REVIEW: Da 5 Bloods – The Movie We Needed

In his follow up to BlackKklansman, Spike Lee delivers another slamdunk in one of the year’s best films with Da 5 Bloods. A raw, powerful, and deeply moving film that has arrived at a moment when it is truly needed.

Full disclosure: I feel a little bit out of my depth reviewing this film. I am neither a veteran nor a black man so reviewing this film is a outside of my wheelhouse. The film deals with complex issues of race and PTSD, specifically from experiencing combat. I can talk about it on a narrative and thematic side, but background and experience are important and there are certain areas of the film I cannot do justice. I would highly suggest seeking out other writers, critics, and commentators with backgrounds that are not me on this film for a more complex and deep-dive discussion. Seek out more voices. I am writing this review on the film because I do want to discuss just how good it is and hopefully, I can use this platform so that more people will seek it out. Because make no mistake, Da 5 Bloods is a truly great film that feels like a boost in the arm this strange summer movie landscape needs, and it’s also a film a great many people must see.

Spike Lee has been one of the most interesting filmmakers since he burst onto the scene back in the 1980s. He has been clearly making the films he has always wanted to make and has been able to keep his unique vision intact over so many years. He has never been afraid to tackle issues of race in his films, with them buried deep into the narratives. Some critics often like to claim he isn’t subtle, but that boldness is what makes him unique and much needed. Sometimes subtly can be overlooked or ignored, but Spike Lee’s films make their points clear and he doesn’t care what you think about it. He might be a man in his sixties but his films still have the creative passion and daring of a young man just out of film school. He treats every film as a chance to teach his audience something that they may not have known. He is going to make sure it is jam-packed with as much stuff as he wants to say on the given subject and educate an audience. The audience may not want to hear the message, but he makes sure you don’t miss it.

Da 5 Bloods is the story of four Vietnam veterans who return to the country years later to find the remains of their fallen squad leader and lost buried treasure they uncovered back during their service. They must trek back through the Vietnam jungle to find their fortune, and also deal with their trauma left behind from the war as well as how time has left this once-close squad growing apart.

The film combines the “search for lost treasure” setup of Treasure of the Sierra Madre (one of Spike Lee’s favorite films) with the “journey into the heart of darkness” overtones of Apocalypse Now, commenting on how the importance of the all-black squad in the war has been downplayed in history and popular media that often depict it. When this screenplay was originally developed in 2013 it was due to be directed by Oliver Stone and would have featured a white battalion. Spike Lee’s reworking of the script features a lot of history about African-American soldiers that sadly doesn’t get that much attention and forgotten about. It is time to be reminded and make sure we never forget or downplay their importance again.

The cast features many highly respected and often overlooked black character actors, with the star being Delroy Lindo as Paul. While all the performances are great, it is Lindo who walks away with this movie in a role that might be the best performance I’ve seen so far this year. While he’s essentially the lead character, he also at times serves as the primary antagonist. He is dealing with the most scars from his time in the war, suffering from PTSD in a way that even some of his fellow soldiers cannot understand. It has strained his relationship with his son and even his way of integrating into society. Lindo is allowed to go to some really dark places here, but he gives a very nuanced performance that allows you to feel sympathy for him. This is an actor who has paid his dues for a very long time and hopefully he doesn’t get overlooked come awards season.

Clarke Peters as Otis, the medic, serves as Paul’s foil for most of the film and quite possibly the heart of the film. Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Melvin gives some of the film’s more dramatic moments a bit of levity, and his action scene is a true show stopper that makes you hope this man gets more roles. Norm Lewis as Eddie is the team’s big spender who also serves as the glue for much of the film, and is the level head that keeps them from splitting off from one another. Jonathan Majors’ role as David, the son of Delroy Lindo character, helps to ground Paul when he gives in to some darker tendencies and shows a real humanity to this complicated man. Finally, the casting of Chadwick Boseman as the team’s fallen leader works in a sense of meta casting, since any audience watching this knows that is also the Black Panther, carrying with it a weight and validity to every word he speaks. Spike Lee chooses to frame him like a larger than life superhero.

Spike Lee has been making films since the 1980s, so the man knows his stuff, and here he continues to show a strong visual eye with clever and thoughtful use of cinematic language to contrast past and present to reveal a wider truth. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel (Extraction, Drive, Superman Returns) uses three different aspect ratios. The present-day sequences are shot in traditional widescreen (with the black bars). When they arrive in the jungle of Vietnam the aspect ratio widens to 16:9 to broaden the canvas and fill in those black bars on your television. For the flashback sequences, rather than de-aging the stars with CGI or recasting with younger actors, the shift is marked by a change in aspect ratio (4:3) and color grading to reflect the footage that most Americans are used to seeing for the Vietnam War. This change literally and figuratively reframes the war; as this is a flashback/memory we see the Hollywood romanticized version of the war but the real-world horrors sadly cannot be cut out despite how the frame may want it. Honestly, these segments are so well done it kind of made me want to see Spike Lee do a whole feature in this style. An old fashion macho action film but with Spike Lee’s strong biting politics would be very much appreciated.

Da 5 Bloods is being released into a climate it didn’t expect, and the real tragedy is just how needed/relevant it is right now. But also this is something Spike Lee has been speaking to since he first started making films. So maybe it is now that the world has caught up with how he is feeling and what he has been trying to say. Throughout the film, real-life facts about African-American history are brought up and how much of this isn’t widely reported on in the news or in history books. African-American experiences are often erased. This never should have been the case, and this film coming out at this exact moment hopefully serves as a reminder.

Movie releases are a strange thing. Sometimes the right movie comes out at the right time. Da 5 Bloods is coming into a world that is reckoning with its past and present racism. But it’s also a summer movie season with no major competition; everyone is stuck at home and this film is being released on the most popular streaming service. With everyone in quarantine and nothing else out, more people may see it now than they might have originally and that’s a good thing.

Talking about the Oscars this early seems both pointless and a little gross, because that is not the only lens in which a movie can qualify as successful, but Da 5 Bloods really is one of the best films released this year so far. If there is any fairness in the world come Oscar season, this film will be getting a lot of nominations. You have Netflix, and you need a movie to watch this summer, so go put on Da 5 Bloods.