An interesting mess of ideas, genres and styles, Spike Lee’s lengthy new joint is effective when it is polemical, but the main message about how we could draw urgent relevancy from the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement in relation to the painful lessons of the Vietnam War gets muddled in the film’s excesses.
Dir. Spike Lee
2020 | USA | Drama/War | 154 mins | Various aspect ratios | English
M18 (Netflix rating) for strong violence, grisly images and pervasive language
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Chadwick Boseman
Plot: Four African-American vets battle the forces of man and nature when they return to Vietnam seeking the remains of their fallen squad leader and the gold fortune he helped them hide.
Awards: Nom. for Best Original Score (Oscars)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Race, War, Politics, History
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Spike Lee’s follow-up to his extraordinary BlacKkKlansman (2018) is an interesting mess. A mess of ideas, genres and styles. But mostly a mess of ideas—particularly the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the Vietnam War—that on their own have extremely critical lessons to draw from, but Lee somehow manages to muddle them up when he brings both together in his lengthy new joint.
Four black ‘Nam veterans return to the place of their worst nightmares to retrieve a crate of gold that they buried decades ago (as well as to retrieve the remains of another soul brother, or ‘Blood’, as they endearingly address each other, who was killed in action).
In the process, they find a renewed sense of brotherhood, but also their tortured selves, a theme made most apparent through the character of Paul (played by a fantastic Delroy Lindo who ought to land an Oscar nomination), who suffers from a heightened degree of post-traumatic stress disorder.
One might say that Da 5 Bloods is most effective when it is blunt and caustic toward matters of race. But his film is also an amalgamation of so many other things—the Vietnam War movie (that feels like a cartoonish, body-swapping time-travel video game presented in 1.37:1 standard format); black comedy (in both senses of the word); heist flick of sorts (its strongest, tension-laden stretch to me, and in 1.85:1 full-screen glory after the rather tepid early segments featuring modern Saigon in 2.35:1 widescreen); and bucket-list melodrama.
In that regard, it is not a Vietnam War movie in the truest sense, and hence, its attempt to reclaim the Black experience of the war from media portrayals of heroic white masculinity feels refreshing yet feeble at the same time.
“Damn Otis, just put the gold on Craigslist!”
That being said, the Vietnam War is temporally closest to the civil rights movement of the time, and Lee does make tenable connections inasmuch as history has naturally anticipated that narrative, but he doesn’t really go deep and, for better or worse, sometimes uses aspects of ‘Nam as a convenient conduit to suggest a racial reading of the larger historio-political context.
His insertions of related historical footage or images from Vietnam and the US while informative might feel occasionally at odds with the more intimate, personal journey of the Bloods.
I wished the film had better supporting characterisations at the level of Paul’s, and that their individual and collective narratives and memories past and present had said more about their (and the larger) Black experience than Lee’s snapshot, “by the way, let us not forget about the context” approach of trying to splice a platter of ideas together in hopes of making timely didactic points.
Ultimately, the main message about how we could draw urgent relevancy from the contemporary BLM movement in relation to the painful lessons of the Vietnam War gets muddled in the film’s excesses.
(I would recommend viewing Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s masterful and definitive 16.5-hour documentary series, The Vietnam War (2017), specifically episodes 4-6, for a more disciplined approach to tackling ‘Nam that also concerns US racial politics of the time.)