Arts movie review

War never ends

Spike Lee’s new film stares straight into the face of trauma, Blackness, and the struggle for resilience

Da 5 Bloods
Directed by Spike Lee
Screenplay by Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott, Paul De Meo, Danny Bilson
Starring Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Chadwick Boseman, Isaiah Whitlock Jr, Jonathan Majors, Norm Lewis
Rated R
Streaming on Netflix

Spike Lee’s latest film gives history a long overdue update by voicing the experiences and psyche of Black soldiers. Da 5 Bloods centers around four African-American Vietnam War veterans who return to Vietnam, where their friend and leader, “Norm” (Chadwick Boseman), was killed. Their trip is motivated by two goals: find Norm’s body, and get the gold that they buried back when they were fighting the war. 

Before the plot begins, a montage of footage and photos from the chaotic Vietnam War-era America highlights America’s injustices against foreigners and Black Americans alike, as well as efforts for peace and equality. The mixed media used throughout the film continues this collage effect, layering photographs of historical figures and moments, black and white videos, and news clips, all creating a rich sense of time and history. The film also creates a distinct visual experience for flashback scenes to the Vietnam War, narrowing the frame to create a dated aspect ratio and raising the contrast and color saturation. This filter exaggerates the greenness of the wilderness that the five Bloods fight in as well as the rustiness of the barren soil and bloodshed. When the frame widens back to the present day, it looks like a completely different movie. 

That jolt between present and past is exactly how the four friends, Otis (Clark Peters), Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Mel (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) feel upon revisiting Ho Chi Minh City for the first time after many years. It has changed into a place where they can check into fancy hotels and enjoy drinks in the company of Vietnamese strangers. Yet even from the start, everything around them, from spotting a legless Vietnamese child to being heckled by vendors, causes flashbacks and fear. Long scenes of uninterrupted conversation reveal the characters’ personalities and predispositions, in particular Otis’ calm, wise demeanor and Paul’s controversial MAGA attitude. In hindsight, every bit of the dialogue foreshadows future events, yet in the moment seems completely natural.

Norm is a martyr of sorts in the film — a leader who taught Otis, Paul, Eddie, and Mel about Black history, morals, and bringing pride to their people. While the trip’s goal is to honor Norm and those values, their memories are slowly eaten away by the burdens of Blackness in America and racial tensions in Vietnam, on top of the inherent isolation of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With all of these factors, it is hard for the characters to keep their original goals in sight. 

Each character deals with their memories in a different way, from Paul openly expressing discomfort with Vietnamese people to Otis revisiting an old Vietnamese lover. It’s impossible for any of them to fully understand what the others have been through. Lee portrays PTSD as sporadic and all-encompassing, capturing the aspects of a condition where someone may appear unaffected one moment and inexplicably troubled in another. Trauma lingers in unseen and irrational ways, and instead of trying to explain that, the film takes the opportunity to play this psyche out to its fullest.

The forest becomes a visual landscape of fear as the four friends, along with Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors), enter to search for Norm and the buried gold. Their surroundings become greener and closer to the wartorn wilderness seen in the film’s flashbacks to the war. Pieces of the characters’ pasts emerge and become catalysts for division. The film builds the underlying tension that starts as soon as they arrive in Vietnam into powerful moments where exaggerated projections of their traumas consume the men.  

Within this constant momentum, Lee finds the space to capture long conversations from one angle or hold the focus on intense discomfort or pain. These shots sit in on the characters’ private thoughts as they deal with the endless tirade of struggles during their journey. The cinematography itself reflects their inner feelings: Lee is unafraid to use invasive and haunting visuals to emphasize the bitter realities of what it means to revisit the past and deal with its impacts on the present and future. The different ideologies and lives of the characters push the camera’s gaze on a wide variety of themes, from fatherhood to wealth to racism. The characters cannot avoid these realities, and Da 5 Bloods doesn’t look away either.

Towards the beginning of the film, the Bloods joke about the kind of “Holly-weird” war films like Rambo that try to glorify the ugly past. “I would be the first cat in line if there was a flick about a real hero,” Otis laments. “One of our blood, someone like Milton Olive.” While Da 5 Bloods does briefly mention Milton Olive, an 18 year old Black soldier who sacrificed himself to cover an exploding grenade, it’s really about the lives of Black soldiers who sacrificed for a country that struggles to reciprocate. The story feels very personal to the main characters, and yet it’s also part of something larger. Despite exposing the hypocrisy and dark sides of patriotism, the film also conveys pride in one’s culture. It’s about the realness of fear and how it can carry into every aspect of life. The film highlights twisted, uncomfortable truths the whole way, but somehow in the end, there’s a feeling of hope.