Da 5 Bloods (2020), Brutal but Beautiful

Spike Lee’s newest film has been a hot-button topic since it’s announcement. Followed by a series of absolutely gorgeous posters that added fuel to the flame of excitement for myself and many other film fans. Myself, and many others, were eagerly awaiting the 12th to finally see whether this film would rank alongside Lee’s previous film, the critically acclaimed BlacKKKlansman, or whether it would fall short like the critically panned Oldboy remake. Well after the agony of waiting, I can say with all certainty that Da 5 Bloods will go down as a top-tier Spike Lee joint. 

Framed against a group of African-American veterans returning to Vietnam in order to search for buried gold and the remains of their squad leader, Lee manages to shed light on a vast array of social issues; from the opioid crisis, to mental health of veterans and to faith in the face of prejudice and discrimination. Meanwhile the flashbacks to the “Bloods” fighting in the war itself serve to remind the viewers that much like the fallout for the Vietnamese people, the fight for equality and acceptance for the African-American community is still very much ongoing. While some would argue that Spike Lee is tackling too much and ends up having to juggle each thematic idea, I’d argue the complete opposite. In creating such a wide range of topics to tackle, Lee highlights the underlying oppressive nature of all of them for both the Bloods, and wider African-American community, and for the Vietnamese people who were subject to terrors within the war. 

This idea of lingering trauma is what underpins the whole film, and Lee understands this completely. The film opens on a staggering montage of Civil Rights protestors interspersed with anti-war protestors, something that historically often overlapped. From Muhammad Ali in the now-famous interview where he questions why he should fight for America, through to prominent Civil Rights leaders including, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Angela Davis, scenes from anti-war protests across American university campuses that left students dead, all the way through to scenes of brutality in Vietnam such as the Thich Quang Duc’s immolation, the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém and the infamous photo of Phan Thi Kim Phúc who had the clothes burned off her body by napalm. It’s an immensely powerful sequence that Lee crafts, even outside of the context of the film it should be praised for how important it is, but it also highlights the similarity between the two groups in the oppression they faced by the USA. 

As the film progresses Lee lures the viewer into a sense of false security, starting off a seemingly nostalgia laden trip for a group of friends to reminisce and reflect on their time in the military. But as it continues the cracks in each character and their bond begin to show, as the hurt and pain of the past rears its head, whether it’s due to biting jokes from one of the bloods to another, or from oppression/prejudice born out of their time fighting against the Vietnamese in the war. But amidst this, the bond between the Bloods also strengthens as they remember the brotherhood developed between them, and the connections they have to each other from understanding each other’s pain. As the characters go through this growth on their journey, we too as the audience grow and develop with them. We see the pain just as clear as the characters see their friends’ pain, whether it’s the emotionally charged scene between Clarke Peters’s Otis and his war-time lover Tiên (played by Lê Y Lan), or the drunken outburst by Isiah Whitlock Jr’s Melvin. Each time we see these moments of pain, it becomes clearer that this journey they’ve undertaken isn’t one of looking back at the past but rectifying the contemporary issues and tribulations that the characters are fighting through at the moment. 

Stylistically, the film absolutely excels. The cinematography is gorgeous through and through, utilising the jungle terrain to frame the lighting superbly in both the daylight scenes and using the cover of darkness to amplify the thematic nature of the scenes. Aside from the lighting, the shot composition throughout is simply fantastic, there’s a sequence in the final act of the film that frames a character head on to the camera giving a monologue both to himself and to the audience that is simply incredible. The film also switches between aspect ratios throughout, depending on the time-period of a given scene, which once again reflects the idea of this war being continuous. But one of my favourite technical elements of the film is the use of archival footage and documents, not only does this make it clear that we’re watching a film rather than a true story, but it highlights the important real-life resonance that the story and themes have. In traditional Spike Lee fashion, they’re also informative, providing snippets of history that a lot of the time, in my experience, were completely new to me. I’ve already talked about how great the use of this was in the opening montage, but the times that it’s implemented in the film itself are just as powerful. And in another move that even in my limited knowledge of Spike Lee’s films I know isn’t new, the use of music is beyond superb. Without giving too much away a Marvin Gaye song is used in a really powerfully emotive way that sent shivers down my spine, meanwhile the postmodernist nature of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ is a fantastic send-back to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now

Da 5 Bloods is Lee on top form, full to the brim with astute social commentary, a cast full of powerhouse actors, a brilliant score from long-time collaborator Terence Blanchard, and a tight script. The whole cast does a fantastic job and I could easily see Oscar noms for Delroy Lindo, Chadwick Boseman as Best Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively. But the whole supporting cast is just as worthy of praise as they’re all fantastic, even minor roles like Johnny Trí Nguyễn’s Vinh. Much like Spike Lee’s previous film, Da 5 Bloods ends on a powerful note about oppression and the long fight ahead still for equality. Before writing this review I checked and was glad to see so many positive reviews for this film and I really hope it gets the attention and love that it deserves because Spike Lee has once again succeeded in creating a deeply moving film that is oh-so important in these times of hatred and division.

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