Spike Lee’s ‘Da 5 Bloods’ offers prescient, if problematic, examination of Vietnam War’s legacy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Spike Lee’s latest film, “Da 5 Bloods,” tells the story of four Black Vietnam veterans who return to Vietnam in the present day to reclaim a chest of gold they hid 50 years earlier. Despite its imperfections, “Da 5 Bloods” is a necessary and stylish addition to the Vietnam War genre — one that honors its predecessors while criticizing them for erasing the experiences of Black soldiers.

Through its moving performances and innovative construction, Lee’s 2 1/2-hour epic seeks to correct the historical record by highlighting the often ignored struggle of Black Vietnam veterans who were forced to fight for a country that was actively suppressing their civil rights. 

“Da 5 Bloods” follows four men — Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) — who served together in 1968 Vietnam. The men reunite in present day Saigon to recover the remains of Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), their fallen commander, as well as millions of dollars’ worth of gold that remained buried in the jungle for decades. On their journey to find the gold and Stormin’ Norman’s body, the men grapple with memories of their time in Vietnam and reckon with the violence they carried out on behalf of a government that oppressed them far more than the Vietnamese did.

Paul struggles more intensely with his traumatic memories than his comrades do, and Lindo illustrates this in the anxiety and frustration that characterize most of Paul’s interactions with other characters. As the film progresses, Paul’s resentment develops into all-consuming grief, which turns him against his comrades. Though Paul’s motivations become somewhat unclear in the film’s muddled final act, Lindo never loses control of the character, and his restrained and intimate portrayal has deservedly earned him an early spot in the 2021 best actor race. 

The construction of the flashback sequences highlights the contradiction between the Bloods’ fond memories of their service and their enduring trauma. Despite the apparent psychological scars that the war imparted on the four soldiers, the flashbacks to 1968 are rich with heroism and fanfare. Boseman anchors these sequences: His heightened portrayal of Stormin’ Norman imbues the flashbacks with a brightness and a glory that sharply contrast his squadmates’ pained demeanors in the present day. Boseman’s performance is supported by Terence Blanchard’s sweeping score and Newton Thomas Sigel’s precise camerawork, both of which color the 1968 scenes with the rosy veneer of wartime propaganda footage.

Long-heralded titans of the Vietnam genre such as “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon” have been praised by critics for the honesty with which they depicted the horrors of the war and its impact on American soldiers generally. However, through “Da 5 Bloods,” Lee points out that these films did not make serious attempts to wrestle with the unique experience of Black soldiers, who were fighting on behalf of a country that was simultaneously waging domestic warfare against those protesting for civil rights. 

It’s notable, though, that despite Lee’s interest in elevating ignored perspectives, he continues the cinematic tradition of glossing over the horrors that Vietnamese people faced during the war. At times, Lee briefly acknowledges the commonalities between Black and Vietnamese soldiers, both of whom faced disproportionate violence at the hands of white America. However, these attempts to telegraph camaraderie fall flat, as the film features few Vietnamese characters and does not seriously consider their points of view. This erasure, combined with the cartoonish violence that the Bloods perpetrate against Vietnamese people toward the end of the film, ultimately serves to further the American perspective on the war and dehumanize the Vietnamese.

Despite its flaws, Lee’s newest film is a worthy entry into the genre and a vital reflection of how our present echoes the past. “Da 5 Bloods” is steeped in the political and social atmosphere of 1968 America, a year of righteous protests that many have compared to the current calls for racial equity and justice. Though the film was slated for a summer release long before nationwide protests erupted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, the film’s prescience is no coincidence — it’s a testament to Lee’s ability to identify how the current moment fits within the fabric of the United States’ fraught and all-too-repetitive history. 

Though it continues some typical American viewpoints on the Vietnam War, “Da 5 Bloods” takes a step in the right direction in changing how we view the war’s legacy and what we remember about its participants.

Contact Matthew DuMont at [email protected].