Spike Lee’s ‘Da 5 Bloods’ offers a tour de force of Black and cinematic history

Jun 24, 2020 at 1:00 am
Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, and Jonathan Majors in Da 5 Bloods.
Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, and Jonathan Majors in Da 5 Bloods. Netflix

Few filmmakers are as adept at weaving the past and present as Spike Lee. His most recent project, Da 5 Bloods, is exemplary of this, as well as his occasional nods to and riffs on cinematic history. With the introduction of the four African American vets who meet and prepare to return to Vietnam, ostensibly to recover the remains of a fellow soldier — though they are also on a mission to find some buried gold bullion — you learn their names and a smattering of their résumés.

Like Malcolm X and BlacKkKlansman, the film opens with a montage of pics and clips of momentous moments in African American history, none more striking and on point than Muhammad Ali's famous quote "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong." It sets the stage for the entry of the reunion of the brothers who haven't seen each other in years, and this establishing shot gives them opportunities to say how much they have changed — or not.

Even before Marvin Gaye arrives on the soundtrack with his classic "What's Going On," the Bloods' names evoke Motown, specifically the Temptations with Delroy Lindo (Paul); Clarke Peters (Otis); Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (Melvin); and Norm Lewis (Eddie). Jonathan Majors (David) portrays Paul's son, and there is a scene where a bit more than nuance is made to lead singer David Ruffin, not the David of the Bible, Majors informs Mélanie Thierry (Hedy), the only white woman in the film. She is traveling with two other NGO workers who get inadvertently caught in the film's crossfire and two-and-a-half hours of intensity.

An exchange of paperwork legitimates the Bloods' trip, official government documents that permit them to recover the remains. Their travel guide, Johnny Nguyen (Vinh Tran), later hands out the maps they will need to navigate territory they haven't seen since the war. Otis breaks from the group to keep an appointment with a Vietnamese woman when he learns that he's the father of her daughter. A nightclub scene offers a brief interlude as the Bloods dance, a little Monkey, Twist, and Mashed Potato, as they once did when they were much younger. And it's interesting to see how there are no younger actors to portray them back in the day or to remake their faces as Netflix did with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in The Irishman.

Film buffs will immediately recognize both the visuals and music as the Bloods make their way up the Mekong River into Conrad's Heart of Darkness accompanied by Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" that captures the impending conflict as it did in Apocalypse Now. Before they're completely up the river, they encounter vendors on boats aggressively hawking their wares, much to the chagrin of Paul, in what will be his first outburst of PTSD. Further up the river, almost incomprehensibly, a pair of sneakers are strung across a wire as if hung on telephone wires in the ghetto. David, unsuccessfully, tries to retrieve them.

Earlier, when they encounter three NGO workers, there's a sense of foreboding when they explain that they're there to find and detonate mines. These "Bouncing Bettys," as they were called during World War II, are planted throughout the underbrush. Inevitably, David steps on one and cannot move, lest the explosive rips him to shreds. The group's ingenuity, especially Paul's quick thinking, rescues David by yanking him tug-of-war style from danger. Such will not be the luck of one of the others.

Lee employs a series of flashbacks to highlight Norman (Chadwick Boseman) — the character's name perhaps a nod to Motown composer and arranger Norman Whitfield. Norman's speeches are laced with Black militancy and revolutionary rhetoric, from Crispus Attucks to the Black Panther Party. Shortly after they discover Norman's remains, they stumble onto the gold that is scattered around the hillside of northern Thailand, where the action segments of the movie were filmed. Are the gold bars the reparations that Norman dreamed of — or the potential payoff to rip the brothers apart? Or is this another Lee riff on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? Unbeknownst to them, lurking on the horizon are Vietnamese bandits — and clearly a clash of wills is in the making.

The eventual showdown leaves casualties on both sides, but one of the Vietnamese escapes, and you know he'll soon return with a team of vengeful comrades. Meanwhile, Paul, in a growing fit of madness, abandons the group and takes off on his own. As he makes his way through the semi-jungle, he is bitten by a snake and ensnared in a trap, which only increases his insanity. And Lee and the writers, including Kevin Willmott, provide him with a crazed monologue that bears all the pent-up, frustrated, Trump-like tendencies he evinces, right down to his MAGA red cap. He is literally and figuratively on his way to digging his own grave. There is something terrifying, something terribly haunting and deranged about him, reminiscent of Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

Lee was probably not thinking of the five Black men who rode with John Brown on that fateful raid at Harpers Ferry that precipitated the Civil War. Only one of the five men who rode with Brown survived and, in effect, lived to tell the tale. Similarly, only one of the Bloods survives, though Norman has long been dead. David, not an original Blood, survives, as well, and is left to bring the story into the current realm of Black Lives Matter, where again Lee has finessed a way to merge the past with the present.

The film is also a reminder of the late author and journalist Wallace Terry, whose book Bloods, is an oral history of African American soldiers in 'Nam. In keeping with Terry's conclusions, Lee has only one moment in which the Bloods discussed the possibility of "fraggin'" — or taking their anger out on their fellow white troops. There's a nice play on words when one of the Bloods confuses "Cali" (California) with Lt. William Calley and the My Lai massacre.

Interestingly, to again evoke the Temptations, of the original five, only Otis is still alive. His namesake in the film, too, is a resourceful survivor who seems to be on his way to repairing things between his daughter and her mother.

Da 5 Bloods — and this continues the use of numbers in such Lee film titles as Girl 6, 4 Little Girls, and 25th Hour — has all the typical warp and woof of a Spike Lee joint. Not only is Lee an astute film historian, he is a master teacher with an intuitive skill for taking the loose ends of our diverse culture and making them resonate with fresh insights and an invigorating perspective.

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