As a writer/director, Spike Lee is not one to be described as subtle. His works, whether exploring racial tensions in Do The Right Thing (1989), modern day minstrel shows and cultural appropriation in Bamboozled (2000), tackling the cycle of violence via an adaptation of the anti-war play Lysistrata in Chi-Raq (2015), or his Oscar-winning adaptation of the memoir from officer Ron Stallworth in BlackKklansman (2018), to name a few, always explore the Black experience in America, the good and the bad, in a seemingly endless sequence of violence. His latest release, Da 5 Bloods, explores the physical and psychological violence four soldiers, sent to serve by a government that continues to see their people as disposable and treated as murderers upon their return, continue to endure decades after serving in the Vietnam War, a war considered needless by many. Pulling out virtually every trick in his arsenal, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is an uncomfortably powerful examination of the visible and invisible scars inflicted on a community consistently given the raw end and expected to do more and be more than anyone.
Decades after completing their tour in the Vietnam War, four African-American veterans — Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr), and Paul (Delroy Lindo) — return to the country they waged war in to retrieve the remains of their squad leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman). Their mission has a secondary purpose, to also find a case of gold bars the squad found during a pivotal mission. The four vets, and Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors), must endure trials physical and psychological in order to put to rest the ghosts of the past and perhaps find a new way forward.
There’s very little in Da 5 Bloods without meaning or purpose. This, of course, is expected from Lee, an auteur whose work is known to be layered with intent even in the materials placed in the background. Da 5 Bloods is on another level from those works, revealing itself to be a pinnacle achievement. Consider first, the obvious: soon after the men arrive in Vietnam, they go to a bar to drink, reconnect, and meet their guide, Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyễn,). The first thing the audience sees in that transition is a DJ with a sign behind him stating “Apocalypse Now,” utilizing the same font as the film. As the camera moves backward, a sign for Budweiser is revealed before we see the men dancing with drinks, before moving toward the seating area. Do they walk? Nope. They dance their way there, semi-lined up as people line their way like something out of Soul Train. To modern audiences, they’ll immediately pick up on the reference to the classic 1979 Vietnam War film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, itself inspired by the Joseph Conrad novel “Head of Darkness.” But the sign isn’t intended as a reference point for the audience. That would be too simple. Instead, it’s the first sign of Vietnam’s commoditization of American goods, that this war, considered needless by many, is marketed to locals and tourists alike as something to consume without thought that Now was not made in support of the war effort but to show just how badly the soldiers were screwed up by it. Up to this point, the audience doesn’t know much about the four men beyond an awareness of their service. That sign signifies that to anyone outside of the military, it is a thing separate from themselves. It happened to others, not them. As the audience quickly realizes at the end of the scene at the bar, to these four men, the war is still with them in some form or another.
The next less obvious, but continually prominent, element is the changing viewing ratio throughout the film. This is done for several purposes, but we’ll explore it by focusing on two: educational and subliminal. In a manner seen most recently in BlackKklansman, Lee uses quite a bit of historical footage throughout the film, but, most notably, at the beginning. In this period of the film, Lee uses a variety of stills and archived footage to tell the story of America leading up to and into the Vietnam War. Each image — still or moving — is provided along with names, dates, and locations, making them more concrete in the living world. The ratio is reflective of its originally presentation, which is typically 1.33:1, inserting a feeling of traveling through time right from the jump. As a warning to more sensitive viewers, be advised that the famous photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan firing his weapon at a suspected Viet Cong soldier shifts from still to a moving image. This means that the audience is given a front row seat to an execution, a declaration that the violence in Da 5 Bloods may be fake but the inspiration is very real. In this moment, Lee appears to be telling the audience that still images are in possession of moments in real people’s lives. That what happens outside of the frame is as important as what happens within it. This is perhaps why the first hour of the 160-minute film moves between 1.33:1 for scenes presenting historical materials and reenacting flashbacks and 2.36:1 ultrawide for the modern moments, suggestive of more present day cinema. These two styles offer a visible representation of the shift in time for the audience, making it easy to understand which part of the story is being explored: past or present. If you think the ratios don’t matter in conveying tone and intent with the narration, wait until you get an hour in and the ratio shifts to 16:9. It’s like Da 5 Bloods gets an infusion of gas, as the introduction of the wider image induces a sense of wonder and grandness. The use of shifting ratios is particularly important as the actors themselves don’t change in relation to time. Again, the layering of meaning, one on top of the other. The ratios communicate a psychological difference for the audience while the actors remain the same, suggesting that the characters themselves never really left the war. Though Lee suggests that not using de-aging technology, as implemented in The Irishmen, is a budgetary decision in a recent interview with critic Kevin McCarthy, Lee and the cast do support the above interpretation. Da 5 Bloods is as much a story about the way stories are told as it is about the men, so having the central cast remain untouched visually outside of costuming goes a long way in continuing the narrative of a solider remaining always at war even once home. For more detailed information on the changing presentation ratios and their significance, make sure to check out this interview between Da 5 Bloods cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and Slate’s Matthew Dessem.
The last, and seemingly hidden, element lies in the names chosen for the five leads: Otis, Eddie, Melvin, Paul, David, and Norman. These are also the first names of the members of The Temptations — Eddie Kendricks, Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, and David Ruffin — and the name of their producer/co-writer, Norman Whitfield. The Temptations remain a prominent fixture in modern music, their biggest hits coming from the 1960s and ‘70s with tracks like “My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Though Lee features none of their music, The Temptations may well represent the manner in which White America treats the Black community. As long as they entertain, do as they’re told, then they can be of service or use. It’s a well-known fact that the music industry made bank on the Black community by creating deals that favored studios and not the artists. There are many reasons why Ruffin was fired from the band — higher demands of appreciation as the lead singer, drug use, and more — but it’s worth noting that he was also seeking an accounting of the money the band had made for Motown Records. So when the film depicts Boseman’s Norman as the heart of the group (the writer) and the one who encourages the men to keep the gold they find as reparations for fighting a White Government’s war that cares little for what they, the five, endure, the allusion becomes far more clear. Where some might look at a film like Da 5 Bloods and see only a tale of treasure hunting or of a band of brothers seeking to make amends with the past, I beseech you to look deeper. Originally written by Danny Bilson (The Rocketeer) and Paul De Meo (The Rocketeer) in 2013, Lee and Kevin Willmott (BlackKklansman) adapted the script and, in so doing, crafted a film that begs the audience to look beyond the surface. If the audience can do that, then they’re ready for the real discussion of social unrest, systemic persecution, and the permanent psychological distress of a subjugated people.
Da 5 Bloods is not just these three aspects. It’s a presentation of some career-best performances from Lewis, Peters, Whitlock Jr, and, especially, Lindo. These four put in the work, finding ways big and small to uplift the audience through their characters’ comradery and break us down in their ever-present grief. Comparatively, Majors is just getting started, but this performance hints at a grand future. If the end of BlackKklansman left you feeling disheveled and displaced emotionally, Da 5 Bloods will do it to you in its entirety. Moments that come are teased in ways that will set you on edge long past comfort, surprises will upend you, and the performances will drag you through the jungle all the way to the end. The film is by no means perfect. There are strange edits and transitions, a significant scene setting up later events happens early by way of an abrupt transition, and the camerawork shifts from observer to almost documentary style so abruptly as to remove you from the moment. Yet, to your shock, in time, you’ll want to queue it up and watch it again, the imperfections sliding away as the story takes you over. This time, however, you’ll be fully prepared for the journey into the heart of darkness Lee presents to you. In light of recent protests and increased positive associations with the Black Lives Matter movement, I suspect that audiences are primed with open ears and open minds for a Spike Lee joint. It’s not on Lee to educate his White audience, but Da 5 Bloods is a historical education of trauma past and present. This film merely highlights that which most don’t want to remember or want to address.
Available for streaming on Netflix beginning June 12th, 2020.
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Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.