Father, father / We don’t need to escalate / You see, war is not the answer / For only love can conquer hate / You know we’ve got to find a way / To bring some lovin’ here today — Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On“
Black Lives Matter. Da 5 Bloods is a generational rallying call for a group of Bloods (Black American veterans of Vietnam), bold warriors who were summarily forsaken by their country. Spike Lee finds the gritty truth of a culture that has never given back to those who gave it all. It has come at the profound right time, landing as our country is embroiled in the greatest civil rights movement of our generation. The movement of the moment suits the picture just fine and lends it the perfect prescience, where Lee’s usual tact of inserting real-world footage, and artifacts between his inventions, hits in just the right way.
The men must return to the jungles of Vietnam. There is now four of them — they lost combat leader Stormin Norman (Chadwick Boseman), an ethereal figure, gone but not forgotten, providing a mythical context and a crucial plot device, as the men go back to exhume his remains. They have another mission, as they buried ten million in gold during their service, with a sworn pact to go back and retrieve it.
Vietnam is different these days and so are the Bloods. They have drifted apart, but never betrayed their shared brotherhood and oath to one another. Now led by Paul (an award-buzzy Delroy Lindo), with his son David (Jonathon Majors) filling out their numbers, the Bloods return and fulfill their promise to each other (Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. fill out the excellent ensemble). They enter Vietnam in a new context. At a club, a DJ plays the records of an assimilated culture, below a poetically inspired Apocalypse Now (1979) logo (the motif, credited to an actual night club). With the post-war French influence, it has become a Westernized Asia, not so different from their own America. So much has changed, but the war never changed and has lived on in the hearts of the men who fought it. As Paul perfectly summarizes, “We fought in an immoral war that wasn’t ours, for rights we didn’t have.”
Lee mediates a wonderful balance between old and new. He shows clearly how, despite shifting social ideologies, the concerns for Black American men remain the same. Through their treasure hunt, Lee is ingeniously at play with aspect ratio. As Vietnam was the first televised American war, cinematographer Newtown Thomas Sigel finds preference for the smaller aspect ratios and 16mm footage, when it’s made necessary to relive the past. Da 5 Bloods showcases a mature director, late in their career, still renovating their style, and creating new social foundations for their work. There are a lot of “movies we need right now” — but Da 5 Bloods Is Right Now, the way Apocalypse Now “is Vietnam”.
With all that, Spike gets to direct his own The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) — as directly influential as to be literally quoted — with enough gravitas to earn his placement with John Huston in that conversation. The regular issues of his films still occasionally crop up. The action is messily organized, sometimes scenes lack a coherent progression in context, the spouting blood always looks pulpy and unserious. There is a heavy-handedness to it, this time rightly earned by its stars, a group of really beautiful actors performing with a lived-in sense of brotherhood. This time, it all connects at a larger level. The themes resonate, the trip back through Vietnam is emotionally complex, and speaks to a multitude of generational social issues. This movie is imperfect but earns every imperfection, and has authorship over them, too.
It’s a bolder return for Spike after the mixed reception of BlacKkKlansman (2018), which blessedly, at least, finally earned him an Oscar. And now that conversation is in the books, and regenerated: is it time again? We will have to have the conversation until he has won Best Picture. This late-career resurgence has come at just the right time, when the Black cinema has been reenergized with vitality, as symbolically American as it has always been, now formally recognized for it. Da 5 Bloods is worthy of its buzz, certainly, if not occasionally flawed, the way Spike’s films regularly can be. It is a bold and important picture with something crucially important to say: Black Lives Matter.