On January 1st, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, claiming that “All persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” Two and a half years later on June 19th, 1865, or more commonly recognized as Juneteenth, Slaves in Texas are informed of their freedom. And so ended the Civil War, but the war on Black people has only just begun.
155 years later and the war still rages on through systematic racism, mass incarcerations, and police brutality, the latter of which has the world in revolt after George Floyd, a Black man, was targeted and killed by a police officer. But Floyd was not the first victim, nor will he be the last, in America’s war against Black people, a somber fact that American filmmaker Spike Lee has grappled with over the course of his decades-spanning iconic filmography, including his latest film, Da 5 Bloods.
But at this point, you know what to expect from Lee, as there is nothing subtle about his filmmaking or, as the director calls them, “Spike Lee Joints.” No matter how right or wrong Lee is, he admirably and (lately) stubbornly carries out his latest message, one that is timely aligned with current events. Though Lee follows traditional action-adventure movie templates like those seen in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Platoon, Rambo, and Apocalypse Now, he tries to tell a story that is more than just a homage to others, but as Da 5 Bloods rapidly fires on many touchy subjects, not every shot successfully hits its target.
Da 5 Bloods opens with a 1978 footage of Muhammad Ali explaining why he refused to kill people for the American Government after being drafted for the Vietnam War, “They never called me ‘nigger.’ They never lynched me. They didn’t put dogs on me. They didn’t rob me of my nationality.” His words are then followed by a montage of graphic historical footage and photos taken during the Vietnam war as Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” plays in the background — With this, viewers are quickly reminded of the atrocities of the Vietnam War.
As the montage comes to an end and the music begins to fade, we are introduced to the titular “Bloods”: Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a group of Vietnam War veterans returning to modern day Vietnam to reclaim buried gold they thought lost forever and with it the remains of their late squad leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman). The story follows these Black war veterans as they grapple with severe trauma, emotional distress, and the arising turmoil of returning to the place that caused most of it. Lee brilliantly hammers this conflict home, partly due to the astounding performances of Lindo, whose character is the most at war with himself as he grapples over his time as a solider and his poor treatment towards his son. But unfortunately, that is where the brilliance ends, as Da 5 Bloods does not dive deeper into the topic of mental health, particularly with Black veterans, and instead opts for more gratuitous violence, doing nothing to help further Lee’s message outside of “violence begets violence”.
It is odd to watch Ali’s speech about not wanting to fight people that did him no harm at the beginning of the film and then see the Bloods return to a country where they killed Viet Cong soldiers just to kill some more for the sake of self-profit. Sadly, Lee only addresses the complexity of soldiers forced to kill others who share the same predicament on the surface level, making Da 5 Bloods at times feel like a greed driven adventure between buddies.
Lee also fails to delve into racism beyond American borders. Within the first half of the film the audience learns that Otis unknowingly fathered a daughter with Tiên (Lê Y Lan), his Vietnamese love interest before the war and current aide to retrieving the gold. The audience learns that their daughter, Michon (Sandy Hương Phạm), was constantly bullied and “treated like a cockroach” due to her mixed heritage. We never learn anything more about the circumstances of their daughter’s upbringing, which is a shame because Black women often have it worse than their counterparts. Lee shows us that he is definitely aware of the complexities of the war, but disappointingly fails to allow his characters confront to them.
With that said, there is a cleverness about Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, which is brimming with fascinating references and tidbits that, once discovered, feel as if you are let in on a secret or inside joke. Some are subtle while others are more direct. For example, the Bloods’ characters are named after the popular music group of the 1960s-70s, The Tempations. And when Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), bribes his father into joining the expedition, effectively taking what would have been Norman’s position, is a direct reference to how one of the original Tempations’ singers was replaced early on.
There are also some great thought-provoking directing choices made by Lee. Paul wears a “Make America Great Again” hat, bragging about how he voted for Trump. For a white audience this is a hilarious use of irony, but for Black people this is a reference to Zora Neale Hurston’s famous quote, “All my skin folk ain’t kinfolk,” meaning that not every Black person cares about fighting the good fight; some see their people as competition and a stepping ladder to riches.
Like America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, Da 5 Bloods is messy, but Lee still makes sure to give the people what they want: A more damning message about America’s past and present mistreatment of Black people. Even when the script tries to fly awry, the film is grounded by its incredible cast, who deliver impeccable line delivery and catharsis. No matter how stubbornly Lee goes about his version of “doing the right thing” by his people, one cannot help but marvel at the sheer scope at which he does it in the Da 5 Bloods.
To learn more about Black people’s involvement in the Vietnam war, we recommend Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History by Wallace Terry.