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Da 5 Bloods

I’m still getting the hang of life as a movie geek in a post-COVID world. In the Before Times, I could simply go to my favorite movie theater and pick out whatever was playing when I got there. Now, we all have to put a lot more work into sifting through all the vast libraries of the various streaming platforms to actively find something worth seeing and talking about.

Perhaps more importantly, the whole concept of “release dates” as we know them is effectively a thing of the past. It used to be that movies had to compete with each other for multiplex real estate, with each movie fighting against a weekly wave of newcomers all grappling for more time on the screens. In the recent past, a factor in gauging a movie’s worth was in sizing up its ongoing competition, judging whether a discerning audience member should rush out to see it now before it inevitably slips out of the running in a few weeks.

Yes, I’m using this as an excuse for why it took me so long to review this one. Then again, this film was released in mid-June, when a national wave of racial protests was just getting started, and the protests are still going as strong as ever. So even and especially in this case, I have to wonder if it even mattered that I took so long.

Da 5 Bloods is the latest picture from Spike Lee, so you know right away we’re in for a wild ride. For better or worse, the man makes every picture like it’s going to be his last, so he packs as much as possible into every frame and he doesn’t waste much time with ambiguity. So let’s buckle up and get moving.

The eponymous 5 Bloods are Paul, Otis, Melvin, Eddie, and team leader “Stormin'” Norman (respectively played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, and Chadwick Boseman), all of whom served together in Vietnam. Norman, alas, was KIA and his body was never recovered. However, after a recent mudslide in Vietnam, the site of Norman’s death may have been rediscovered. Thus Norman’s old war buddies set out on an expedition to recover his remains and bring them back stateside.

If only it was that simple.

Back during the war, the CIA sent a plane full of gold bars to pay a local Vietnamese village for their assistance in the war effort. The plane was shot down by VC, and the 5 Bloods were sent in to recover the gold. Upon their success, the 5 Bloods proceeded to take the gold for themselves, burying it and blaming its disappearance on the VC. The plan was to come back later, dig up the gold, and give it to the African American community as reparations. Trouble is, the site where the gold was buried — also the site of Norman’s burial — was napalmed shortly after and all the local landmarks were lost until the aforementioned mudslide.

(Side note: In both time periods, the characters are played by the same cast of actors. And without any apparent CGI youth-ening. Quite impressive, really.)

So what we’ve got here is a “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” riff, complete with a militant local native who actually utters the line “We don’t need no stinking badges!” And the Humphrey Bogart analogue here would be Paul, played in a spellbinding tour de force performance by Delroy Lindo.

It’s not that Paul is greedy, necessarily, he’s just relentlessly paranoid. More to the point, he’s angry at everyone. He’s angry with everyone stateside who greeted him and his fellow Vietnam vets as baby-killers. He’s angry with the VA for their subpar medical care. He’s angry with the immigrants who are coming in to take advantage of the rights he fought for. (Yes, Paul is the one black man in a hundred who voted for Trump. He even wears a MAGA hat throughout the running time.) He’s angry with the government for sending black men over to die in Vietnam in the first place. His wife died in childbirth, so he’s angry with his son (more on him later) over that.

But more than anything else, Paul is angry with himself and everyone else who got out of Vietnam alive, leaving their fallen brothers behind. Paul is the kind of veteran who never really left the battlefield, so now he’s going back and picking a fight with anyone who’ll point a gun at him, just to go back to his days in the jungle battlefields of yesteryear.

In Chi-Raq, Spike Lee made a loud, extended, and explicit statement about the destructive power of hate, how our only possible chance at safety and redemption lay in our capacity for loving each other and ourselves. The statement is elegantly reprised through Paul’s development arc over the course of the film, but with an added layer: The theme of forgiveness.

Norman and his comrades thought to steal the gold from Uncle Sam, redirecting it toward the black people who’ve suffered at America’s feet since our nation was founded. What the 5 Bloods hadn’t considered at the time was that the gold was intended for Vietnamese people who got screwed over by Americans — white, black, and every shade in between — and their war.

To be entirely fair, our band of brothers had been fighting the Vietnamese at the time. It is perhaps understandable that they hadn’t been considering the future plight of the same people who’d been shooting to kill them just a moment ago. They had no way of knowing how this war would continue to affect generations further down the line, but we’ll come back to that.

The point is, the conflict in this movie — specifically with regards to whether black people or the Vietnamese should get the gold — is emblematic of all the ways that America has screwed over black and brown people within its own borders and all over the world. Which of them are owed reparations, and where would the money do the most good? That’s debatable, and the film offers no easy answers. That said, it’s very clear that this whole movie would’ve been over a lot faster, with much less hardship and bloodshed, if both sides had simply let go of the gold and gotten out of each other’s way.

From start to finish, we see various assorted characters assigning personal blame for bigger systemic problems. A fine example comes early on, when an unfortunate Vietnamese chicken merchant (you read that right, just go with it) directly accuses Paul of killing his family back in the war. This is impossible to prove and it accomplishes nothing. I’m not saying it’s easy to forgive individuals for the minor roles they play as part of a huge malicious system — far from it — but we all might be better off and get more accomplished if we let go of individual anger and focus on holding the system itself accountable.

As stated in the film, the gold haul is valued at $17 million. That’s a significant chunk of change, to be sure. It’s still not nearly enough to pay for all the damage America did to Vietnam, and it sure as hell isn’t enough to make amends for a long history of discrimination and pain for black people in America. So if reparations and far-reaching social change are the goal, maybe black people and Vietnamese people killing each other over a low eight-figure sum isn’t the answer here.

Then we have the anti-war angle. Though Paul is the most overt case of PTSD, all of our main characters have clearly been affected by the war in far-reaching ways. We’ve already touched on the topic of America sending black and brown people to war — as stated in the film, black people were just over a tenth of the American population and just over a third of the GIs sent to Vietnam! And of course we’ve already discussed the far-reaching effects of war on the soldiers and their descendants on both sides.

But then there’s Hedy (Melanie Thierry) and her merry band of activists. Long story short, Hedy is the estranged scion of an arms manufacturer and her family is directly responsible for making the land mines used in the Vietnam War. Thus Hedy and her colleagues (Simon and Seppo, respectively played by Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Paakonen) have taken it on themselves to locate and remove the errant land mines that are still in place and active fifty years later.

Yes, munitions used in the Vietnam War are still taking lives to this day, and they do indeed take more lives as the film unfolds. For extra measure, the film invokes Agent Orange and all the far-reaching effects of that chemical abomination that we’ve seen over the subsequent decades. Bottom line: Modern warfare is so absurdly and obsessively destructive, it kills innocent people who had nothing to do with the war, years or even decades after the war was settled. Sounds like a pretty darn compelling anti-war statement to me.

And shit, I haven’t even gotten around to David yet.

David (Jonathan Majors) is Paul’s son, and he blackmails his way into joining the treasure hunt. On one level, he’s our audience surrogate, a sounding board for the other characters to convey exposition. On another level, he’s yet another example of how a war can indirectly serve to fuck up future generations. And on yet another level, David has (with the sole exception of Paul) what may be the most dynamic and compelling character arc in the film. He starts out as a soft suburbanite schoolteacher and he ends the film (for better and for worse) as a hardened soldier worthy to march and fight beside his battle-hardened elders. This makes for a compelling generational contrast, especially considering the multiple layers of ongoing conflict between David and his father.

If it sounds like this movie goes wide and deep on a huge number of timely and hard-hitting topics, have no doubt that I’m only skimming the surface here. Spike Lee proves once again that he’s a cinematic grandmaster, here leading a top-notch cast with a crackerjack script, delivering poignant character drama in between riveting gunfights and wartime action.

That said, there are many reasons why Lee is a divisive filmmaker, and you’ll find those reasons here as well. His characteristic lack of subtlety is on full display, complete with onscreen graphics, cutaways, and use of real-world historical footage. While his casual disregard for the fourth wall certainly gets his point across, it may also come off as a brash and unwelcome distraction from the plot.

Also, while your mileage may vary depending on the settings of your TV/monitor/whatever screen, I personally found the nighttime scenes to be borderline incomprehensible. With very few exceptions, they were far too dark to make anything out.

Overall, I’d say Da 5 Bloods is more than worthy of inclusion with the growing contemporary #BlackLivesMatter canon. Spike Lee can be one eccentric and arrogant son of a bitch, but he knows how to make an intelligent and engaging point in a way that makes the audience sit up and pay attention. In particular, this is a dense and deeply layered piece of work, powered by superlative acting and peppered with brilliant gunfights.

Lee’s work may not be for everyone’s taste, but he’s definitely a filmmaker everyone should try at least once. Definitely give this one a look.

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