There’s a quote in Spike Lee’s latest joint, Da 5 Bloods, that feels so in touch with today’s political and social climate that it’s remarkable that the script – originally written in 2013 – was re-penned by Spike Lee two years ago. As always, his finger is so on the pulse, his vision so clear, that it makes his work truly stand out.
Released on Netflix last Friday, Da 5 Bloods follows a platoon of Vietnam vets, headed by level-headed Otis (Clarke Peters) and erratic, Trump-supporting Paul (Delroy Lindo delivering an Oscar-worthy performance, capturing guilt, grief and machismo all in one) as they travel back to their former battleground to recover the remains of their celebrated leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman). From there the film zips from thriller to hang-out comedy, action to drama, but Lee’s script – also written by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo and Kevin Willmott – is so precise in taking these turns that it happens naturally. The mood of a scene can change on a whim, and it almost becomes a reflection of the turbulence of the battle they once fought in – where, as we see in superb retro-inflected flashbacks, dramatic events can unfold in the blink of an eye.
Their quest to find Norman’s remains – wanting to give him the hero’s funeral he is painted as deserving – is an arduous one, allowing for a truly brilliant character study of these grizzled vets to emerge. Not all 5 Bloods are treated equally – Lindo’s Paul is clearly the writers’ favourite, and Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s Melvin is woefully underwritten – but the camaraderie between the group is infectious, meaning when things get a little more serious, the desired emotional punch certainly lands. So do the action scenes: DP Newton Thomas Sigel, in his first collaboration with Lee, handles conflict with panache, and Terence Blanchard’s score expertly chooses its moments – and the lack of music is oftentimes just as powerful as its presence.
Yet most impressive of all about Da 5 Bloods is how important it feels. Lee has never been one to shy away from political commentary, and this is no different. There’s plenty of references to the incumbent president, with MAGA hats being a particularly contentious topic within the group. Yet Lee’s fury at how black people are treated in America obviously runs deeper than that: the film dwells on how the government picks and chooses how to utilise black bodies, with tender montages reiterating the classic Vietnam movie message that maybe, the Viet Cong aren’t the true enemy. Yet its final message is one of hope and endurance, with a certain scene that felt particularly touching given the current political surge following George Floyd’s death.
There’s one quote that boils down the point Lee is trying to make with Da 5 Bloods. Delivered by Vinh (Johnny Nguyen), he says, ‘After you’ve been in a war, you understand it never really ends. Whether it’s in your mind or in reality. There are just degrees.’
And maybe it’s not Vietnam that he’s talking about.