Patrick Mulcahy on gestures of solidarity in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods
Just a few years ago, Netflix was considered the enemy of cinemagoing. Now, with cinemas closed, it is the only place where you can watch new films by established auteurs. The latest of these is Da 5 Bloods, director Spike Lee’s follow-up to his 2018 box office success, BlacKkKlansman. It has been some years since Lee directed a popular hit (Inside Man in 2006), and not that long ago that he crowdfunded a movie through Kickstarter (Da Sweet Blood of Jesus in 2014). Creatively, he has found a new lease of life, working on projects with co-writer Kevin Willmott, who, like him, teaches film part-time.
For the last four decades, Lee has been a constant critic of Hollywood’s representation of black experience, taking issue with such films as Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book. “Every time someone is driving somebody, I lose,” he noted referring to Best Picture Oscar snubs for Do the Right Thing and BlacKkKlansman. He is as much a filmmaker as a brand maker, marketing caps, tees and hoodies to tie in with his movies. Throughout his career, Lee alternates between documentaries, features, promo videos, adverts and, latterly, television series. His CV includes the TV pilot for Shark, starring one of President Trump’s Hollywood cheerleaders, James Woods.
Da 5 Bloods is an archetypal Lee film, using genre as a debating chamber. An adaptation of the spec script The Last Tour by Danny Bilson and Phil DeMeo, it tells the story of four black soldiers who return to Vietnam almost fifty years after their tour of duty ended to recover the remains of their squadron leader, ‘Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) as well as some gold bars that they buried. Lee stretches the credibility of the story by setting it in the present day, but this allows him to give the group’s leader, Paul (Delroy Lindo), a MAGA cap.
Paul is an unapologetic Trump supporter, but it is Otis (Clarke Peters) who can get the job done, sourcing a broker for the gold bars (Jean Reno) known to his ex-lover, Tiên (Lê Y Lan). Eddie (Norm Lewis), who has a string of car dealerships, bankrolls the trip while Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr) dispenses meds. Lee peels back the layers of two of these men as their up-river journey unwinds, as they are joined by Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors).
“We didn’t need to bomb the Viet Cong. We just needed to give them McDonalds,” remarks one character on the Americanisation of Hanoi. On their boat trip, as they are jovially pestered by riverside vendors, Paul flares up in irritation. He is far from the moral conscience of the group, but his anger has its purpose. The film has a strong sense of forward momentum, even as some of the scenes stretch belief – notably the discovery of the gold itself.
Lee riffs on the most famous cinematic depiction of the Vietnam war, Apocalypse Now, on two occasions. Firstly, it is the name of the Hanoi nightclub where the four elderly men enjoy themselves. Secondly, Lee sets the river journey to Richard Wagner’s ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’. Lee’s imagery cannot compete with Francis Coppola’s – he does not have the budget. However, Da 5 Bloods has its own flair moment when David treads on a landmine. Here, Lee builds tension as Paul gives his son a moment of self-belief, channelling Olympic gold medallist Edwin Moses, an alumnus of Morehouse University, where David teaches.
As well as this scene, the film is at its best when Lee belittles post-Vietnam War narratives, taking aim at Rambo and “Walker, Texas Ranger” – a reference to Chuck Norris of the Missing in Action films. Lee makes judicious use of newsreel footage, though sometimes denigrating their impact. Images of the My Lai massacre once galvanised the anti-war movement; in Lee’s hands they are a cutaway.
The biggest criticism of Lee is that he does not home in on a single issue and really explore it. Rather, he seeks to trigger the audience with a line or two before moving on to something else, in much the same way as a talk show host lands a series of topical gags in an opening monologue. The film’s most complex relationship is between Paul and David, but Lee does not bring this fully to life. Paul’s biggest moment has him wander into the jungle alone and start talking to camera, having given in to madness.
The most radical scene in the movie – the one that really rewrites how the Vietnam War has been depicted on film – occurs in flashback, when Norman and the others hide from a group of North Vietnamese soldiers. Not only do we hear Vietnamese speak – about poetry, not killing Americans – but their words are subtitled. Lee does not objectify the North Vietnamese; rather, he gives them the same status as his protagonists.
Although Lee can generate suspense, he is no action director. The firefights that take place are functional. Lee is not interested in the cathartic kick achieved through violence more through gestures of solidarity. Paul and his colleagues team up with members of an NGO, LAMB (‘Love Against Mines and Bombs’), led by its ‘white, guilty’ French CEO, Hedy Bouvier (Melanie Thierry), the granddaughter of French plantation owners.
Lee makes it clear who the real enemy is by the simple transfer of a baseball cap. As in cowboy movies, headwear is important. The post-script tells you which side Lee is on. As with BlacKkKlansman, it is bang up to date, referencing Black Lives Matter. By focusing on donor culture, Lee argues for resistance rather than top-down change. In the end, it is these limited aspirations that make him a niche rather than a popular director.