengths. Treasure chasing leads the characters towards a harmful and unconvincing action finale, a standoff between the veteran soldiers and some white do-gooders (Mélanie Thierry and Paul Walter Hauser) they pick up along the way and other interested parties carrying automatic rifles and grenades, including Vietnamese men seeking reparations for their own trauma.
Maybe there was a way to make that bloody standoff part of the film’s tragic point, a repetition where fascist forces manipulate the oppressed to act violently against the oppressed. This movie didn’t find that way.