Spike Lee’s Netflix venture Da 5 Bloods, in which four African-American vets return to Vietnam to retrieve their late squad leader’s remains (and a strongbox full of gold bars they hid in the jungle), is “the first major film that views Vietnam entirely through the eyes of black soldiers,” writes Peter Travers at Rolling Stone:
Lee is just the trailblazer to bring passion and clarity to his presentation of the bloods as patriots who suffered disproportionate combat losses in an immoral war that wasn’t theirs, then came home to a country that denied them civil rights and left them alienated and adrift. It’s the unbroken line of black sacrifice that gives the movie its cumulative, confrontational power.
The idea that wars never end for those who go through them may not be entirely novel, but the film, as remarked by Vulture’s Bilge Elbiri, adds a powerful spin, suggesting that the Bloods are trapped in “one big war that’s been going on for centuries — that racism, poverty, imperialism, and the poisoning of the world are all gnarled branches of the same grim tree.” But how exactly does Da 5 Bloods approach that history of continuities, and the role of its troubled heroes in it?
Over at the A.V. Club, Ashley Ray-Harris argues Lee seems more preoccupied with making “a Vietnam film that looks Black than one that actually takes on the complexities of Blackness, war, and global imperialism:”
As in Lee’s previous stab at combat cinema, Miracle At St. Anna, the focus is on absolving Black soldiers within the context of a white war, but that doesn’t work. Films like Apocalypse Now condemned both the system and its soldiers as villains capable of evil. Da 5 Bloods fails because it refuses to be as harsh with the atrocities its Black characters have committed. There is a deeper darkness to be explored when Blackness is at the heart of the matter.
Lee is obviously all too aware that war and American imperialism are both still complicit in violating Black communities across the country, Ray-Harris concedes,
…but he somehow also believes the five soldiers at the center of Da 5 Bloods deserve to be glorified even as they enact violence across present-day Vietnam. Instead of contemplating the hypocrisies of these men, Lee spotlights larger villains like the French and global racism, as if to suggest that this makes it easier to watch five Black vets kill Vietnamese officers.
Indeed, as Peter Debruge contends at Variety, the film at times succumbs to the same exoticism that plagued many older American films about Vietnam,
…reducing the locals who claim the gold to sadistic Asian caricatures. Audiences may be accustomed to such stereotypes in brain-dead action movies, but “Da 5 Bloods” is so sophisticated early on that it’s disheartening to see it fall back on lazy clichés.
Both charges—that Da 5 Bloods may not question the nexus between Black-power politics and anti-imperialism as far as it could have, and that it falls victim to the same clichés it chastises—expose frictions in the film’s politics that Lee doesn’t quite resolve. But aren’t those frictions the founding principles of his whole cinema? Lee’s strength as a political filmmaker, A. O. Scott suggests at The New York Times,
…has always resided in his ability to bring contradictions to chaotic life rather than to resolve them in any ideologically coherent proposition. This is the opposite of a shortcoming. It seems safe to say that America itself has never been an ideologically coherent proposition, and its greatest artists embrace havoc as a kind of birthright, producing not analyses of chaos but indelible embodiments of it.
Take Da 5 Bloods as an embodiment of our present-day zeitgeist, and even its knotty and ungainly shape seems fitting. The film is not always graceful, admits Justin Chang at the L.A. Times, but given the miscellany of genres and ideas it juggles, how could it ever be?
It is by turns a platoon picture, a heist thriller, a Black history lesson and a grumpy-old-men rendezvous, all spliced together with documentary footage, a surging Terence Blanchard score and a soundtrack that supplements “Ride of the Valkyries” with welcome blasts of Marvin Gaye.
That protean and bombastic canvas may feel somewhat disorienting, as TIME’s Stephanie Zacharek notes: a story that “keeps moving like a freight train chugging along the track,” where “dramatic notes don’t resonate with the boldness they need.”
But even when Lee makes a flawed film, his spirit is a kind of braille, a code you can feel and see. Lee will never be satisfied with the status quo, and he reminds us we shouldn’t be either. Da 5 Bloods gets its energy from that jolt of defiance.
Rather than capitulating on its many dissonances, Da 5 Bloods draws vital lymph out of them. In a film that’s hardly concerned with verisimilitude, one of the boldest among them is Lee’s choice to have the middle-aged Bloods play the younger versions of themselves, without any attempts to de-age his cast à la The Irishman. David Sims at The Atlantic sees this as an effort to “dramatize the men’s memories and how they’ve romanticized them with age, imagining themselves still able to perform such acts of violent heroism.” But the effect seems to me far more tragic in scope, a feeling captured by Justin Chang at the L.A. Times when he observes that “in these actors’ weary faces, incongruously bridging the divide between past and present, we see the most literal possible visualization of a war without end.”
Which brings us to the film’s central character, the PTSD-riddled Paul (Delroy Lindo). Lee crafts him as the link between past and present systemic racism in American society: he’s a Trump supporter who sports a MAGA hat and resents immigrants because of the plight of his own people. And even the tensions between the man's politics and the other bloods’ may not be sufficiently spelled out—as Slant’s Chuck Bowen posits—Paul's turmoil serves as the film's catalyst. It accounts for the lingering sadness K. Austin Collins describes at Vanity Fair, praising Lindo for a career-high performance “in a career full of them” and drawing us to the man’s anger and its vocabulary, “the slyness, the wryness, the perm-resistance to our pity that winds up inciting exactly that.” In a film rooted in deep-seated and unresolvable contrasts, Paul harbors the most strident ones. And yet, to borrow again from The New York Times’ A. O. Scott, Da 5 Bloods refuses to either turn him into a caricature or reconcile his inconsistencies. Instead, it chooses to flesh them out with copious understanding, and that may well be the film's greatest merit:
Everyone knows what Spike Lee thinks of the current president, but everyone should also remember that Lee often shows an almost affectionate interest in characters whose views he finds abhorrent. (It’s a long list that encompasses John Turturro’s Pino in Do the Right Thing and the snarling white supremacist played by Paakkonen in BlacKkKlansman.) And Lee doesn’t treat Paul as a misguided reactionary. His pain is the motor and the moral of the story. He isn’t the hero of the movie. He’s the reason to see it.
The Current Debate is a biweekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.