Spike Lee is on something of a roll as of late. Perhaps it was the complete commercial and critical failure of 2013’s Oldboy (of which Lee is not proud of [the usual “Spike Lee joint” credit is replaced with “A Spike Lee Film”]) that made him go back to his roots of disruptive social dramas that directly reflect problems his country faces today. 2014’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus was mixed on arrival, but 2015’s Chi-Raq was more positively received, and then came 2018 and BlacKkKlansman, which sought to come in with a mighty force and show, with no reservations, the direct parallels of white supremacy to the current American administration. It won Lee his first Oscar (for Best Adapted Screenplay, shared with the film’s co-writers Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Wilmott) and has lead directly into 2020’s Da 5 Bloods, which could not come at a more salient time.
The film, depicting four Vietnam War veterans returning to the gravesite of their fallen squad leader from 40 years ago to also retrieve buried gold they’d found then, was released on Netflix on June 12th, almost three weeks after the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent worldwide protests that continue on to this day. To say that racism and the perpetual destruction of the United States at the hands of a certain current administration weren’t on Lee’s mind when making this film is an understatement.
I don’t honestly know how much I can talk about this film, because it speaks to more ideas than I can ever put into just a few words. It is so wonderful to see Black actors playing best friends and enjoying being around one another at first, then it is truly crushing when you see them splitting apart over one character being a Trump supporter (or Agent Orange, as Lee likes to call him), or various other microaggressions that flare up causing us to realise that these four men (and one of their sons) are friends but are also all very broken people who have never resolved their pain and trauma. The memory of what happened in Vietnam can never go away, no matter how much someone would want to dress it up with a MAGA hat or newfound spirituality.
Da 5 Bloods is a hard watch. The 140-minute runtime does bear on oneself after they’ve found the gold, but once you bear through some of Lee’s more noticeable uneven qualities as a writer (several comedy moments land flat in the first third of the film) and a plot that even the characters forget about for a while, you’re in for a second half that may as well destroy you. It is only once the gold is found does everything converge and twist and grow in on itself, lives are torn apart, men die, and you are left feeling such overwhelming emotion, made so much worse because of the current state of race relations in the United States, but because Chadwick Boseman is no longer with us.
In a cruel twist of fate, Da 5 Bloods is the second-last role for the late, great Chadwick Boseman, who was already going to be really good in this movie, but because of his passing and because he plays the long-fallen squad leader, every scene he’s in has such a soul-crushing weight to it. I burst into tears in his last scene, embracing Delroy Lindo who also gives a magnificent performance. As much as I can praise Boseman for continuing to be one of the finest actors ever, as well as the rest of the cast doing amazing work, it is Lindo who leads the charge and delivers a complicated and morally-questionable performance which touches so succinctly on the pain of the human condition and the lasting legacy of trauma in America. If he does not win Best Actor come Oscar-time, then the Oscars have failed in the film community once again.
Like BlackKklansman before it, Da 5 Bloods is an uneven film, notably wavering in the first half. As with most of Spike Lee’s work, it’s never particularly subtle. It’s loud, in-your-face, sometimes it can be too much, but Lee’s mastery as a director has you unconsciously wrapped up in the climax, so much so that the credits feel like a betrayal. You want the message of Black power and knowing the honest truth about race in America to go on forever, but a film can only last so long. It is up to you to take these messages out into the world, to live by the ideas and beauty that Spike Lee presents, and to honour the legacy of veterans fallen by the stroke of white man’s war, and to those performers who give life to that legacy who they themselves can no longer be with us. Despite its flaws, Da 5 Bloods is an amazing film, something you need to see no matter what, and a piece of work that will not be forgotten. Because Black Lives Matter.
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