Watching a Spike Lee Joint is akin to being taught a history lesson. Each one of his films can be read into as a way for the viewer to learn a little something, whether that be about film history, music history, or culture in general. Black culture is present throughout all the media we watch, and Spike Lee wants us to know our roots.
At the start of 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, we see archived footage of the Little Rock Nine in 1957, where nine Black school children had enrolled in a school that had been previously segregated. The Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision was made just a few years earlier, which ruled that segregation in schools was now an illegal action.
The enrollment of these nine Black children sparked outrage among the racists in Arkansas, notably its Governor, who sent the National Guard in to block their entry. While this was all going on, American soldiers were engaged in guerilla warfare in Vietnam.
Lee uses history as a tool, both as a resource for storytelling, but also to contextualize the experience for those who were affected. His films are never comfortable. They force the viewer to reconcile history with what they know in their day-to-day lives. Most of all, Lee’s films are always timely. 1989’s Do The Right Thing, a film that explored racial tensions in Bed-Stuy on the hottest day of the summer, was released just three years before the LA Riots. An incident that started due to a Black man being beaten mercilessly by police.
The release of Da 5 Bloods comes at a time full of turmoil, anxiety, and frustration for many people. The murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and others have caused worldwide protests against police brutality and racism. It is an ongoing battle that we have fought for years.
Da 5 Bloods is one of Spike Lee’s finest efforts to date. The film is a sprawling Apocalypse Now-esque war epic that aims to recontextualize the Vietnam War through the eyes of Black America. Years of atypical stories about war are combated with arresting imagery and harrowing statistics that show two conflicts being waged: one domestic and one abroad.
Through the use of archival footage of Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis, and Malcolm X, we see the very clear connections to our past, despite the fictional circumstances of the film itself.
Spike Lee’s style of filmmaking has only become more robust as his career continues. Da 5 Bloods is still a Spike Lee joint, through and through. His idiosyncratic style never manages to fall out of style, even though it does occasionally fall short in some of his later works. Lee’s directorial trademarks all appear in the film. Whether it be the iconic double dolly or Paul telling us that he “woke up,” you always know a Spike Lee film when you see one. The film is one of Lee’s most visually impressive as the expansive Vietnam countryside and dense forests are all shown in vivid detail.
He even adds some more tricks to his arsenal by changing the aspect ratio up to four separate times. The film shifts from its default 2.39:1 ratio to 1.33:1 during the Vietnam flashback sequences. Da 5 Bloods plays out like an homage to some of Lee’s favorite films too, specifically John Huston’s 1948 adventure drama Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai and the aforementioned Apocalypse Now.
Even though Da 5 Bloods’ story is fictitious, the destructive impact of the Vietnam war on Black GI’s is a very salient reality. Lee touches on many issues that Black soldiers faced during the war, namely PTSD, regret, and a lack of benefits for veterans.
Delroy Lindo’s character Paul says that he sees “ghosts” after he returned home from Vietnam. Many war movies, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor and Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers come to mind, tend to paint war as an avenue to achieve glory for one’s self and the country serve. They prop up the white solider, while very rarely spotlighting the Black ones who served with them. Very seldom do we see a film of this nature where soldiers, specifically Black soldiers, are presented with the aftermath of their service.
The irony is that the freedom that Black soldiers were fighting for are ones that were not even available to them in the first place. This film is Lee’s response saying, “If you won’t share our stories, I will.”
Lee’s intentions with Da 5 Bloods is not subtle, nor should you expect them to be. The manner in which Da 5 Bloods combats the white narratives surrounding war is extremely potent. He inserts images from historical events that properly depict war as an artifice that benefits no one. Photos of the My Lai and Kent State massacres are among the most brutal to look at. Da 5 Bloods doesn’t sugar coat these atrocities but presents them with unrelenting honesty.
The Bloods portrayed by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isaiah Whitlock Jr all give stellar performances. They return to Vietnam after fifty years to reclaim some lost gold for the purpose of using it on Black liberation. David (Johnathan Majors) also appears to help them in the journey. Additionally, their leader “Stormin Norman”, played by the always talented Chadwick Boseman, had died there.
Norman is almost like a deity figure to the Bloods, even referring to him as their “Malcolm and Martin.” He appears during flashbacks and provides the group with their philosophy, morals, and guiding leadership. Interestingly, the five Bloods appear as their older selves during these moments. It’s a choice that ultimately serves in the movie’s favor as it just adds to the immediacy of the whole situation.
Delroy Lindo’s performance is truly spectacular as he wrestles with inner demons that involve Norman, David, and his past in the war. A monologue deep into the film that Lindo delivers is just chilling, even among the other amazing displays here. Lindo’s character is an acrid one that somehow is able to juggle humor, anguish, and despicable without ever feeling inauthentic.
Da 5 Bloods is another Spike Lee joint that feels aptly right for our times. Lee is a filmmaker that has never shied away from showing the harsh realities of America’s troubled past. With this picture, he shatters the familiar war epic format and points at the ways that Black people were used to fight for freedoms that weren’t even being given to them back home.
In the age of Black Lives Matter, Trump, and racist police, Black voices are more important than ever, and Spike Lee aims to make sure they are heard.
Da 5 Bloods is now available to stream on Netflix.