by Armando Vanegas
Contemplative and uncompromising, Spike Lee’s latest movie, Da 5 Bloods, offers a look at four black Vietnam vets and long time friends who return to Vietnam to retrieve both the U.S. gold they hid during a mission and the body of a fellow fallen soldier, Stormin’ Norman. Things get complicated when one of the vets, played by Delroy Lindo, goes his own way and manages to complicate things for the crew. It also doesn’t help that his son, played by Jonathan Majors, has shown up to get a share of the gold.
Rather than sticking to the plot, the movie is more of an analysis of the effects of each man who put their life on the line and were treated with little to no respect when they returned home to the country they were fighting for. The fact that they’re black just adds more internal conflict and further informs the motivation of their mission. Lee wants you to witness how that experience has affected and shaped them as men. He also inserts real-life footage to really emphasize the issue and it’s a unique choice that pays off. As a viewer, things felt emotionally impenetrable at the start as these men are hard to get a grasp on. I was interested in what’s going on, but not particularly entertained if that makes sense. That is until a certain point when Delroy Lindo as Paul gets to shine and the movie started to get my full attention.
As the movie progresses and lean into the perspective of Paul, a Trump supporter racked with PTSD, things start to go haywire during the mission, creating unexpected points of conflict along the way. Lindo offers a magnetic performance for such a complex character. He was an asshole for the whole movie, but he’s an asshole that you’re compelled by the more you get to know him. He has a really dark backstory that eventually shows why he’s the way he is. You never get to like him because he’s always making the most selfish and problematic choices during the trip. Yet, Lindo has shades of making Paul someone who’s capable of loving and being loved, even in small moments. When he’s with all the other friends, he clearly enjoys being around his other friends while on the trip. It’s even apparent that while he has a tumultuous relationship with his son, David, he wishes they had a more amicable relationship. Because it’s Spike Lee and Netflix was smart enough to not put him on a leash, Lindo’s allowed to make this character as hard to root for as possible. We’re stuck with him for a large portion of the movie and even for a little bit, you can see that being pulled into his perspective is a hellish feeling.
Majors as David is forced to be pulled into that dark place his father inhabits at times but he reaches a point where he’s realizing that he’s underestimated the intensity of the situation. Having him be morally questionable in the same way as his dad, but also willing to toe back that line when it’s necessary was a good point of friction to the already troubled relationship. He and Paul have a weird father and son relationship because they clearly have some animosity that reaches levels I don’t see too often on screen, but there’s moments where there’s clearly love between them even if it’s not openly expressed often. That relationship brings a lot of darkness to the movie as having David in the group forces him to confront a lot of demons that he wasn’t ready to face on top of all the bad memories of Vietnam he’s forced to carry with him.
I have a rather shaky relationship with my father for plenty of complicated reasons and it’s the reason why the daddy issues that showed up in a significant number of 2019 movies I loved also hurt those same movies in various degrees. I feel like Hollywood is too afraid to get that deep in that specific dynamic because it’s an industry run by men in jobs willing to give everyone with a penis; including their son and their son’s son an opportunity. That and the fact that men are just encouraged through society including movies to not really express themselves in a deep way makes it hard to actually see the men that make movies help make something that confronts these complicated father and son issues in a serious way. I mean, there’s so many movies like Terms of Endearment
and Little Women
that deal with the mother and daughter dynamic in really personal and complex ways, yet I rarely see that kind of movie for men willing to go that far. I want a movie that actually pokes at this and doesn’t just end with “I forgive and love you for all the non-contributions you’ve made in life and now you’re a good man because you did a few good things a human being should” because that happens all too often for me. I guess TV is more where that is allowed when the creator is allowed more control and time to get those points across. That’s part of why Steven Conrad’s unfairly cancelled Patriot
was such a breath of fresh air for me in that regard. Da 5 Bloods
touches on some of these weird things and it was interesting seeing someone like Spike Lee handle it in such a meaningful and subtle way.
Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock, Jr., and Norm Lewis are also great as the other three vets. Peters is tasked to set up how to spend the gold in terms of banking, assisted by a campy but fun turn from Jean Reno’s banker. Peters’s Otis has a past with a woman he once knew was interesting enough to make for a good movie on its own. It’s predictable but it was a sweet part of the movie to counteract all the darker elements. Whitlock, Jr. is just hired to do his “Sheeeeit” at this point and I don’t know why he even makes an effort, but he provided some good comic relief as Melvin. His last moment as a character is a bittersweet one that shows the heart of the character. Norm Lewis as Eddie is memorable even if he’s the less fleshed out and less troubled of the group. He has one moment in the movie that is at once surprising and sad, which is a big highlight for the movie. Chadwick Boseman has a nice appearance as Stormin’ Norman as he makes a big impression in his small amount of time.
I loved the way everyone in the movie communicated with each other. They’re still men so it’s not going to be these broad moments of love and affection, but it’s at least acknowledged that these men love each other in a way. Spike Lee allows the movie to have some sympathy and a shoulder for the men to cry on as they reminisce about their times and all the struggles they went through. If you’re looking for the angry Spike Lee that we saw in Do The Right Thing
or Jungle Fever
, it’s still there but he’s mellowed a lot since then in his filmmaking. It’s nice to see a director, especially a black male director, be this generous and caring about his characters even with the subject matter that’s included here. There’s still some action scenes here and there, but he smartly lets the character’s emotions and feelings guide the movie.
As we spend more time with these characters, we get more invested in the mission and how it’s going to turn out. How the actual gold motivates the characters is interesting in how it allows the film to have a good amount of suspense and tension. The fact that these men have this weight on them makes you want to see them succeed. Lee does end up succumbing to a certain level of catharsis in terms of how it manages to tie into recent events. It’s the most Spike Lee way a movie could end, but it’s done in such a sincere way that I bought it.
Spike Lee never makes a boring movie so you’ll at least come away with it staying with you in some aspect. He allows the movie to breathe as he gives a lot of chances for the actors to act. It’s not as preachy or as angry as some of his other movies, but what we see is a more patient and grounded artist playing with a different genre he doesn’t always play with and trying to make something thoughtful out of it. The anger is still there, it’s just more simmering than boiling. He pulls out a lot of interesting gimmicks like changing the aspect ratios, the fact that the lead actors play their younger selves in flashbacks, and incorporating real-life historical footage in order to annotate the racial inequality that the characters went through. All of it is effective at getting Lee’s points across. Overall, Da 5 Bloods is going to make you work with it to get something out of it, but it offers amazing food for thought for those willing to go along for the ride.
I am giving Da 5 Bloods a 4 out of 5 Hairpieces!