The latest Spike Lee “Joint” arrived on Netflix on June 12th, off the back of Lee’s 2018 critical success with BlacKkKlansman. Da 5 Bloods is Lee’s return to satirical form with focus on African American GI experience in the reprehensible Vietnam War. Da 5 Bloods unflinchingly portrays the African American experience, challenging the traditional representation of the Black ‘buddy’ characters in war films – showcasing a diverse range of antagonistic African American characters. It stars Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Norm Lewis as the four African American veterans on a pilgrimage to search for fellow GI Stormin’ Norman’s (Chadwick Boseman) remains along with their ulterior motive: searching for the gold he helped them bury. Most of the action sequences take place in the traditionally inhospitably depicted jungle and despite a promising start, Da 5 Bloods contains some questionable Vietnamese portrayals.
History is a powerful tool to provoke modern day action. This has never been truer than recently, with Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol and many other contentious commemorations being symbolically torn down across the globe. Significantly, Lee repeats his auteur technique of peppering Da 5 Bloods with historic documentary footage and does not falter in educating audiences on famous historic Black Americans including Milton L. Olive III – the first African American to receive the Medal of Honour for his sacrifice in Vietnam. As the aspect ratio alterations cleverly shift from the twentieth century to the modern era, the beginning of Da 5 Bloods morphs from the volatile sixties to the equally troublesome contemporary climate.
The Hanoi Hannah (Ngo Thanh Van) character also advances Lee’s cultural critique of American history’s disregard of the African American GI experience. Her northern Vietnamese propaganda targets the Black American GIs, speaking to their exploitation during the war. Lee also digs at Hollywood’s whitewashing of the Vietnam experience in films such as propagandic The Green Berets, while also dedicating homage to select Vietnam war films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Oliver Stone’s Platoon. The Marvin Gaye soundtrack along with the ironically heroic orchestral score makes audiences question the role whitewashed war movies have on the movie-going public.
Da 5 Bloods bubbles up violently in places with the four antiheroes either being shot at, blown up or chased in equal measure. It also features Lee’s iconic trope of the impassioned fourth wall breaking monologue, rampant with racially charged rhetoric about injustice symbolically relevant in the modern context. Paul’s speech parallels Mookie’s monologue in Lee’s seminal Do The Right Thing.
The flashbacks to the war through Newton Thomas Sigel’s 16mm lens are enticing, despite Lee’s inability to de-age his main stars next to the youthful Chadwick Boseman. This was a feat that Scorsese’s enormous Netflix debut The Irishman, with its whopping $160 million budget, capitalised on.
However, despite these praiseworthy moments of Lee excitement, the Vietnamese characterisation is underwhelming in this venture. Otis’ Vietnamese ex-lover that fathered his daughter is underexplored and the Vietcong soldiers are often simplistically portrayed as cannon fodder to be peppered by bullets.
I found myself longing for a film that belonged more tonally to the first half than the second half’s caper which felt more like a version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. After the initially promising start which represented America’s entrenched geopolitical misconduct in Vietnam, this all felt disappointing.
While Lee touches well upon the racist experience that the disproportionate number of African American GIs in Vietnam experienced, and his use of historical documentary and iconic tropes resonate with today’s “Black Lives Matter” debate, the film’s two separate parts felt disjointed. This paired with the questionable depiction of the Vietnamese population detracts from the film’s appeal.
Da 5 Bloods is available to stream on Netflix now.
Image Credit: David Lee, Netflix