Four African-Amerian veterans return to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to find their fallen friend and bring him home – along with the buried gold that they hid over 45 years ago. With the physical and mental scars of war dictating their mission, so too are the systemic prejudices of society and the burden of hundreds of years of racism.
Spike Lee returns to the screen with Netflix release Da 5 Bloods, a politically-charged war film that continues his crusade of exposing racism and celebrating African-American heritage. Once one of the most powerful and provocative filmmakers of his generation, Lee’s pursuit of social justice has seen his career meander a precarious trajectory.
His work greatly influenced my own cinematic journey and his films like Do the Right Thing and Clockers are amongst the most impactful films I have ever seen. However, with his narrowed focal point cast squarely on the one fundamental issue, his impact on this writer wained to a degree in the 2000s as the sense that he was beating the same drum became overwhelming. The impression that his message through cinema had been received was clear, and yet, sadly, 31 years after Do the Right Thing captivated the world, we find ourselves living that film out in reality.
As the entire world is gripped by a social justice movement it is all too apparent that Lee’s career-defining message of “Black Lives Matter” is – in fact – yet to be received. Da 5 Bloods arrives to Netflix at a most opportune time.
Set against a Westernised Vietnam, Lee’s film explores a multitude of issues and themes, and is perhaps marred by the complexity of subjects. Running at a whopping 154 minutes, the story of these four friends provides a template for various historical factoids to strike the screen. From speeches by Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, to images of heroic black figures and flashes of documented human rights violations, these conspicuous alarm signals frequently interrupt the narrative and, unfortunately, present an unwelcome distraction to the story at hand.
Rather than simply telling these men’s story of sacrifice, mateship and trauma, Lee flexes his iconic political muscle to push his message… hard. There is no mistaking his politics as the film directly references Donald Trump as a Klansman and all but discredits conservatism in general. And so be it.
The cast is a strong ensemble, with Lee stalwart Delroy Lindo in particular delivering a show-stealing performance as the PTSD-stricken republican for whom the war never went away. With perpetual paranoia and a highly strung persona, Lindo dominates the screen, providing the film some of its most powerful moments. Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr co-star as his fellow vets, each with their own personal connection to Vietnam. Other players include Chad Boseman, Jonathan Majors, Melanie Thierry and Paul Walter Hauser.
Before Spike Lee got his hands on Da 5 Bloods, the script had previously been attached to Oliver Stone and was an all white-character driven post-war heist story. Having come off of his critically acclaimed 2018 film BlackKklansman, Lee seized the opportunity to subvert the script to suit his auteurism and spread an important message. In turn, his film is undeniably ambitious, albeit clunky.
Aside from the arguably distracting social-commentary inserts, the overall style of the film is disjointed. As the narrative transitions back and forth between a contemporary setting and flashback sequences, the aspect ratio constantly switches and the colour grade drops. The cinematography within the flashbacks is of a lesser standard, and the performances and choreography feel disingenuous, if not hokey. Furthermore, Lee has chosen to let his senior lead actors play their younger selves, without any form of de-aging, which layers in yet another distraction where one isn’t necessary.
Da 5 Bloods is a frustrating film in many regards, and yet there’s no denying that it is a polarising and topical statement that signifies the same anger that Lee possessed all those years ago. Its punch is softened by an overreaching agenda and I cannot help but feel that it would be all the more powerful as a straight-forward narrative – without the gratuitous use of historical inserts. Irregardless, there is an excellent film to be found somewhere amongst the rubble and were the running time reduced to 100-minutes without the rigmarole, Da 5 Blood might have been one of the year’s best films.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★✩✩
‘Da 5 Bloods’ can be seen on Netflix right HERE.