Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 11th, 2020
Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee, 2020) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Prolific director Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) has once again made a film that tackles the enduring legacy of racism on American society. This time he stretches his canvas even wider than usual, covering a geopolitical landscape that includes Asia, as well. Cutting back and forth between past and present with the ease of an artistic master, Lee tells a tale of colonialism, greed, prejudice, segregation and war, to name just some of the topics he addresses. We are in Vietnam, then and now, examining the conflict that ravaged that country and those who fought there, on both sides. It’s an extremely ambitious work, and if Lee does not always succeed in his storytelling goals, there’s enough righteous anger and innovative mise-en-scène on display to propel the narrative through its clumsier sections. Monumental paintings are striking, no matter if we see the many brushstrokes.
The premise is this: four aging African American veterans (the “bloods” of the title) return to the scene of the battle, 50 years later, ostensibly to locate the remains of a falling comrade, but with an ulterior motive we discover later. They are Eddie (Norm Lewis, Magnum Opus), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr., Corporate Animals), Otis (Clarke Peters, Harriet) and Paul (Delroy Lindo, Battlecreek), each with his own set of emotional scars from the long-ago battles. The most lingering, searing wound of all is the loss of their commander and friend, Norm (whom they call “Stormin’ Norman”), played by a Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) we see almost exclusively in flashback. They first gather in Ho Chi Minh City before heading off into the jungle for one last sortie.
That’s just the barest of plot descriptions, and does not do justice to Lee’s grander plan. Never one to to let the audience draw its own conclusions, he reminds us at every turn of the centuries of violent racism meted out to black folks in the United States, and draws parallels from that inescapable fact to the similarly destructive path of colonial history in Asia. Though the Vietnamese may now welcome their former invaders as tourists, the war – which they call the “American War” – is not so distant for the trauma to be buried that deep. All will rise to the surface in the course of this sometimes clunky, sometimes effective 155-minute drama. Perhaps if Lee didn’t always try so hard to make us understand, in bold capital lettering, the point of the enterprise, the film would come together even more. As it is, when it works, it lands a powerful punch, and when it doesn’t, the embarrassment soon passes.
Shooting in a variety of aspect ratios, Lee keeps the film visually interesting, jumping smoothly between points of view and times, each one associated with its specific composition. That technique proves especially potent when Lee blends the edges of the frame, forcing us to pay especial attention to the meaning within. Would that he had also labored as hard to make the flashbacks less distracting, as his choice to use his four main actors, made up (sort of) to look twentysomething, alongside the much younger Boseman, kicks one out of what should be potent action scenes (instead, they are borderline ludicrous). The question of how old they are now is similarly confusing: if the “now” of the present is truly today, then these “bloods” should easily be in their mid- to late 70s, yet move and look like men at least a decade younger (i.e., the age of the actual actors). True, there are elements of magical realism built into the tone, but not enough to sell this particular conceptual shortcoming.
The ensemble cast offers uneven support, with Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco), as David, Paul’s estranged son, and Johnny Nguyen (Irumbu Kuthirai) as Vinh, the Vietnamese guide the men hire to bring them into the field, the standouts among the bunch. Jean Reno (Brothers of the Wind), as a mysterious Frenchman, and Mélanie Thierry (For a Woman), as his moral opposite, fare less well, though the fault is more the screenplay’s than theirs. Between excess exposition and overly determined insertions of newsreel montages and photographs, Lee often oversells his polemic. But sometimes he gets it just right, and then Da 5 Bloods strikes deep into the heart of the matter, momentarily a perfect thing. For all the other missteps, these sequences make the entire affair well worth watching.