Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee’s 2020 joint, couldn’t be more timely. Released at the moment when the Black Lives Matter peaks after the murder of George Floyd, this joint serves as a poignant reminder of how African-Americans always fight the battles that aren’t theirs and ends up being the victims of unfairness. The story of 4 black Vietnam veterans returning to the battleground that unite them carries the message—on America’s repeatedly poor war policies and the impacts on black communities—perfectly.
In most wars where the United States of America participates ever since its own Civil War, African-Americans suffered disproportionately high casualty rates. At some points during the Vietnam War, the number spiked up to 14% of total combat deaths. Prominent African-American figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali heavily criticized the racial disparity in casualties for a war that practically isn’t theirs. Meanwhile, back at home, systemic injustice to the black societies was still high; even King Jr. was assassinated for being critical during those periods. Lee seams together those ironies with quotes and footages from fellow black brothers and attaches them to the story in a semi-documentary presentation in order to make the point about his Da 5 Bloods story.
Hollywood has known for romanticizing Vietnam War, spawning famous characters and troublesome heroes, for years now; but, nothing is quite like this. None of them is even half as honest as this joint. Surely John Rambo is a cool veteran serving in this diabolical war; surely Forrest Gump survives this war and lives a rather quirky life; surely Travis Bickle is iconic; but, none of them is quite like the four “bloods”—Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Otis (Clark Peters) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.)—returning deliberately to ‘Nam to bring home the remnants of their deceased squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). At their leisure moments, the bloods can be extremely hilarious with their banters and quip; in a more intimate moment, we’ll see the softer or even deranged side of them. Paul suffers long-time PTSD that has troubled him every night and estranged his son in the process; Eddie wears secrets about himself on his sleeves; Otis might have unfinished business in ‘Nam; meanwhile, Melvin, nobody really knows what his deal is. When it comes to fighting, however, those middle-aged chaps cannot certainly be undermined. They handle any lurking danger ferociously and intensely.
When it’s funny, it’s sharply funny. At one point, the bloods would pass a billboard-laden street full of American fast-food franchises and mock on how America should actually win the war without any military advance. They spend a wild night at a local bar called “Apocalypse Now” which ironically aims to entice foreigners, especially Americans. When it’s on history-lesson mode, however, it’s very poignant. The bloods’ local guide, Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyễn), would then spill to them that he lost his father in Operation Junction City—a mutual lost cause for America and Vietnam. The war they fought in seems fruitless and aimless; what’s left is suffering for everyone involved. When it reminds us of the continuing hazard from the war era, it takes a visceral way. David (Jonathan Majors), Paul’s estranged son, would join the quest and meet Hedy (Mélanie Thierry) with her comrades, Seppo (Jasper Pääkkönen) and Simon (Paul Walter Hauser), volunteers in attempts to clear active landmines in Vietnam. Lee ensures that the depiction of the landmines is still as harrowing and realistic as possible. When it comes to satire, the whole outcome is rather explicit. The characters even mock Paul, wearing a MAGA hat all the time, for his simplistic support to the President Fake Bone Spurs a.k.a. Donald Trump, who allegedly faked his own physical flaw to avoid being drafted to Vietnam. What an irony!
Da 5 Bloods begins the modern Vietnam quest with ample of Apocalypse Now references (including the scene with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries) before interpolating the modern events with the flashbacks attached to the main story. In portraying the younger version of the bloods, Spike Lee does not cast different (most possibly younger) actors; instead, he exploits the very same actors to play the younger version of themselves to shine alongside Chadwick Boseman’s charming performance. While it feels awkward at first, this approach eventually works to bridge the emotional bond between the younger bloods and their older version realistically. As the story progress, it follows the hints and turns into a greed-fest a la The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The third part of the movie is utterly gut-wrenching as it unravels the reality of war in the frankest methods.
Clocking in at 154 minutes, Da 5 Bloods seems very bloated with subtexts and explicit messages stuffed the already perplexing plot. As the story progresses, nevertheless, it does not get convoluted but it only gets deeper in revealing how harrowing the impact of war. Most importantly, the whole story reminds us that “minding people’s business” is the American way.