Spike Lee’s latest film explores a rarely talked about aspect of the Vietnam War, the experiences and struggles of black soldiers during and after the war, and does so in a unique style.
In recent years, representation in movies has become a much talked about subject. With the Black Lives Matter movement becoming louder, it is more and more deemed important for diverse voices to have their stories seen and heard, not just in real life, but in films too. With this, Da 5 Bloods offers a unique perspective on a genre that isn’t known for its diversity, the war genre.
Some of the most memorable films set during or about the Vietnam War center on white soldiers, yet this movie sheds light on the experiences and lives of black veterans as they return to Vietnam to find the body of their fallen friends and a hidden chest of solid gold bars. The end result is a movie that’s part war film, part treasure hunt, part action movie that’s laced with social commentary.
The film revolves around five friends and veterans of the Vietnam War: Paul (Delroy Lindo), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Otis (Clark Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Norman (Chadwick Boseman). During one of their missions, they find a chest that contained solid gold bars that were supposed to be returned to the US government, but they decide to keep it for themselves as a form of reparations. The plan doesn’t push through though as Norman gets killed in action while they lose the location of the chest. Years later, as seniors, they return to Vietnam to find the body of Norman and the buried pile of gold.
The movie jumps between two time periods; the five of them during the Vietnam war, and the four older versions of themselves in the present finding their friends’ body and the gold. In both time periods, the scenes differ in style and tone. The Vietnam War scenes are shown with a box-like border and are more concentrated on showing the camaraderie between the five soldiers. These scenes aren’t big bombastic battles but smaller firefights and quieter moments.
In the present day, the scenes are shown in full screen and explore the relationship of the four seniors as well as bring out unresolved issues from the past. As the movie progresses, their relationship gets tested by forces both from within and outside. All five actors are great, and they have good chemistry with each other but Delroy Lindo’s performance as Paul steals the show. Out of all the characters, his’ goes through the biggest arc that brings him to different places both physically and mentally.
It climaxes with a monologue involving him near the end of the movie that is one of the best scenes of the entire movie. At first, the transition between time periods is done smoothly and helps add context to the story but later on, it may get jarring especially when some scenes feel as if they belong in a different movie. This problem is most pronounced during the second half of the movie.
The Vietnam War era scenes were interesting, but it would have been nice to see more of them while it would have helped the film if the present-day scenes were more cohesive in tone. With that being said, Spike Lee doesn’t hold back in his direction. Da 5 Bloods covers many bases. From war to drama, comedy, and action. Some scenes pay homage to Vietnam War movie classic, Apocalypse Now, both literally and figuratively. In some scenes, the characters speak directly to the camera as if they are talking directly to the audience. The action isn’t John Wick levels of insane, but it’s good enough and quite violent. It’s advised to not come into this movie with too many expectations because what you may think the movie will go into, it might go the other way, for better or for worse.
The film doesn’t shy away from its political messages. One of its main messages is about the experiences of black soldiers during the Vietnam war and how black people are treated generally in America. The movie starts with clips of black people saying how even if they fight in the war, they are still mistreated by the police. During scenes set in the war, the five soldiers listen to a radio program where a Vietnamese woman talks about why black soldiers are fighting in the war even though the US treats them poorly.
Throughout the film, the characters mention largely unknown black historical figures such as the first black man who died in the Vietnam war along with a photo of them. Racism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the atrocities of the Vietnam War also get discussed. The movie’s messages resonate well with today’s climate and it’s commendable for the filmmakers to pack this much social commentary in the film without it being too preachy.
At times poignant, but others erratic, Da 5 Bloods knows what it wants to say yet how it does so may come off a bit too confusing. The film’s narrative choices may cause some viewers to scratch their heads. Despite this though, this weird, exciting, and violent movie is definitely one of the more unique films out now and one that fits in with today’s events.
Having a movie like this where events are seen though the lenses of black veterans gives the film a unique voice in a genre dominated by white voices. They don’t see things the way their white counterparts do and offer another side to the story. It’s not a perfect film, but one that is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, more filmmakers will feature diverse voices in genres that usually are a one-sided affair.