Published Jun 30, 2020When Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman lost the Oscar for Best Picture to Green Book, it cast Hollywood's supposed left-leaning progressivism in an unflattering light. Rather than an indictment of brutal racism from a Black filmmaker, the industry chose to celebrate a story of racial reconciliation told by white people — a decision that seems particularly egregious in light of recent discussions surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and the importance of amplifying Black voices.
Two years on from BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee is back with another film that examines a key moment in Black history, once again illuminating the ways that America's historic racism continues on into the present day.
Da 5 Bloods highlights the injustice faced by Black soldiers who battled in the Vietnam War, only to return home and be faced with oppression from the same country they fought for. The film follows four former G.I.s who return to Vietnam decades later, retracing their steps with a dual purpose: to find the body of their late comrade Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and uncover a secret trove of gold that they left decades earlier. Their mission is to reclaim the gold for their people (and themselves), as reparations to avenge all the Black soldiers who never made it home.
It begins with a warm reunion between the surviving Bloods: Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Paul (Delroy Lindo) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). It doesn't take long, however, for old traumas to reemerge. Eddie is still dealing with PTSD, which manifests in the form of racism against the locals, ultraconservative MAGA anger and unpredictable outbursts of violence. Against Eddie's wishes, his son David tags along for the ride — filling the role of the fifth Blood — which brings up unresolved family issues and resentment.
As the Bloods head out into the Vietnam jungle, remnants from the War interrupt their mission — both metaphysically (via flashbacks of the late Norman) and very literally (in the form of still-active landmines buried throughout the backwoods). The local residents have their own traumas, and that Black war veterans aren't the only ones left suffering due to American oppression.
Lee's directorial approach is hyper-stylized, in a way that enhances Da 5 Bloods' message at the expense of its visceral realism. Any time a notable figure from Black history is mentioned, their photo pops up on the screen; flashbacks to the Vietnam War are shown with a grainy film stock, à la Apocalypse Now; and their 1960s selves are played by the same actors as the present day scenes, meaning that the soldiers are curiously portrayed as seniors. One scene of gore is so outlandish that its simultaneously plays as horrifying and slapstick.
Da 5 Bloods is an expertly argued, pointedly political thesis on America's systemic racism. Much like BlacKkKlansman, it highlights the many ways Black people have enriched the same country that continues to perpetuate violence against them. It's a message that's sadly always relevant — but it feels particularly urgent right now, as protestors across America (as well as in Canada) push to defund the police. In the final moments of Da 5 Bloods, a group of Black Lives Matter activists gather and discuss fundraising, and it becomes particularly clear that Lee has tapped directly into the current political moment. Maybe, this time, white Hollywood will be listening. (Netflix)