First, I want to acknowledge that my life experience is in no way similar to any of the characters depicted in this film. Therefore, my analysis of the film is incomplete. This film educated me in ways I never anticipated, and that is a gift I can never repay.
And yes, this film is a gift.
Da 5 Bloods is everything I look for in filmmaking. It is the perfect synthesis of thesis, dialogue, plot, acting, visual language, and film history awareness. It is arguably one of Spike Lee’s greatest achievements, and that is saying something.
Not even six minutes in, and one of my favorite individual camera shots of this or any year is shown. It shows our lead characters, 4 of the 5 Bloods, middle-aged black Vietnam veterans, dancing in a modern-day Vietnamese nightclub. Behind them, a Vietnamese d.j. provides the tunes. Behind him is a screen displaying the logo of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. In front of him, adjacent to the dance floor hangs a big neon Budweiser sign. About 30 minutes later in the film’s runtime, “Stormin’” Norman (Chadwick Boseman), the Bloods’ fallen squad leader says in a flashback, “War is about money. Money is about war.” The symbolism of the nightclub becomes obvious. In ways big and small, this film is about the perpetual commodification of war.
Of course, that’s not all that it’s about. It’s a tribute to the service of African-Americans in wars after which those who survived were never properly thanked or rewarded. It’s a dissection of our current moment, where politics can’t help but wrestle culture at almost every turn. And it’s a powerful drama about family ties and forgiveness.
In my opinion, Spike Lee handles all of these elements with incredible balance. There is a point in the film where it becomes a full-on war movie, and it is tense as all hell. And even then, Lee never loses the threads he’s woven in from the beginning. It’s deep, hilarious, terrifying, tragic, hopeful, challenging, and educational. Lee’s direction here is just superb.
If I have anything at all negative to say, it’s that in the action half, there are so many great moments where Lee subverts our expectations based on war-movie clichés, that by the time we get to the major twist, it felt sort of anti-climactic because I had already guessed it earlier on. But that’s such a minor thing because the emotion Lee wrings out of that twist is totally transcendent.
As Paul, Delroy Lindo is the main actor getting us to that transcendent emotional place. Paul is one of Lee’s greatest characters ever. In the 5 Bloods’ search for the remains of Norman, along with a buried treasure they left behind, Paul descends into righteous anger to the point of exhaustion and delusion. I’ve already heard some critiquing the film’s long running time, but I would argue it needed the length to convince the audience of Paul’s turn. I can’t tell you how many movies have completely unconvincing character shifts in them. That being said, Lindo is nothing short of all-time great here. Paul is a complex, iconoclastic character whom I hope will be the subject of further cinematic analysis. Lindo is giving literal blood, sweat, and tears to portray the layers upon layers within Paul, and it’s a devastating performance.
Boseman as Norman is a quiet yet thundering presence. Clarke Peters as Otis, sort of the de-facto leader of the modern-day Bloods, is kind of the perfect balance of everything this film represents. In attempting to be the peacemaker amongst the often-bickering group, he has to deal with every side of any given argument, and he brings enough depth as an actor that he never comes off as just an audience avatar. And then, of course, there’s Jonathan Majors, one of my favorite actors working today (if you haven’t seen “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”, do yourself a favor). As Paul’s son, David, he helps balance out the thunderous overtones of the film with a compassion which underlines the film’s thesis: “War is about money. Money is about war.” David represents a younger generation no longer interested in fighting their parents’ battles.
In the end, Da 5 Bloods is also a love letter to the activism happening now. In making a film which dissects and educates about tensions of the past, Lee also made a very forward-facing one. In many ways, it’s an exegesis of American and international anger throughout the history of the military industrial complex. But it never loses hope, and we shouldn’t, either.
Da 5 Bloods is now streaming on Netflix
2hr, 35min; rated R for strong violence, grisly images and pervasive language