Review: “Da 5 Bloods” a powerful story of the Black experience in Vietnam

by Charlie Palsho | 6/26/20 3:00am

Director and producer Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” released two weeks ago on Netflix, is an impactful Vietnam War story about the Black experience, following the journey of four middle-aged, Black veterans in the present day. In the film, the group returns to Vietnam to recover the body of their fallen captain and the buried treasure they left behind during the war. 

Though the film was completed well before the climacteric murder of George Floyd on May 25 that marshaled national conscience as never before, it seems expressly built for this time. Lee interweaves iconic voices and events that ensure the film is much more than just another war movie. Delroy Lindo’s performance as one of the veterans is especially compelling, driving home Lee’s message. “Da 5 Bloods” appears to be tailor-made for the current iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement, as Lee reminds viewers that history repeats itself.

From the first frame, Lee makes it clear “Da 5 Bloods” is a war story with strong political convictions. The film opens with a powerful clip of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam War: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother or some darker people or some poor, hungry people in the mud for big, powerful America, and shoot them for what?” he says. Following Ali, “Inner City Blues” by Marvin Gaye plays loudly behind various historical moments: We see Kent State, Richard Nixon, a graphic Viet Cong execution and Bobby Seale saying, “Here we go with the Vietnam War, and we still don’t get nothing but racist police brutality, et cetera.” At the film’s end, Martin Luther King Jr. is heard quoting Langston Hughes in a speech he gave the year before he died, saying “America never was America to me.” 

The four veterans, Paul (Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who call each other “Bloods,” venture back to Vietnam to bring home the body of their captain, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and their hidden treasure trove of golden bars co-opted from the CIA. Norman is portrayed as a legendary and almost mythical war hero. He is seen in flashbacks preaching about the folly and cruelty of American racism and how Black Americans were fighting a war for a country that seems to care nothing about them. As a thematic result of this shared attitude among the characters, the film seems to portray the Vietnamese as the less formidable enemy in comparison to America’s inherent racism.

The shining star of this talented cast was indisputably Lindo. The complexity of his character and quality of his performance, especially his riveting expressions of anger and frustration, stood out amongst his veteran comrades. His portrayal of PTSD, his volatile disposition and colorful outbursts are masterful. Additionally, he plays a Trump supporter who dons a “Make America Great Again” cap. Lee remarked that he and co-writer Kevin Willmott made this choice purposefully, hoping viewers would reckon with the current political environment in America.

Throughout the film, viewers see flashbacks of the war and see that the bond the veterans forged during their service seems as if it’s the only thing holding the Bloods together. In these flashbacks, the main characters play their younger selves. However, Lee made an artistic choice to not make the actors appear younger in these scenes. Viewers can then understand these memories through the veterans’ now-wiser eyes. Each vignette makes clear that the veterans are seeking reparations, both with the gold and Norman’s corpse, and that they believe they are owed as Black servicemen who were not respected.

The story of a brotherhood of Black veterans on an expedition to obtain what is owed to them as victims of systemic racism runs perfectly parallel to the current Black Lives Matter movement. These problems, though now squarely in the public eye, are not new. According to Lee, “Da 5 Bloods” is the first film on the Black Vietnam War experience.

Following hot on the heels of his Academy Award-winning 2018 film “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee has delivered another smashing and thought-provoking success. “Da 5 Bloods” sets a high bar for future films dealing with systemic racism that are sure to follow. The deep political message and historical realities that underlie this action-packed war story make it a film to remember. There is no better time to watch it than now.