"Da 5 Bloods"- Good, but was it necessary?
By Jelyn Washington-Mays
This review contains spoilers for "Da 5 Bloods"
Spike Lee is an absolute legend.
He is indisputably one of the most iconic and prolific filmmakers across the last five generations. Actually, he’s top two- and he ain’t the two. From “Do the Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever” to “Malcolm X” and “Crooklyn,” Spike Lee has made films that were necessary and reflected the times.
Netflix, on the other hand, is hit or miss. They have produced and put out amazing content, but they've also put out films and shows that could have stayed in their drafts. The streaming service’s record is 50/50.
Recently, Spike Lee has released many of his films on Netflix. Lee has also worked with the streaming giant to turn his debut 1986 movie “She’s Gotta Have It” into a series.
Production of his most recent film, “Da 5 Bloods” was announced in February 2019 while he was on the awards tour for “BlacKkKlansman.” That's also when it was reported that Chadwick Boseman, star of Marvel's "Black Panther" would star. That wasn’t exactly the case.
The film begins with a video and audio clip of boxer and Civil Rights activist Muhammad Ali discussing the Vietnam War. Ali talks about his opposition to America’s role in the war. After the clip of him fades out “Inner City Blues” by Marvin Gaye begins playing with a montage of photos and videos of Black Vietnam soldiers and other imagery relevant to the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War era. This is the viewers’ first peek into the story of “Da 5 Bloods”--Paul, Eddie, Otis, Melvin, and “Stormin Norman”.
Viewers meet "Da 5 Bloods” in a hotel lobby in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Eddie, played by Norm Lewis ("Winter's Tale," "Mrs. America"), shows the group a photo of “Stormin Norman”; played by Chadwick Boseman. That’s when one of the reasons for the gathering is revealed- they’ve returned to Vietnam to collect Norman's remains. It’s a sweet reunion between old comrades.
The film is set present day, 2020, with politics as a major part of life between the war and now.
Paul, played by Delroy Lindo ("The Good Fight," "Malcolm X"), is a Black conservative Vietnam War vet who is an outspoken supporter of President Trump. He is also the most troubled by what happened during his active duty. We see the generic textbook symptoms of PTSD in every aspect of Paul’s life- from his relationship with his son David to how he interacts with “foreigners.”
Otis, played by Clarke Peters ("The Wire," "Harriet)" seems to be both the brains and glue of the group. He's the one that Paul is closest with. David, played by Jonathan Majors ("The Last Black Man in San Francisco," "Lovecraft County") even calls Otis “Godfather." But Otis is not without his faults. While in Vietnam, he reconnects with a former lover from his time in the war. We are then fed the cliche moment of him finding out in that moment that he fathered a child with his former lover. The illegitimate “love child of war” plot twist isn’t really even a plot twist anymore. It's been used so much in context of the war and American soldiers. Just because this time around the soldier is Black doesn’t make the storyline any less tired.
Eddie and Melvin, who is played by Isiah Whitlock Jr. ("The Wire," "Cedar Rapids") are the other two living “Bloods”. Their characters weren’t done much justice when their stories in the script. The two are in limbo between being main and secondary characters, which is really unfortunate because they radiate a familiar energy that would’ve flourished with more screen time. Instead, Eddie and Melvin seem to just be filling their slots as two of “Da 5 Bloods."
The film jumps between the present day and the time that the men served together. The flashbacks are filmed in 16mm. The drama revealed in these flashbacks ties into how people go about race relations today. They demonstrate a struggle between being above the oppressors and retaliating. While the character Norman embodies the nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr., the others are more in line with the ideology of Malcolm X.
Lee's releases usually line up verbatim with current events. The topics of race and politics in this one are too broad. Obviously, race will always be a part of every Black American film, but this one was missing opportunities in the story to address current specific issues. Of course the film was made before this current moment, but characters still could have discussed police brutality versus just playing historic examples in archival footage.
Spike Lee could never put out a bad film, but he put a very unnecessary one here.