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Movie Review: 'Da 5 Bloods'

Directed by: Spike Lee
Starring: Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Jonathan Majors, Chadwick Boseman
Available on Netflix
Rated R, 154 minutes

This month, in the middle of a pandemic that has killed 120,000 Americans and counting (and which has disproportionately affected people of color), the country seemed to drop everything—even social distancing—to protest the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Floyd’s death—recorded on camera, slow and brutal, and coming at a time when large swaths of people are unemployed and stuck at home and so have time to pay attention—clearly struck a nerve. The ensuing Black Lives Matter protests seem to have broken loose a boulder that long seemed immovable.

Delroy Lindo (left) and Jonathan Majors star in “Da 5 Bloods.” (Courtesy photo)

This month, in the middle of a pandemic that has killed 120,000 Americans and counting (and which has disproportionately affected people of color), the country seemed to drop everything—even social distancing—to protest the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Floyd’s death—recorded on camera, slow and brutal, and coming at a time when large swaths of people are unemployed and stuck at home and so have time to pay attention—clearly struck a nerve. The ensuing Black Lives Matter protests seem to have broken loose a boulder that long seemed immovable.

It’s into this watershed moment that Spike Lee’s newest film, “Da 5 Bloods,” enters. Following a group of four Black Vietnam War veterans returning to Vietnam to retrieve the remains of their fallen leader—and a hidden stash of gold—the movie is an astonishingly well-timed answer to the unpredictability of the Trump era. More so than any other film that has come out during Trump’s presidency, “Da 5 Bloods” reckons with America’s chaotic present, putting it into context with the past.

At the movie’s center is Paul (Delroy Lindo, “The Good Fight”), whose emphatic righteousness and erratic behavior drive much of the group’s actions. Wracked with guilt over the death of Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman, “Black Panther”), the squad’s leader during the war, Paul is unbalanced, losing his temper at the slightest provocation, or sometimes at no provocation at all. The group’s quest into the jungle to find Norman’s remains and dig up the hidden gold is tense from the get-go, but Paul exacerbates every source of tension, casting suspicion upon their Vietnamese guide, upon the Frenchman helping them sell the gold, even upon his own son, David (Jonathan Majors, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”), who has come along.

Paul is also a Trump supporter. The issue comes up early, and Paul’s red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap serves as a constant reminder. “I’m tired of not getting mine,” he says in explanation of his politics, and the group lets the matter go. But the topic of what rightfully belongs to whom comes up again and again, as the men seek out gold that once belonged to Uncle Sam but was abandoned abroad. Arguments over how to split the jackpot take over their conversations, turning them against one another even while unforeseen circumstances and irreversible blunders imperil their journey.

Starring as Paul, Delroy Lindo commands his every scene with a combination of frightening zeal and heartbreaking vulnerability. In one scene, he wanders through the jungle, muttering loudly, his expression inscrutable; is he talking to himself? Reliving a flashback? Addressing us through the camera? It could be all three, so fluidly does Lindo move between moods. Clarke Peters (“The Wire”) plays Otis, Paul’s level-headed foil, with a gentleness that makes you think, if only briefly, that their many harrowing trials might end peacefully.

But Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”) makes no concessions to his viewers’ well-intentioned hope for peace. Little peace has been afforded Black men in America, and so there is little to be found here. “Da 5 Bloods” opens with a clip of Muhammad Ali and closes with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with North Vietnamese radio personality Hanoi Hannah sprinkled in along the way, all decrying America’s racism. Lee moves at an unrelenting pace, with captions we don’t have time to read and editing that disorients us and jumbles time. He sets his camera on violence, with a clear view of blood and dismemberment and horror in the eyes of its victims. Even if some characters manage to save themselves, they rarely save each other.

The gold is ultimately less important than what the men are willing to do to take it, just as the rationale for fighting the Vietnam War was less important than the lives that were ruined in the fighting. “Da 5 Bloods” sympathizes with the soldiers who were not only scarred by violence and mortal fear, but also infected with hatred and distrust, and who still pay their miseries forward to this day. For those who see the current American crisis as a series of battles along economic, political, and cultural lines, Spike Lee offers a timely and powerful lesson that the seeds of these battles were sown long ago, and those who have been fighting all along are weary.

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The movie may paint Shirley as a tortured genius, but the movie itself rejects the myth of the tortured genius, suggesting that neither brilliance nor despair is inherent, but instead is learned. For Shirley and Rose, their despair is caused by the men they feel forced to treat with deference; their tragedy is that they can’t help but pay it forward. Unfolding with the subtle horror and calmly savage perception of Shirley Jackson’s stories, the movie transcends its faithful homage, and becomes something closer to elegy.


Danny Eisenberg grew up in Harvard and has been reviewing movies for the Harvard Press since 2010. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado.

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