DA 5 BLOODS: Brothers In Arms

At one time, history meant prevention. Documenting human error, studying its evolution, its variety, and its cruelty seemed to serve no greater purpose than to resist repetition. It’s hardly a fool’s errand – a referential spreadsheet conceived, at its best, fully and fairly – until you consider which fools have held the pen over time. As one of Hollywood’s most potent and literal historians, Spike Lee doesn’t see history as a thing of the past. Pages and words on textbooks are deceptive in their size; Lee, after trudging through his own iconic brand of cinematic chaos, shows that these tragedies and injustices are much more dimensional than a piece of paper.

This is the case with his latest joint and his first with Netflix, Da 5 Bloods, which opens with Muhammad Ali and closes with Martin Luther King Jr. Though both are great figureheads of Black pride and liberation, they’re united on this occasion for their hatred of the Vietnam War and, more specifically, the Black soldiers’ involvement in that war. For Ali, who ruthlessly denied his draft call, that opposition cost him his heavyweight title and several years of his competitive prime. And for Dr. King, it could very possibly have been the final straw before his assassination. But in both cases, these men broadcasted the ironic position of their brothers in arms. Not only was their involvement purposefully imbalanced – an untold but sinister strategy to deter the Civil Rights Movement – but for a war that never rallied grand support and has yet to settle on a justifiable purpose, what Black soldier thought Vietnam is where they should be?

These sentiments bookend a zany, exciting, and violent production by Lee. Split in half by a quest for gold and a guerilla battle to defend it, this two-and-a-half-hour film not only explores what it means to be a soldier caught in several conflicts but also what it means to live with them. “After you’ve been in a war,” one character says, “you understand it never really ends.”

Flight of Da Valkyries

Lee flew to Thailand less than 24 hours after flying into Sam Jackson’s arms on the Dolby stage. The spectacle of his long-overdue (and first!) Oscar win could very possibly account for this film’s unrestrained confidence in front of and behind the camera. Though Lee has never been one to shy away from style, Da 5 Bloods encapsulates all of his cinematic obsessions, all while navigating an action-packed, yet meditative war film – surprisingly unmarked territory within his expansive career.

DA 5 BLOODS: Brothers in Arms
source: Netflix

Considering his appetite for controversy as a segue to the truth, what isn’t surprising is his selection of Vietnam. Not only was the war a pillar of the counterculture movement, but in Hollywood, it never seemed to end. Over glamorized by rich sunsets, fanatic fanfare, and its moral ambiguity, the conflict was also oversaturated by the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris, whose bloody, macho films both whitewashed the war effort (a radio broadcast in Bloods reminds us that 32% of the entire American army was Black) and deceptively claimed victory over it. With his base cast, a solid quartet of Black vets, Lee scoffs those impressions.

But within those criticisms are also homages to other films. And war films like Apocalypse Now (which gets a blatant and literal mention as the backdrop to the Ho Chi Minh club scene) aren’t the only ones to get revived here. Da 5 Bloods also shares several beats and themes with John Huston’s own treasure-seeking, greed-filled masterpiece, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, whose intoxicating aesthetic is similarly shared here.

These parallels and contradictions are all bundled into a lifelong bond shared between four men. They called themselves “bloods” overseas and as a quintet, their fused personalities knew no greater action, fear, or comradery. With the film picking up in the modern-day, decades after the war and their time together ended, their friendship seems to have picked up where it left off. Their names are Paul (Lee veteran Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Broadway icon Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), and they’ve come back to the proverbial “shit” to collect their fallen leader (Chadwick Boseman) and the millions in gold they left behind.

Dig, You Dig?

The first 90 minutes or so of Da 5 Bloods is dedicated to that hunt. For years, the men considered their treasure and their friend to be lost, buried beneath napalmed jungle ruins forever. But after a mammoth mudslide sparked some hope in their step, their journey back can officially begin, though unsettled mental debts have taken their toll.

This is most apparent in Paul, who Lindo brands with an unmistakable tug-of-war from war. Paul hates everyone. The Vietnamese, the French, the immigrants, the Bloods at times, and even his own blood (Jonathon Majors, whose character snuck his way into the trip to look after his dad) all fall victim to his rage-filled delusions. Though Lee caps off his troll by giving him a MAGA hat – a shocking decision from the auteur who regularly calls Trump a white supremacist – the director mules Lindo for the bulk of what we know to be a “joint.” Paul’s hysteria extends to long soliloquies, explosive interactions with the audience, and himself that only Lee has been able to master onscreen. Paul is undoubtedly the most complex character at play here, with his presence supporting every perception of universality to Lee’s films.

But all of Da Bloods play important roles. Together, they toss and turn through guilt and greed, not only cementing the Sierra Madra connection but their own as well. While the story takes place long after American troops withdrew from Saigon and their heart of darkness, Lee flips back and forth between their quest and their service, showcasing his belief in his cast and his characters by having the four older men conduct their former warfare. This decision – one that apparently turned a lot of studios off the project – only validates the bond, supporting it and the baggage all of them carry.

DA 5 BLOODS: Brothers in Arms
source: Netflix

In weaker hands, the chaos of the script, which concludes with a barbaric, tone-splitting last stand, might have fumbled the punch through its more predictable beats. But Lee has proven himself to be one of the few directors out there who can whittle his points out of the familiar. His cyclical storytelling often leads with a common denominator before landing on a full-circle observation. We should see it coming – especially when the point consists of real headlines and general history – but it still hits like a collision.

Conclusion: Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods is the first great Black Vietnam film, not just the first. It’s a movie whose modern envelope minces empathy and excitement within the unsung sacrifice of the African American soldier. Unfortunately, at this point, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether or not 2020 will generate enough competition for the Academy Awards. But if the gears manage to turn enough before the ceremony, expect several aspects of this one – with Lindo at the top of the list – to be part of the conversation.

Have you seen Da 5 Bloods? What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below!

Da 5 Bloods will be released on Netflix on June 12, 2020.

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