2018’s BlacKkKlansman was one of the surprise hits of the year. Receiving some of the best reviews of Spike Lee’s 5-decade film career and coming over 30 years after his brilliant breakthrough Do The Right Thing. BlacKkKlansman won him his first Oscar and received a host of additional awards wins and nominations. It seemed an impossible act to follow, but with his uneven Vietnam epic Da 5 Bloods, Lee has come pretty close.
Da 5 Bloods focuses on 4 black Vietnam veterans, who return to the country to find the remains of their fallen comrade “Stormin” Norman, played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman. In addition to returning Norman’s remains, the group also want to rescue some gold they had buried during the war.
The acting of the ensemble cast, as with Lee’s previous films, is terrific. Spike Lee veteran Delroy Lindo’s turn as Paul is already being labelled an early awards contender. Lindo really is terrific, selling Paul’s PTSD, his unease in Vietnam and distrust of the locals, as well as his fractured relationship with his son David (Jonathan Majors), who has tagged along on the GI’s quest. Lindo is ably assisted by Clarke Peters, who as ever, brings real gravitas to his scenes and great chemistry with the cast, as well as an injection of humour. It is also great to see Chadwick Boseman given a chance to shine away from his role as Black Panther, in the small yet vital role of “Stormin” Norman.
The decision to largely have the film set in the present, with the Vietnam War recounted through flashbacks, makes this less a Vietnam War film and more a film about the aftermath of war and American Imperialism. The film also deals with the attitudes of the Vietnamese to returning US GI’s, with several confrontations with locals. There are clever edits to show the two time periods, with a narrow aspect ratio used for the 60s- 70s scenes. As the film deals with the war, there are of course references to previous Vietnam films. There’s numerous references to Francis Ford Copolla’s Apocalypse Now, with a poster of the film appearing in a bar and “The Ride of The Valkyries” being integrated into the soundtrack.
The soundtrack cleverly incorporates multiple tracks from Marvin Gaye’s 1971 seminal anti-war album What’s Going On, including isolated takes of Gaye’s vocals. “Inner City Blues” is used to powerful effect in the film’s opening, as we see images of the war and its aftermath with Lee cleverly juxtaposing images of the Moon Landings with Mohammed Ali’s reluctance to fight in Vietnam.
Many will note the timeliness of the picture’s release, amid the fallout of the killing of George Floyd, which lends it a sense of urgency and brings home the lack of coverage of black troops in Vietnam, who made up over 30% of the US’s manpower. As with BlacKkKlansman, the use of real footage shows the ongoing struggle to fight racism and tackle some of the inequalities touched on in the film.
Da 5 Bloods perhaps at times falls victim to its own ambition, such is the vastness of its scope and the amount of ground Spike Lee has attempted to cover. The dual Vietnam War – Present narrative is mostly well-executed, however, the decision to have the 4 main actors play the characters during the war means they inevitably seem far older than Chadwick Boseman in these scenes and it can take the audience out of the moment. The length of the film also causes some issues with pacing. At 2 ½ hours, it is questionable whether the film justifies its length as the first hour takes a while to get going, with several exposition-filled scenes. However, the narrative shifts and a pick up in action during the films second act do justify this to some extent.
While not a perfect film, Da 5 Bloods is an epic and ambitious project that manages to delve deep into America’s legacy in Vietnam and the nature of greed and grief, offering a thorough examination of the effects this war had on those involved on both sides. With its release date following on from well documented real-world events, it is lent a huge degree of relevance and makes it one of Lee’s most powerful films to date.
Words by Chris Connor