Ever since the explosive She’s Gotta Have It, writer/director/producer/actor Spike Lee has been one of the most distinct voices in (American) cinema. With over 50 films of various genres under his belt, it’s always the most politically charged ones that stand out in his catalogue. Think BlacKkKlansman or Do The Right Thing – Lee has a talent delivering biting commentary and relevant messages wrapped inside amazing, highly entertaining films.
Spike Lee opens his latest with archival footage of the civil rights movement and prominent figures such as Angela Davis or Malcom X, which feels especially timely given the circumstances of the past few weeks. We then move on to modern day Vietnam, where a group of four black veterans reunite. They came back to find and bring home the remains of their squad leader, Stormin’ Norm (Chadwick Boseman), who was killed in a gunfight. At least, that’s the official story, as their true purpose is to take home a golden treasure they found and buried during the war.
A lot of time has passed since then, and the now 70-something men aren’t what they used to be. Some, like the charismatic Eddie (Norm Lewis), have found success and seem to regard the war as a bad memory; others grew cold and lonely, dwelling on the sins of the past. That’s what happened to Paul (Delroy Lindo), closest friend of Norm’s, a man with severe PTSD whose head never left the jungles of Vietnam. He’s resentful to his family and in a way, to his brothers, as his political allegiance shifted to the right, evident by sporting a “Make America Great Again” hat.
Delroy Lindo gives a fantastic performance, both comical and completely heart-shattering, once you get to know his past. Paul comes from an era when the black vets were barely recognised, something he carries with him. What connects the Bloods however, given it’s not the same opinion on war nor politics, is their admiration for Norm. He was not only a great soldier, but as we see in multiple flashbacks, he made them feel like brothers. In their downtime, he educated them about the black history in America and actually took cake of them. The Bloods’ respect and love for their leader is strong even after death, and it’s the thing that carries the film forward.
Most of Da 5 Bloods plays out in the present day, as a drama with bits of comedy, just as one would expect from a film of this style. Then we get to the flashbacks, which tap into a heightened reality, where the Bloods are portrayed by their older selves, fighting alongside Norm. With the appropriate changes to aspect ratio and soaking it in the Apocalypse Now-like colour filter, cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel (Drive) makes it look like a documentary filmed at that time. Spike Lee reunites with the composer Terence Blanchard, whose score for BlacKkKlansman earned him an Oscar nomination, for another highly-dramatic, string-heavy piece of film music, that’s as cinematic as they come.
Da 5 Bloods is by all acounts an impressive film, boasting an equally impressive runtime of over 150 minutes. For most of it, especially in the first half, the film flows beautifully from scene to scene. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the last leg of the film. As it nears conclusion, the pacing gets a bit clunky, shifting from drama to an action-filled finish. It’s the weakest part, and the emotional moments the film strives for don’t hit nearly as heard as they could have.
Spike Lee’s latest proves he is the activist voice in film mainstream we desperately need more of right now. Upon ending, he throws us back into the real world and, much like in BlacKkKlansman, makes the audience reflect on what they had just experienced and how it relates to what’s going on outside. So, on that note, I would like to encourage you to stand with the Black Lives Matter movement. Donate if you can. Sign petitions. Spread the word.