“O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath — America will be!” – Martin Luther King Jr. by way of Langston Hughes, 1967.
America was built by us, not for us.
This is what Spike Lee needs you to know as you watch “Da 5 Bloods.” It’s his latest passion project, and it wears many hats – including a rather deadly red one – as it pulls off the wardrobe changes rather miraculously, creating a viscerally powerful, kinetic, and aggressively uncompromising cinematic experience. It’s a statement that never leaves the lips of any of the characters verbatim, but rather permeates every scene with a dramatic flare that gets in your head and remains long after the credits roll.
Partnering with Netflix on his second and most ambitious war film, Lee assembles an absolutely stellar cast, led by a mesmeric Delroy Lindo performance, along with an experienced, talented crew to bring the story of the Black G.I. to the silver screen. “Da 5 Bloods” follows a group of Vietnam veterans as they head back to their old stomping grounds to retrieve the remains of their fallen Blood, as well as the millions of dollars in gold they buried with him.
There’s so much to say about this film and why it works so well, but first and foremost: it’s phenomenal. This is a Spike Lee joint to its very core and his creative imprint is felt from start to finish. The quick cuts, dolly shots, frame squeezes, aspect ratio changes, fearsome monologues, and historical footage are all there. For fans and followers of Lee’s work, seeing these techniques time and time again make for a delightful trip down memory lane. But “Da 5 Bloods” isn’t just a product of technical craftsmanship; it’s a personal and affecting journey brought to life by a beautiful and measured sense of character and story.
The journey of Da Bloods as we know it begins in a hotel in Vietnam, where Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Eddie (Norm Lewis) reunite to return their fallen squad leader, Stormin’ Norman’s (Chadwick Boseman), body back stateside. The chemistry and kinship from the group almost reaches out of the screen and slaps you in the face, immediately assuring you the reality of their relationships with each other.
After the dust has settled and the handshakes and hugs disappear, Da Bloods reveal an ulterior motive for returning to the country: finding the gold they buried years ago after discovering a crashed CIA plane during the war. After some reluctant dealings with Otis’s old flame, Tiên Luu (Lê Y Lan), and french smuggler Desroche (Jean Reno), Da Bloods plan to head off into the jungle, but not before Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), makes a surprise appearance to join his father’s team.
David and Paul’s relationship carries the lifeblood of the film. Paul is a terrible father and has been for quite some time, leaving David to pick up the pieces of a fractured family that broke after his mother died giving birth to him. It’s the defining tragedy in a series of tragedies that construct the psyche of Paul, who is one of the most sharply executed and carefully constructed lead characters in recent memory. He wears his pain on his sleeve, in his eyes, and on his head in the form of a MAGA hat which immediately puts everyone, including the viewer, in an uncomfortable position.
It’s character moments like David’s and Paul’s that makes “Da 5 Bloods” such a memorable and beautiful journey. These are people – real people – and you’re reminded of that every time they open their mouths to speak, and every time they close them to listen.
As they head deeper into the jungle, which looks gorgeous thanks to an on-location shoot and stellar work from cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel, David asks the other Bloods about the “old days.” Brought to life through fantastic 16mm flashback sequences, we see just how badass Stormin’ Norman and Da Bloods were back in the day, and it becomes readily apparent why Norman is their leader. He’s a man of conviction, an educated soul brother who knows why he is as much as who he is, and no one loved or respected him more than Paul. One of the most utterly powerful flashbacks is when Da Bloods learn over the radio that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated stateside. It serves as a sharp reminder that while Black soldiers have fought for America, America has never fought for Black soldiers.
These reminders are what Lee wanted to leave with the audience more than anything. This is the film that he wanted to make and he leaves absolutely no doubt about that. By showing the gruesome acts of terror that America committed in Vietnam in the past juxtaposed with the PTSD and paranoia that has stuck with the soldiers who carried out those acts in the present, Lee leaves a stain on the viewer’s mind that’s impossible to wash off.
It’s shocking that at 156 minutes, “Da 5 Bloods” never feels slow or long. The pacing is smart and the tonal shift in the third act is masterfully earned which only adds to the beautifully harrowing journey told through Paul’s descent into his own personal hell. Although everything works brilliantly in the film, especially a stellar outing from long-time Lee collaborator, composer Terence Blanchard, Lindo’s performance as Paul is why we go to the movies. His arc is equal parts terrifying, mesmerizing, emotional, and exciting and only elevates what “Da 5 Bloods” is meant to be: a stylish, uncompromising meditation on being a Black soldier for a country that doesn’t care whether you live or die.
“Da 5 Bloods” is one of Lee’s best works, and coming off the success of “BlacKkKlansman,” it provides hope for both long-time fans and late arrivals that he shows no signs of slowing down.