Spike Lee’s war drama Da 5 Bloods is released on Netflix today and it’s a decent watch and a worthy replacement for a Friday cinema premiere. As the Netflix description reads: “Four African American veterans return to Vietnam decades after the war to find their squad leader’s remains – and a stash of buried gold”. This blurb isn’t the only thing this movie is about of course; it’s also a disjointed tale about race and racism. The plot of retrieving gold under the pretence of reclaiming the remains of a fallen comrade is similar to the film itself: this movie purports to be about war and reparations but this gets lost under the weight of not only the precious metal but current issues. Originally written by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo (Trancers and The Rocketeer), the script was then re-worked by Spike Lee and frequent collaborator Kevin Willmott (who co-wrote Chi-Raq and BlacKkKlansman). Whilst on the subject of BlacKkKlansman, even though it was about race and racism, the film didn’t seem that daring or subversive for a Spike Lee Joint. For me, it fitted into the slot of all the other “look, not all white people are racist, we helped you in the past” films including Hidden Figures. Da 5 Bloods is similar to this, in so far as there’s no subtext thanks to a sanitised and shallow plot (possibly courtesy of Bilson and De Meo). Film-makers can dance around issues of race all they want but if the finished product fails to get the viewer angry or feel ashamed, the movie itself fails. Maybe Spike shouldn’t have “re-worked” a white man’s script and instead written one from scratch. This movie had great potential to be distinctive and thought-provoking but it falls short of being remarkable. Unfortunately, the trailer which contained the Chambers Brothers’ song “Time Has Come Today” made this movie look much more fearless and bold than it actually is…
Opening with Muhammad Ali’s Vietnam conscription quote, I’ll admit that had high hopes for this film: “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? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”. What follows is unfortunately not as brave as Ali. Sure, there’s commentary about black people in the ’60s (“being a brother meant something… we fought against the man!”), the confrontation with a Vietnamese chicken seller is emotional (“you killed my mother and father”), and “Ride Of The Valkyries”, the classical song from Apocalypse Now is used in a scene without helicopters and explosions which goes a little way toward subverting war movies but not much. There’s fleeting comments about Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo and Chuck Norris (“Hollyweird” going back trying to save imaginary P.O.W.s and win the Vietnam war) but to offset that, the central character Paul is a pro-war, anti-immigrant, pro-Trump sellout with P.T.S.D.
The film stars Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Norm Lewis (incidentally, someone who would have been too young to have fought in Vietnam). The group recall their friend and brother in arms Norman (played by Chadwick Boseman) who died in the Vietnam conflict. Da 5 Bloods also stars Jonathan Majors, Jean Reno, as well as Veronica Ngo as Hanoi Hannah, a real-life character and arguably the most interesting aspect of the film. While I’m outlining the ingredients of this movie, I’ll add that this is one of the few films where switching aspect ratio is for effect rather than a side-effect (4:3 for the past and 2.35:1 for the present day) – someone please tell Christopher Nolan to watch this flick and take note. The mixing of the young Chadwick Boseman as Stormin’ Norman alongside the older cast in the past is either a great way of depicting people’s memory or indicative of the budget given to a “black film”. Whatever the reason, the horridly plastic-y and completely false-looking de-ageing of The Irishman is thankfully nowhere to be seen.
Back to the story, Muhammad Ali’s stance on The Vietnam War or dead prez’ opinion on the military is usually a point of view that is swept under the militaristic rug. Hollywood and the mainstream media adore the military and spend so much time and money propagandising past conflicts that it surprised me a film like this was ever put into production. After watching the film rather than merely the trailer, my opinion has changed. Da 5 Bloods touches on the morality or immorality of the Vietnam conflict (and possibly all wars) but not enough to say something touching or particularly unique. Without honing-in on a specific target, either politically or narratively, Da 5 Bloods falls into Vietnam War Movie cliché territory: flashbacks, regret, suppressed guilt, with lots of juxtaposed classic songs. The fact that the central characters are those who didn’t follow in Ali’s footsteps and refuse to fight, this is yet another case of Hollywood militarism albeit extremely watered-down. Da 5 Bloods is not daring or dangerous, it’s a jumbled story that attempts to intertwine history with adventure but the end result lacks structure and pace and it abandons emotion for contrived shootouts and meaningless violence. This film is very slow in parts, other parts are very predictable (including the landmine scene), and there’s amateur editing with historical pictures not cropped or formatted for the screen. Don’t get me wrong: this is not a bad film but given what it purported to be about, it’s certainly disappointing. And SPOILER ALERT: giving imaginary money to Black Lives Matter and an anti-landmine charity doesn’t do much in the real world.
White people are always overrating art because it’s a quick way of fixing systemic racism (at least in their eyes). With this film attaining a whopping 90% on Rotten Tomatoes (at the time of writing this review) this is only 2% shy of the score for Do The Right Thing, a genuine classic movie and a film which lost out to Driving Miss Daisy at the Oscars that year. The same way that over-praising Parasite didn’t make up for shunning Asian cinema for decades, this current fawning over Spike Lee does fuck all to mend a prejudiced sector of entertainment. Retrospective praise and current overrating is part of the problem of having white-controlled media and art, and that’s not the only issue here.
Moving away from this film for a bit, I’ll state that Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X included aspects of Malcolm Little’s life that could have been omitted. I mean white film-makers completely whitewashed the life of a racist like Winston Churchill but a biopic of a black revolutionary had to be “warts and all”? Da 5 Bloods is similar in this respect; it wanders around anti-war issues but all of the protagonists whether sellouts or now retrospectively pro-black, are veterans which makes the plot somewhat cowardly. No wonder white critics are coming out saying this movie displays “fierce energy” and is “impactful”. But is it? The conversation the characters have about “controlling your rage” after the broadcast of Martin Luther King’s assassination is the only thing that can be interpreted as commentary about today’s rioting but in truth Da 5 Bloods is a film written by a white man 7 years ago and filmed by a black director well-over 1 year ago. That being the case, is it really fair to hold it against news from over two weeks ago?
The same way the L.A. Riots made Spike Lee’s Malcolm X seem more relevant, the George Floyd murder and subsequent international protest seems to make Da 5 Bloods a little more pertinent than it actually is. This is coincidence of course; what this actually proves is how prevalent racism is in America and how little black talent Hollywood hires. The fact that racism hasn’t lessened in the last three decades coupled with the fact that Spike is still the most famous black writer-director, is worrying and something we as a society need to acknowledge. When the release of any of Lee’s films can coincide with any number of high-profile cases of bigotry and prejudiced violence against black people to the point that white critics the world over can declare these movies as extremely relevant, this is at bare minimum a moment for reflection and about time to enact some fucking change.