Da 5 Bloods (2020)
June 13, 2020 9:22 PM - Subscribe

Four African American vets battle the forces of man and nature when they return to Vietnam seeking the remains of their fallen Squad Leader and the gold fortune he helped them hide.

NYTimes: Spike Lee’s career can be described as a lover’s quarrel with American movies — and with America, too. As he has demonstrated his mastery of established genres (the biopic, the musical, the cop movie, the combat picture, and so on), he has also reinvented them, pointing out blind spots and filling in gaps. His critique of Hollywood’s long history of ignoring and distorting black lives has altered the way we look at movies. His attempts to expand the frame and correct the record have changed the course of the cultural mainstream.

I’m tempted to say that with “Da 5 Bloods,” which debuts on Netflix on Friday, Lee has done it again. But when has he ever repeated himself? This long, anguished, funny, violent excursion into a hidden chamber of the nation’s heart of darkness isn’t like anything else, even if it may put you in mind of a lot of other things. In its anger, its humor and its exuberance — in the emotional richness of the central performances and of Terence Blanchard’s score — this is unmistakably a Spike Lee Joint. It’s also an argument with and through the history of film.

The Guardian: It’s an outrageous action painting of a film, splattering moods, genres, ideas and archive clips all over the screen – with many a Brechtian-vaudeville alienation. It feels sometimes like an old-style war movie such as The Dirty Dozen but maybe Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, with playful riffs on Hollywood Vietnam standards and even John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The movie tricks you into thinking that it’s going to be a gentle, bittersweet picture about middle-aged guys with giant guts and prostates sadly coming to terms with their past, and the importance of letting go … and then it detonates a shock of fear and greed, which itself is always verging on action-movie melodrama and farce. It’s all so inventively bizarre that you could treat it simply as a black comedy, but in the final 15 minutes there is an amazing crescendo of emotion.

New Yorker: Spike Lee’s new film, “Da 5 Bloods” (streaming on Netflix), pulls the traumas of black men’s experiences of the Vietnam War out of obscurity and puts them in the forefront of political consciousness. Far from merely offering a corrective or footnote to a chapter of American history, he transforms them into a new and improved cinematic mythology, one that exalts the unacknowledged heroism of black Americans and creates a place for them at the center of modern culture—and, in the process, redefines American heroism as such.

Rolling Stone: Spike Lee hits a new career peak with this game-changer about four, emotionally damaged African-American veterans who return to Vietnam in the Trump era to recover the body of their fallen brother-in-arms —n and maybe a semblance of their former selves. Debuting on Netflix on June 12th, Da 5 Bloods speaks urgently to our current moment. Lee had no idea that his movie would be released as the killing of George Floyd would inspire people to take to the streets in protest, but he’s known in his bones how it felt for Black Americans to bear the crushing weight of a knee on their necks. Lee’s righteous anger in Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and BlacKkKlansman rises to gale force here. This is a lobbed grenade. But it’s also personal filmmaking at its prodding, profound best. This is a Spike Lee joint and a Spike Lee history lesson. Prepare to be schooled.

The Atlantic: Though Hollywood has churned out many Vietnam narratives over the past 50 years, very few have seriously dug into the experience of black servicemen in that war. The most widely seen is the Hughes brothers’ wildly underrated Dead Presidents, a searing but brutally bleak 1995 crime thriller that was largely about the difficulties black veterans faced after returning home from the front. But Da 5 Bloods has an even wider scope, trying to take in the entire sweep of American imperialism from Vietnam on, and confronting how black citizens sacrificed their lives for a country that didn’t care about them.

NPR: The screenplay is credited to Lee, Kevin Willmott, Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, and it lays out the Bloods' rationale with unsurprising bluntness, sometimes cutting away from the story to provide historical context, and sometimes injecting that context into the characters' own dialogue. They talk about the horrors of slavery, the struggles of the civil rights movement and the grossly disproportionate number of black soldiers who were sent to fight and die in Vietnam. And so the Bloods, making their own case for reparations, decide to bury the gold and return for it at a later date, vowing to use it to benefit their communities.

Lee loves his polemics, but he also loves classic Hollywood, and for all its urgency, Da 5 Bloods plays like an old-fashioned action-adventure saga, complete with references to films like Apocalypse Now and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Personally, it reminded me of Richard Linklater's Vietnam-vet drama Last Flag Flying, with a bit of Rambo-esque carnage sprinkled in. It's also a companion piece to Lee's World War II drama Miracle at St. Anna, another critique of the U.S.' long, shameful history of devaluing its black soldiers.

Vox: But Lee and his BlacKkKlansman co-writer Kevin Willmott (working from an initial draft by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo) never make the narrative lines too straight. Lindo gives a staggering performance as Paul, whose traumas have turned him into a MAGA-hat-sporting spout of paranoia, to the discomfort of both his friends and his son, David (Majors), a Morehouse alum who comes looking for his father after he returns to Vietnam. That narrative choice alone means that Da 5 Bloods, while political to the bone, refuses to be stuffed into partisan pigeonholes. What it means to be black in America does not fit into tidy fables.

RogerEbert.com: “Da 5 Bloods” jumps back and forth, though not too many times, between the Bloods’ tours of duty and the present day. In those flashbacks, all four older actors play themselves without benefit of the de-aging CGI that plagued “The Irishman.” At first, it’s rather jarring, but I bought into the visual of these characters stepping through the looking glass armed with the knowledge their younger incarnations did not have. They’ve come back to a place that, as Vinh points out, they’ve figuratively never left. It haunts them forever. “I see ghosts,” Paul says at one agonized point, and though the ghost he sees is Norman, the real specter in the room is the war itself. You have to think long and hard to come up with a movie that focuses so intently on the aftermath of war on Black soldiers (“Mudbound” and “Dead Presidents” come to mind, but they also have other stories to tell.)

Slate: In the movie’s second half .... what’s been a leisurely character drama develops into a violent and bloody conflict, because while the reckoning may be delayed, it cannot be avoided. Lee keeps interjecting photos—sometimes of characters tied to the story, like James Anderson Jr., who threw himself on a Vietnamese grenade to save the lives of his fellow Marines, or sometimes just to footnote or underline references, like a passing mention of Aretha Franklin—but he’s not throwing you out of the story so much as he is reminding you that it’s bigger than these characters, bigger even than this sprawling 2½-hour movie can encompass.

Slant: Lost in all this bombast is the kind of story about these men’s lives that could’ve affirmed Lee’s critique of America. Paul, who eventually becomes this film’s Fred C. Dobbs, is a Donald Trump supporter who wears a MAGA hat and resents immigrants because of the mistreatment of his own people. The implication here is: Why should we empathize with them after all that we’ve suffered? This is a provocative idea for a character, and it potentially conjoins Lee’s interests in the parallels between past and present systemic racism in American society. It would’ve been interesting to hear what the other men, who hate Trump, would have to say about this, and to see these tensions inform their struggle to steal the gold. But Lee reduces this idea to a few jokes; it’s just another conceit that he throws at the audience. At its best, Da 5 Bloods offers a damning, impassioned, hallucinatory collage of images and ideas concerning the relationship between racism and warfare. At its worst, it’s a vibrant mess.

Consequence of Sound: This is an anti-war film about violence begetting violence, the burdens we carry, what happens when the grief of those burdens explodes, and how we struggle to leave struggle itself behind. This is his ‘60s period epic, his war thriller, and a battle cry for the unsung and ill-affected. The lessons of Vietnam, of the civil rights movement, of the so-called Boomer generation’s life and times, do endure. Kent State, Lyndon Johnson, the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in Tennessee. What have we learned? Da 5 Bloods brutally suggests we haven’t learned enough, and that when people struggle to learn … they get angry.

Streaming on Netflix
posted by MoonOrb (19 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wowwwwww! Wow wow wow. Just finished and now need to process and reflect on it, looking forward to digging into these reviews!
posted by stellaluna at 10:06 PM on June 13


This is an excellent film, but I strongly recommend turning off your phone and shutting off other distractions. It's very long, but it benefits from the accumulation of tones and textures from beginning to end. Unlike a movie like The Irishman -- which I think would work better and be more watchable divided into episodes -- the viewer will get more out of it if they let it wash over them, I think.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:20 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]


Hmm, such accolades. I started watching this this morning and turned it off three quarters of the way through cuz I wasn't buying anything they were putting down. With the exception of Old Boy I've always enjoyed a Spike Lee joint but this? Meh.
posted by hoodrich at 2:08 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


Every time I click thumbs up on a Netflix offering, after watching, I imagine Netflix reshuffling its recommendations for me. Does anyone else do that? Anyway, I really enjoyed this. Really, the only thing that I didn't like was how All The Subtitles Were In Title Case For Some Reason. I can't recall if that's a hallmark of Spike Lee's films. Did he do that with Miracle at St. Anna?
posted by emelenjr at 2:34 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


My roommate's pithy review:

"I feel like someone took Apocalypse Now, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Kelly's Heroes and put them all in a blender named 'Spike Lee'. ...And I don't mean that in a bad way."

The only thing I wish is that we'd learned a little more about all of the soldiers. In two cases I don't think I even really knew their names.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:47 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


That was engrossing. In one of the reviews or elsewhere I read that it was originally pitched as an Oliver Stone project in which the protagonists would have been white. Which, maybe it would have been watchable, but could not nearly have the same affect. This could have just been another Triple Frontier, which was pretty forgettable despite the strong cast and director combo in that film.

Lindo and Peters were magnificent.

The Apocalypse Now references were so on the nose I found them distracting.

I loved the choice to shoot the combat scenes with the soldiers at their current ages. It was effective.
posted by MoonOrb at 3:50 PM on June 14 [3 favorites]


Really, the only thing that I didn't like was how All The Subtitles Were In Title Case For Some Reason. I can't recall if that's a hallmark of Spike Lee's films. Did he do that with Miracle at St. Anna?

I tend to watch movies with subtitles on (I am a little hard of hearing), so while viewing I thought this was done to show that the dialogue was being translated from a foreign language (as the subtitles for English dialogue were in standard case), but I realize now that the subtitles for English dialogue may just have been provided by Netflix without any coordination with the filmmakers, so...I don't know?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:43 PM on June 14


Lee does the title-case thing on Twitter, I think it's just a thing he likes.

Lindo is amazing and deserves an Oscar, and there are some breathtaking sequences here. But I don't really get the huge praise,and I didn't find it anywhere near a "a new career peak" for Lee. Too much of it is cliche, and many of the characters are paper thin.
posted by Frayed Knot at 6:27 PM on June 14 [4 favorites]


In two cases I don't think I even really knew their names.

Clay "Sheeeeeit Guy" Davis and Other Dude.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:00 AM on June 15


Yeah, this was dreadfully heavy-handed. The music was also not good.

Glad that other people noticed the title-case thing, because it bothered me, too.

But not casting younger actors for the flashbacks was a great choice.
posted by jimw at 9:49 PM on June 15


Viet Thanh Nguyen live tweeted his reactions earlier this week.
posted by mogget at 10:08 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


I agree with some of the reviews that it's a big tonal mess of a film that veers all over the place but I still loved it and yes Lindo needs an Oscar nomination for this.
posted by octothorpe at 6:46 AM on June 20 [1 favorite]


It was messy, and certain depictions of Vietnamese characters turned me off, at least in the moment. The capitalization thing was super annoying, not even proper title case because every word was capitalized. I was also not a fan of snake leaping out of a tree to bite. But I did like it overall and some parts were fantastic.
posted by snofoam at 7:35 PM on June 20 [1 favorite]


But not casting younger actors for the flashbacks was a great choice.

Agreed, though to me it felt also like a middle finger to the uncanny valley de-aging tech used in The Irishman, etc.
posted by HeroZero at 5:33 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]


On the once hand, I agree that I liked that he used the same actors without doing some rubber looking de-aging but on the other hand, Scorsese got $160 million to make The Irishman and somehow Netflix would only pony up $40M for Lee's movie.
posted by octothorpe at 7:10 PM on June 22 [2 favorites]


I think that Netflix not giving Lee the same budget is probably true but could also be true that he didn't want to de-age them. It worked really well.

I understand as a white guy this wasn't made for me and there's probably a lot that went right over me. That being said I could not see any of these characters as anything other than huge archetypes and for me really really hard to relate to. As it went along I kinda of accepted the fact that none of these people are "real" but the emotions and ideas they have are. I think Lee went out of his way to show that the plot means nothing only the emotions and ideas do. The way they eventually find the gold really struck me as too amateurish to be unintentional.

The scene where Lindo's character puts on his MAGA hat and weeps as he abandons his friends was unbelievably striking to me. He prays his way into the lonely dark end. It's a remarkable visual of what trauma and hate and anger do to us. I was reminded of it watching the sad bored and angry Trump fans at his covid convention.

I just finished the Watchmen series and have to say the fact that both Watchmen and Da5Bloods have almost identical views of American Colonialism in Vietnam and how Black bodies were used in the war machine (both Vietnam and WW2 in Watchmen) was fascinating to me. Hollywood is finally adding color to the whitewashed war narratives and not holding any punches.

I think this will eventually become THE film that is studied in film schools moving forward.
posted by M Edward at 6:10 PM on June 25 [1 favorite]


I think that Netflix not giving Lee the same budget is probably true but could also be true that he didn't want to de-age them. It worked really well.

I totally agree that it was a great artistic choice, I just wanted to rant about the fact that Lee doesn't get the budgets that other filmmakers do. He's one of the greatest directors of his, or any, generation and in his sixties is still at the height of his powers but can only get a $40M budget for a war epic.
posted by octothorpe at 7:00 AM on June 27


I thought that I'd watch this in the background, but quickly realized that it deserves my entire attention.

I fully support not CG de-aging the actors and relying on more traditional (and minimal) techniques.

Wished they had explored Michon and Tiên more.

Being an unrelated POC, I'm wondering whether the decision to not include any white members of the crew was on purpose so as not to lose focus on the bloods, lasting relationships would have been harshly unrealistic, or if Lee consciously didn't want to explore that scenario.

I do really appreciate exploring the Paul (Delroy Lindo) character's own prejudices and trauma.

Wondering whether Netflix was simply smarter with their money than TriBeCa. $160 for 'The Irishman' feels like it was simply a colossal mistake borne from outdated thinking.

The kicker for me is whether Scorceses could ever get another overly inflated budget again without really really good justification.

The use of aspect ratio, and perhaps to a lesser extent colour palette/ grain, was very effective.

Heh, and yeah, probably a huge film school conversation/ module.

OMG. The Vietnamese - I hesitate to say propaganda, but rather news revelation - to black GIs about MLK. I'm aware of the (and continued) racism in the US's military but I had never considered this particular situation before.

Touch being so significant.

Neat use of light reflection from the gold bars.

Jesus. Paul actually had a MAGA hat on all that time?! Fuck. Crab pot motherfucker bs.

The ending...
posted by porpoise at 11:10 PM on June 27 [1 favorite]


I fully support not CG de-aging the actors and relying on more traditional (and minimal) techniques.

I don't think they did anything to de-age the actors, and I think that was intentional. I think it's kind of meant to symbolize how even though they're 40 or so years older, in their heads, they're still fighting those battles.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:05 AM on June 29 [3 favorites]


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