Legendary filmmaker Spike Lee’s latest release is remarkably of its time, offering an explicit, multifaceted reflection on the Trump administration and the Black Lives Matter movement through the perspective of four black Vietnam War veterans.
Set in the present day, the film follows the four remaining members of the titular 5 Bloods, a group of friends who served in a squad together in the Vietnam War. The group set out for Vietnam on a quest to recover their friend Norman’s (Chadwick Boseman) remains — as well as a chest full of gold they buried during the war.
Released on Netflix June 12, Lee’s film is expectedly frank, peppered with discussions of race relations, the unethical nature of the Vietnam War and debates over Trump’s presidency. As the group relaxes at a bar before embarking on their search, Paul (Delroy Lindo) admits he voted for Trump, and later dons a Make America Great Again hat during the search.
While Paul is mocked and criticized by his friends for his revelation, it’s fitting that Lee is one of the first widely acclaimed directors to have an explicitly pro-Trump main character — and Lee treats him fairly, letting Paul state his reasoning, which includes illegal immigration, alleged fake news and his own economic prospects. It’s not subtle, but the ideological differences of Lee’s main characters are thoughtful and realistically portrayed.
As for the rest of the 5 Bloods, Lee didn’t spare any expense on character development. With the help of excellent performances from Lindo, Clarke Peters as Otis, Norm Lewis as Eddie and Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Melvin, the film anchors on the bond between these old war vets. The tender, genuine performances from each of the group lend weight to the film’s action sequences and verbal squamishes.
The film showcases Lee’s talent as an action filmmaker, something he’s done capably, but sparingly in the past. The film’s vibrant color scheme and dynamic camerawork mesh beautifully with Lee’s subtle but effective fight scene direction. The jungle’s deep greens and blue skies give the film a bright, airy tone that further accentuates the film’s moments of violence.
The most impactful moments in “Da 5 Bloods” are its flashbacks, showing Norman’s death and the events leading up to it. Lee’s decision to have the main cast play their younger selves without any makeup or de-aging effects gives the group’s Vietnam memories a detached, weightless feeling, like dreams of memories rather than direct recollections.
It’s a choice that requires the present day to carry the burden of Norman’s character, who — despite Boseman’s admirable performance — comes alive more through the group’s memories and disagreements about his intentions than he ever does in flashbacks.
Lee’s film runs an ungainly 2 hours 35 minutes long, and goes in a variety of directions both vibrant and horrific, but at its heart, the film is about relationships. The relationships between the surviving Bloods and their memories of Norman, Otis and his Vietnamese lover Tiên (Lê Y Lan), and the relationship between Vietnam and America both during and after the Vietnam War.
No matter the dynamics of the relationship, Lee recognizes that bonds are formed and carried for life, even as they change with time. During one flashback, the Bloods hear on a Viet Cong radio show that Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated and their black companions back home are being killed for their protests.
In that moment, the Bloods realize they may have more in common with their enemies than the people in power who sent them to fight. It’s a message that’s well-worn at this point, though Lee’s film — like so much of his work — recognizes that shared interests don’t mean shared worldviews.
The wounds Vietnam sustained and the enemies the country’s military made during the war mirror those of the black soldiers sent to die in some ways, but “Da 5 Bloods” maintains that none of the parties involved have totally forgiven each other. Sometimes present-day conflict is the only way to resolve issues that began in the past.
“Da 5 Bloods,” rated R, is now streaming on Netflix.