Spike Lee movies are like onions. Peel off a layer and there’s a new one beneath. Take that off and another reveals itself. His latest, “Da 5 Bloods,” now streaming on Netflix, is even more multi-faceted than usual. The director calls it a “gumbo,” a rich stew of varied ingredients. It’s a two-and-half-hour Vietnam War legacy film featuring a Trump supporter in a leading role. It’s a searing look at how African American soldiers fought in a war for a country that didn’t support them and it’s an adventure film, à la “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” with action scenes and even buried treasure.
Most of all, it feels like a film that only Spike Lee, the auteur, could have made.
The story centers on the Bloods, MAGA-man Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis), four African American vets who return to Vietnam almost fifty years after their last tour of duty. They hope to recover the remains of, “the best damn soldier who ever lived,” their Squad Leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman).
It’s a noble mission indeed, but there’s more. A lot more in the form of CIA gold bars intended as bribes for the Vietnamese government but hijacked by the Bloods and hidden in the jungle. “We’ve been dying for this country from the very get,” says Norman in a flashback. “We give this gold to our people.”
It seems like a foolproof plan but almost as soon as the men land in Vietnam they are beset with problems, some new, some a product of their past. “Being back here is not easy,” says Paul.
“Da 5 Bloods” weaves archival footage of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis and Kwame Ture among others, and 60s era music into the narrative, creating a vivid portrait of time and place. Add to that a study of the effects of PTSD, political corruption and some interpersonal politics between the main characters—including Jonathan Majors as Paul’s estranged son David—action scenes and a slimy banker (Jean Reno) and you have a big, bold movie that aims to entertain and reckon with social issues that linger years after the Vietnam War ended.
“Da 5 Bloods” explores areas of the African American experience in Vietnam that have never been exclusively the subject of a film. Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott, with whom the director shared an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for “BlacKkKlansman,” have crafted a poignant, if slightly overlong, look at the lasting effects of fighting a war for freedoms the Bloods and their counterparts were being denied at home. “Black GI,” taunts propagandist Hanoi Hannah (Van Veronica Ngo) on Radio Hanoi, “is it fair to serve more than the white Americans who sent you here?”
Lee makes daring choices—not de-aging the older actors in the flashback scenes, for instance—but never obscures the film’s central message. “Every time I walk out my front door I see cops patrolling my neighborhood like it’s some kind of police state,” Stormin’ Norman says, circa 1971. “I can feel just how much I ain’t worth.” The pain and anger in those words, and in this film, is undiminished by the passing years.