I know that I spend a lot of time moaning about Netflix Original films but, I have to admit, they do get it right now and then. The platform also manages to great some great filmmakers on board. Their 2019 releases on the streaming service saw Noah Baumbach and Martin Scorsese gain multiple Oscar nominations. Before he won awards and hearts, Bong Joon-Ho released the fantastic Okja. So, there have certainly been some high points and it looked as though it might have another. Spike Lee’s latest film Da 5 Bloods was released in mid-June. This was the first time we’ve seen Lee since his Oscar-nominated BlacKkKlansman and it couldn’t have come out at a better time. One of the major themes is how race fits into America. There is the same passion and anger that can be seen throughout the Black Lives Matter protests that have been happening all over the globe. What better film to watch when I’m trying to Amplify Melanated Voices?
Da 5 Bloods has gone through a lot of changes since the spec script was first written. In 2013, the film was called The Last Tour and Oliver Stone was set to direct. Once he dropped out, Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott rewrote the film from an African-American perspective. The cast went through a few major changes before it was finally made but Lee eventually created his vision. It is a vision that showcases America’s not-so-distant history of seeing the lives of Black people as expendable. The film sees a group of Vietnam war veterans returning to the country to retrieve the body of their fallen squad leader. Oh, and picking up the treasure they buried there at the same time.
You’ll hear people describe this film as “of its time” because it ties in with the Black Lives Movement. It’s true but it’s a film that does so much more than that. Da 5 Bloods isn’t explicitly about modern law enforcement and the killing of innocent Black people but Spike Lee manages to bring those themes into his narrative. He does this through the story of American imperialism. Black soldiers were a major part of the Vietnam War, which was mostly thanks to the disproportionate conscription. At the time, African-Americans only made up about 11% of the population but accounted for over 16% of all draftees. This was the first war in which soldiers were no longer officially segregated based on skin colour but it was still common practice. It was clear that, whatever story they were being told, Black lives were still seen as less and expendable by the American government.
So far, so relevant. Of course, this description all goes some way towards making the film sound like a heavy-handed film. It isn’t. It is serious about the statement that it’s making but this is a film that feels effortless and, at times, very funny. The group of men at its centre have all shared something and their familial banter is engaging. These aren’t men who are necessarily easy to agree with but their bonds feel real. They are men who are all still carrying wounds from their time in Vietnam and coming back is difficult for all of them. Tensions run high but their friendship is always clear.
The film feels quite experimental in its own way. Lee seems to have a lot of fun mixing genres and moods throughout the narrative. We get touches of classic war films, old adventure stories, and a hint of a Western thrown in for good measure. Lee uses these staples of American cinema as a way to touch upon the underrepresented voices in Hollywood. He takes these all too familiar images and themes but uses them to present a story that is so often overlooked by filmmakers. Yes, it would be foolish to say he is tearing classic Hollywood apart but he is making a point. Black soldiers were such a huge part of America’s military but their story is so rarely told. In his own way, Lee is trying to right some of those wrongs by referencing so many familiar films.
It also tricks you into thinking it’s taking you on one path before changing direction several times. What you believe is going to be a fairly standard tale of middle-aged treasure hunters facing their past, becomes a dark comedy that finally explodes into a truly emotional finale. It’s a bizarre thing to sit down and watch but, thanks to Lee’s steady hand, it just about works. It’s a film that is meant to catch you off guard. You set off feeling quite good about it all and as if you know what to expect. However, the tension is forever rising just out of your eyesight. You keep thinking it has peaked but it keeps going even further. This is a film that packs quite a punch at the end.
And it’s a morally complex. On the one hand. these men were conscripted into the American army and exploited. On the other, they were part of an occupying force who was responsible for terrible things. Lee forces you to face up to the true horrors of the Vietnam War on both a personal level and a global one. He takes us back there with the use of flashbacks and archive footage. You become a part of it in your own way and get a glimpse of what it was like to have to make those choices. How easy it might have been to vilify a nation of people because you were expected to be loyal to your country. How easy it would be to lose yourself when confronted with the realisation that your own government sees you as nothing more than cannon fodder. You feel sorry for these men but, at the same time, you can’t get on board with what they were a part of.
It is something most obviously seen through Paul who is the member of the group still struggling the most. He spouts racist slurs and has fully bought into the rhetoric of Trump’s America. As if the only way he can live with what he has done is to justify it as the ultimate act of patriotism. It’s gotten to the point where it has driven a huge wedge between Paul and his son, David. David has joined the men on their journey as he hopes to get through to his father. Lee makes excellent use of Apocalypse Now throughout Paul’s story. We get dialogue, visual nods, and very similar themes. It’s not the most subtle way to make a point but, damn, if it isn’t effective.
I can’t sit here and pretend that Da 5 Bloods is a perfect film but it is a film that you won’t soon forget. It’s not got the typical Lee dynamic and the beginning does feel a bit ropey. You can’t quite believe that he is ever going to get to grips with it but, as it goes on, everything gets more frenzied and powerful. It’s a film that is trying to do a lot and it does cause some problems. It’s a little messy, some subplots go nowhere, and I could sit here for hours and talk about Lee’s representation of women, particularly Black women. Luckily for you, I’ve already been banging on for too long. Let’s just say, there are things that he could have done better. For the most part, this film does everything it needs to. It never feels as long as it’s 2-hour and 35-minute runtime even though it builds pretty slowly. After all, it builds to something spectacular. And those last 10 minutes or so? If you can finish this film without feeling emotionally drained then you’re stronger than I am. It’s intense but worth it.