This moment in America has certainly opened the door to more conversations about race and inequality. As many have rushed to social media to proclaim their support for communities they’ve never acknowledged, views and opinions have shifted. The aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and public lynching deserved this attention, as did the dozens of others killed by police in the past fifty years. As this conversation took hold, Spike Lee‘s Da 5 Bloods came to Netflix with the eyes of the world on it. Da 5 Bloods not only rises to the moment but deserves the spotlight as the best film of 2020.
Da 5 Bloods follows four war vets as they return to Vietnam to recover their fallen leader Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). Before his death, Da Bloods (Delroy Lindo, Norm Lewis, Clark Peters, and Isiah Whitlock Jr.) hid a fortune of American gold. With an opportunity to recover their treasure, they traverse the jungles of Vietnam with one of Da Blood’s children (Jonathan Majors). When the mission goes sideways, Da Bloods find themselves struggling to face the jungle and their demons.
Lee channels rage and anger throughout the film, but he maintains a laser-sharp focus on his character development. In the quiet moments, Da Bloods reflect on a man who taught them what it meant to be black in America, even as they learned their lessons across an ocean. As his characters reflect on their trauma and mistakes, Lee uses flashbacks (with Da Bloods playing their 20-year old selves) to fill in the backstory. With aspect ratio shifts and stylistic cinematography, Lee quickly differentiates between the eras and mental health of his characters.
After taking a pass on the script from Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, Lee and writing partner Kevin Wilmott inject undertaught moments of American history into the heart of the tale. Allusions to Treasure of the Sierra Madre are littered throughout the film, as are textual elements of Apocalypse Now (literally scene in the nightclub scene). Lee’s use of history adds to the layers of Da 5 Bloods in surprising but intentional ways. Da Bloods lose their way in the Jungle, both literally and symbolically. Lee’s reflection of a generation scarred by the events of Vietnam makes it clear: the generation trauma of the war stunted the growth of a people. Yet despite that frustration, there is hope. Lee’s characters continue to pass on the lessons of the movement, and with each generation, they take a step forward. Progress may be slow, but there is progress.
Landmines provide literal and symbolistic danger throughout, reminding the audience that the effects of Vietnam are still destroying lives decades later. A MAGA hat is displayed predominately throughout the film and plays a symbolic role. After all, this is the era that many wish we still lived in, an area before Civil Rights and progress had occurred. The man responsible for the hat was one of many who conveniently did not serve in Vietnam. Yet Paul (Lindo) has become a disillusioned and unhappy man in the years since the war. PTSD courses through his veins. He represents an entire generation who’s life was ended before it even got a chance to begin.
Lindo delivers a powerhouse performance as Paul, simmering with the broken promises that destroyed his life. Lindo does not linger on the anger, but the pain and regret of his life are present in every action. Every small moment and tick are the result of trauma that occurred decades prior. Lindo plays each moment with a vulnerability that is both unsettling and inviting. Even as he acts out in horrific ways, you empathize with the man’s struggle. Harrowing and tragic, Delroy’s performance is one of the best ever in a Spike Lee film.
The rest of the cast steps up to the moment. Jonathan Majors continues to build towards stardom with another brilliantly layered performance. You can see he’s inherited some of his father’s frustrations on the world, but there’s a glimmer of hope for something better. He knows his history and has literally become a teacher to further the cause. Boseman is volcanic in his limited screentime, stealing the movie in five and ten-minute increments. While his screentime is limited, there is not a wasted second. Lewis, Peters, and Whitlock craft brilliant chemistry with Lindo. At the heart of all that is bad about their lives, there is love that brings them together.
Lee uses this story to once again confront the racial injustices inflicted on Black Americans for centuries. Yet to describe this film as merely angry is a misunderstanding of what has brought us to this moment. While BlacKkKlansman was harrowing for tapping into the vein of where we were as a nation, Da 5 Bloods wonders where we could be. The end of this film rings as a timely, but Lee also shines a light on hope. The truth about America is that it must reckon with its upsetting and violent past, but the work to make our country a better place is never done. There have been too many tragedies to count, but we cannot give up the fight. Movements in America come about when we’ve had enough. Sadly violence has become systemic within our country. Spike is not always known for his hopeful vision of the future, but Da 5 Bloods shows how brotherhood can be forged in these dire circumstances. While justice might be delayed, it is only through action that we make the world a better place.
Da 5 Bloods is the textbook definition of a film that Film Twitter will love in 5 years, asking why we didn’t respect it at its release. We need to begin that acknowledgment now. Anything short of that is a disgrace to Lee and film as a whole. Da 5 Bloods is an American masterpiece about the psychological damage of America, the bonds that bring us together, and a world in disarray. It should be treated as such.
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