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Spike Lee does Netflix as did Martin Scorsese, with a very long film, this time set in contemporary Vietnam, on the legacy of the colonial wars.
The focus is on a squad of African American ex-soldiers, who return to search for their charismatic squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), an inspirational amalgam of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and a human war machine. There is also a cache of CIA-gold the squad buried and now plan to retrieve for their own benefit.
Echoing reactions to Martin Scorsese’s film, the viewer wonders if this fine and fascinating film, at 2 hours and 34 minutes, is an hour too long. What happened to the Hollywood tradition of the gripping and sufficient 90 minute feature? With the shift of US film distribution to Netflix and to other digital platforms, are filmmakers stuffing in too much?
Da 5 Bloods is three films, perhaps: two quest films – firstly, searching for the remains of an old comrade-in-arms, secondly lusting for gold a la The Treasure of Sierra Madre – and it’s also an exploration of brotherhood and race in America today.
The primary plot-driver is a crusade. A group of older men, linked by combat experiences and a mixed set of purposes and plans, embark on a mission to retrieve the remains of their near-sainted leader and to bring them home. This is a theme that resonates with many US war dramas such as Saving Private Ryan.
The film presents chilling statistics such as that 33 per cent of the US military forces in the American War in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were African Americans, despite being only 17 per cent of the US population. This underpins the exploration of racism in America today. The racism and lived experience of African Americans rest not only on the legacy of the slave trade, but on many other legacies, including the state’s reliance on African Americans in its military endeavours. This continues to the present day.
Paul (played by Delroy Lindo, so wonderful in David Mamet’s Heist) wears a cap with the logo Make America Great Again. The actor is great. This is his film. He gives a powerful performance of hurt, anger, intelligence, lyricism and mania that soars over the other performances. All the principal performers are terrific, presenting well-developed and well-written characters.
Da 5 Bloods includes a nod to the war of liberation against the French with a role for an old colonial, Desroches, as financial fixer and gangster. He is played adroitly by Jean Reno, laying on the Gallic arrogance and insouciance. Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) also joins the quest in a surprise turn, to bring father-son, inter-generational themes to the story.
The locals in Da 5 Bloods are not given very much to do. A number of them are cannon fodder for the African Americans who mow down a large troop of Viet Cong during the flashback war scenes. The aged Bloods remain surprisingly adept ex-soldiers, seeing off a sizeable gang in a climactic fire-fight over the gold.
Not unlike other US war films, a small group of American fighters, regardless of their ethnicity, readily defeat larger numbers of native fighters. Greater firepower and better training, no doubt, but also greater financial and cultural clout for American filmmakers make heroic war actions by Americans the dominant narrative. See the Indian Wars’ films, involving US cavalry, produced by Hollywood.
The film doesn’t stray far from the notion of American exceptionalism as an international power. The principals hold to Mark Twain’s aphorism: “Loyalty to country always, loyalty to government when it deserves it.”
That the final shakedown occurs amidst the ruins of a forest-engulfed temple is a telling illustration of the overwhelming capture Time achieves on all human activity, imperial wars included.
The Vietnamese people continue their history, incorporating new cultures into their ways of being, as the contemporary scenes in Saigon show. Legacy matters are ever present, nonetheless. Ordinary people challenge the ex-soldiers for killing their parents and families.
Da 5 Bloods is a timely film, focusing on African American history and how it impacts on lives today. The film is intercut with telling archive news and documentary footage to bring that history to bear on the film. As ever in war, the men who gave the orders rarely face the consequences. Even President Barack Obama validated the Stars and Stripes and sent fellow African Americans to secure that banner at military bases all over the globe, while advancing international wars of conquest, supported by an arms trade that is a cornerstone of the American economic system.
Da 5 Bloods is recommended. Though it is very long, it tells an untold story with panache and verve. It has a lush, sometimes epic, orchestral score of original music by the great Terence Blanchard and uses the works of Marvin Gaye to terrific effect.
Delroy Lindo’s exceptional solo in the jungle is a highlight. It is elegiac and poignant, powerfully delivered in the fallen-hero tradition.
Might Spike Lee make a film telling the heroic story of Muhammad Ali’s challenge to the military draft?