~ Some slight spoilers ahead ~
War never ends; that is what Spike Lee’s latest film tells us as it explores the lived experiences and realities of Black veterans who fought in the Vietnam War. The four remaining members of the ‘5 Bloods’ – Otis (Clarke Peters), Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) – return to the land where bullets flew and many perished, as they seek the treasure they buried along with their demons, many years before. Like most storylines that depict a hunt for buried treasure, it is typical in the sense that whenever something is uncovered from the ground, more trouble follows. This motif ties in well with the theme of returning to environments of trauma, as when we revisit these areas, trouble is sure to follow, but resolve is usually the outcome. Before tuning in to watch, I knew there was going to be plenty to unpack, moments to learn from and trauma to heal from, especially as the current climate of our society is calling for an end to systemic racism, a disease that affected the men back then and continues to do so now.
Immediately, in the Spike Lee fashion that followers of his works are accustomed too, Mr Lee establishes the context for this cinematic production. The beginning is a montage of America in the period of the Civil Rights Movements. We are greeted with imagery of a war-torn American – the war being that of the Black man’s existence – and it is juxtaposed with imagery of the Vietnam War itself, thus drawing parallels between the two. Mr Lee is suggesting that Black people were fighting two wars, and maybe the external fight overseas was not theirs to fight, as they had not established themselves in the very nation they were fighting for. This message is embedded through clips of prominent Black figures such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and more, denouncing the war and the involvement of Black people. This idea is infused throughout the film through punchy one-liners and touching scenes that reflect on the Black man’s American struggle, even in times of war. A particular stand-out moment being how anger and unrest is the first reaction to finding out about the death of Rev. Martin Luther King. This sparks brief debate about the appropriate response to the injustices done towards Black people and the solution provided in this scenario is to sit with the anger and turn it into something positive. This particular debate still exists and is currently very relevant, as the ‘right’ way to protest is frequently being discussed. We are, of course, currently living in a moment of global protests following the death of yet another Black man – George Floyd – at the hands of the police in America.
The four men left of the group present us with the important message of brotherhood and unity. It is clear that even in this day and age, Black Americans are still suffering at the hands of the system and although we may not always get along and see eye-to-eye, we value one another and will fight for one another. We see this in some key scenes presented by Mr Lee, there are some sweet moments of camaraderie showcased when the group is scaling the jungle for their buried treasure, which mirrors the same camaraderie the men shared during the war. Mr Lee and his editor Adam Gough ensure that these flashback images are shown in a well-timed fashion.
Mr Lee has to depict the irony of a Black man trailing through the jungle with a MAGA hat. Such imagery feels like throwing shade to a certain celebrity and his public showcase of love for President Trump and MAGA. The image of a Black man in a MAGA hat is obliterated through showing the America (1960/70s) that people who believe in MAGA perceive as great. But of course, it’s a society where Black people were persecuted and offered as sacrificial lambs on foreign lands as well as their own. It’s clear that he is saying that the greatness of America never existed for Black people, therefore, it is ironic when Black people support this rhetoric i.e. Paul, we’re looking at you.
The film also attempts to deal with the trauma of war itself and how PTSD is real and requires attention. It is clear that Paul is suffering from PTSD the most and has demons he needs to address. Whilst we sympathise with all he has suffered through, we are not compelled to necessarily like him, especially as he stands as a symbol of an ignorant Black man that refuses to learn, do better and heal. It’s brilliant how Mr Lee is able to create a character so complex that we stand by him, whilst not being able to stand with him. I think it’s a powerful notion about collective Blackness and the beginning of a critique into the Black community itself and the internal problems that need to be addressed.
There are so many aspects to this film that make it a worthy watch, but no film is without criticism. Some scenes feel unnecessary, including a scene involving snakes (which is a personal problem!). Without this and a few other irrelevant scenes, the film would have been shorter. I do feel like some of the scenes did not add any weight to the story. At times the ideas we were presented with were predictable and cliched, such as the paternity revelation and father/son disputes with eventual peacemaking. Another example is when the Bloods encounter someone who explodes landmines, then coincidentally meet them again when in a tricky situation involving landmines. That might be more to do with how life is full of clichés and the human condition is predictable, so I won’t put it all on the script. I really do think Da 5 Bloods is well written (by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott and of course Spike Lee) with strong dialogue, in fact, many punchy one liners have stuck with me. I’m torn between reading too much into Mr Lee choosing to have the four men play themselves in the past. On one hand it might be symbolic for how the men they are today is because of the war, or there were budgetary constraints which prevented de-aging, but that’s a trivial qualm I’m sure I can get over.
The film as a whole has a lot to say! Spike Lee, who is renowned for making punchy, critical and memorable texts, definitely delivers when it comes to Da 5 Bloods. It is evident that this work is culturally significant for Black people, especially at this moment in time. As the world is witnessing through social media, the very public and graphic reality of police brutality against African Americans; the Black Lives Matter movement is growing. It’s important that Mr Lee showcases it in the text, and he makes it clear that it is a movement that we must invest in for the liberation of Black people from a system that was designed to eradicate them. The almost happy endings we see for the various characters in the film, are those we hope to have in our existing society.
This is a film that is a must-see for anyone and everyone! And at two and a half hours, it will give you a lot more than you bargained for, but most importantly direct your attention to the causes that matter in our present day society.
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee, Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr.