Da 5 Bloods review – blistering poetry on the battle against hate

4.5

Summary

Da 5 Bloods leaves you uneasy and vulnerable. Lee’s themes extend far beyond our borders and, for that matter, much closer within our own circles. It’s harsh poetry on the battle against hate.

Spike Lee has never been a filmmaker you can peg unless it’s that reputation to firmly stand outside the box instead of inside it. In the same sense, Martin Scorsese pathologically holds your attention with images that should make you turn away. Lee does this by toying with classic cinematic genres while blending them with modern themes and eye-opening visuals. It’s his talent really; he can take a basic heist picture, and turn it into art-house war film on race relations that was completed well before the events of what has transpired in this country a few short weeks ago. He can see the truth before most of us are finished tying our shoes. There is so much going on his new film, Da 5 Bloods, visually, thematically, and spiritually, you can’t possibly absorb all of it in a single viewing. It’s not comfortable or conventional, but it’s a hard look at race relations that extends far beyond our own borders and much closer within our own circles. The battle is still brewing, the war is not over, and there is an endless amount of work to be done.

The story follows four African American veterans who reunite for a trip to Vietnam in the hopes of bringing home their fallen friend. That man was their former squad commander, Norman (Chadwick Boseman), a man remembered as a fearless leader, not just on the battlefield, but for the war being waged at home. Among the group is Paul (an outstanding Delroy Lindo), the outspoken member of the group who wants that wall to be built, and proudly wears a MAGA hat for all to see. Otis (The Wire’s Clarke Peters) is the squad’s former medic and is still the glue that holds the group together, while Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr) keeps the guys howling with laughter. Eddie (Norm Lewis) has been the most successful of the group, a titan of industry since leaving the service, and is paying for everyone’s trip. The surprise visitor who tags along is Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors), who figures out the group is not just altruistically bringing back their friend’s remains, but grabbing their reparations of gold they hid decades previously.

Lee shares screenplay credits with BlacKkKlansman writing partner Kevin Willmott, along with two others, Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, who share credits on The Rocketeer, making for effective but unusual bedfellows when you consider the latter’s history with comic book and video game writing. The rumor is the script was supposed to be directed by Oliver Stone, who stepped out, and was rewritten through the eyes of an African-American experience with Vietnam. You have to think the script would have been a rudderless picture about the spoils of war, but the new perspective turns the genre into something fresh and unexpected. They sprinkle thought-provoking ideals, stunning images, and turned the narrative upside down, not just on their audience, but their characters too, and just when you think you are about to settle on the film’s message. It leaves you uneasy and vulnerable.

There are three performances here that I hope will be remembered later this year, but one I am sure will be forgotten. Delroy Lindo has been one of the most underappreciated actors of his generation. He was ignored by his own studio for A Cider House Rules, by the Emmys for his role in The Good Fight, and his performance in Lee’s Clockers is now legendary. He carries the film with a burning intensity and ferocious anger that demands to be heard. Jonathan Majors, so unfairly ignored during awards season last year for The Last Black Man in San Francisco, is undeniably moving. Lastly, Clarke Peters, who starred in Lee’s Red Hook Summer, juggles being a stoic, calming presence, and then delivering dialogue that cuts deep and often; the man deserves more screen time like this in major films.

Like many of Lee’s movies — you can spot a dozen or so through his filmography — Da 5 Bloods can be heavy-handed instead of letting the power of message sneak up on you, a point I would argue was much more effective in BlacKkKlansman. That is a flaw here when it magnifies the foreshadowing where you know what will happen well before it transpires. Those are average complaints and the positives far outperform the negatives. I imagine some will complain about the film having flashback scenes of the four main characters looking as they are in the recent day — old, wrinkled, and grey next to a young Boseman. What you have to remember here is this part of the story is a basic memory play, remembering Norman the way he was left, and the squad putting themselves back in the battlefield.

Da 5 Bloods is hardly mainstream filmmaking, no matter how much Netflix wants you to believe it. Sure, it has your comic relief (thank you Isiah Whitlock Jr for bringing back the catchphrase that made him famous on The Wire), but nothing about Lee’s latest makes you think it will be conformed to big studio norms. What starts as a drama of former brothers in arms returning to Vietnam to bring back a friend and walk away with some cash, the metaphor turns into harsh poetry on the battle against hate. I’m not sure if this joint is great art, but we know it should never be easy to swallow or enjoy. The lesson he is teaching is that hate transcends friendships, families, countries, even time, and wants us to ask ourselves: What is our next move?


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M.N. Miller

M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.

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