Release Date: June 12th, 2020
Director: Spike Lee | MPAA Rating: R | LeavittLens Rating: 7.5/10
Spike Lee has managed to make a career out of films that largely speak above and beyond their frames, working on a variety of cultural levels. Yet he has managed this sort of vision using (and often adding to) traditional genre and style, from the biopic to the “dramedy,” the sports movie to the crime thriller. There is consistent diversity in Spike’s films, marked both by steady social critique and by exploratory ingenuity, and his latest film, Da Five Bloods, only continues in this tradition, speaking prophetically to our present zeitgeist while holding closely to accessible genre conventions.
The film wastes no time in reckoning with tragic history, opening with striking footage from and surrounding the Vietnam War. From here it seamlessly transitions into the present day, where four black veterans are returning and reuniting in Ho Chi Minh City. These men make up four fifths of “Da Five Bloods,” a unit of African-Americans who served in the war, and who are now gathering together in the present day in order to dig up and commemorate the remains of their captain, ‘Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman, who appears only in visions and flashbacks). At first it seems this mission will be far less fraught than their service during the war, but the story does not run short on intrigue. During their previous tours, the bloods had discovered a chest of gold bars, and had buried it in order to return and collect on it later in life. Such an endeavor naturally remains difficult to keep quiet, and the group is thus forced to partner with a French businessman (Jean Reno) and other Vietnamese connections, only adding complications–and competing agendas–to their mission. Nonetheless they set out on their journey, moved primarily by an unbreakable ‘blood’ brotherhood amongst one another, and by the undying inspiration of their deceased captain.
Throughout its 2.5 hour runtime–which largely speeds by on initial watch–Lee fluctuates in tone and genre often. The movie is one part war film, filling the frame with urgent action overlaid by triumphant music and filled with sacrificial trust, teamwork, and bravery. If the film was was only this, it would serve as a fitting tribute to the African-Americans who fought at a disproportionate rate in the war. However, no Spike Lee film is just one thing. He places a complex father-son story in the midst of the narrative as Paul (a potential Oscar turn for Delroy Lindo), the most aggressive of the bloods, is strong-armed by his Morehouse-educated boy David (Jonathan Majors, a magnetic star) to bring him along on their journey–and split his cut of the gold payout. While such action and drama flow from the screen, comedy remains a central part of the storytelling; quips and jabs are sprayed throughout every conversation, both effectively bringing the audience into the relationships and forming robust and layered characters in the process.
While the plot certainly has some definitive convenience issues, and at times is a bit contrived (and perhaps rushed), the work retains many other grand technical achievements. From strategic alternating aspect ratios to effective uses of color, angle, and scenery, it works exceptionally for the average audience. What is perhaps most impressive, though, is that such technical facets are inseparable from a prophetic instinct. As it speaks on themes of war reparations, systemic injustice, generational brokenness, and so forth, we find it has both a critique and a constructive framework in its blood.
Akin to the Hebrew prophets of old, the film speaks to the empires of our time in lament and mourning, opposing loudly corruption and injustice. This gives historical voice to the voiceless, telling a story that has been stamped out by the powers of our world. This remains a message that resonates with the state of our current culture, and on its own indicates the uncanny timeliness of the film. However, Lee does not only speak truth to the powers of our day: he provides hope for a changed future, honing righteous anger towards a constructive vision of humanity. Stormin’ Norman, who in many ways serves as a religious icon for the bloods (numerous scenes show a sort of angelic perfection to him), speaks this vision profoundly in a flashback. Following the news of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he speaks to his men: “We don’t let anybody use our rage against us. We control our rage. What y’all trying to do right now ain’t changing sh**. Now stand down!”
The fight for justice in Da Five Bloods is not found in unmoored anger. It is not realized in unadulterated rage. It is found instead in channelled sentiment towards a better world, passed on to new generations, who are tasked with terminating continued cycles of violence and oppression. “We bloods don’t die – we multiply,” is the unit’s mantra, a clear articulation of life and hope springing to others from the graves of the lost. Such a nuanced honesty is largely missing in a world mired by tribal extremism, yet Lee finds a way to hold multiple ideas in tension throughout. The result is a film that is many things at once: funny and violent, convicting and uplifting, grieving and hopeful. Most of all, though, it is a film that writes the untold history of what America has done – and serves as an ode to what America can be.