Da 5 Bloods is a poignant and well-crafted depiction of brotherhood and the consequences of war. The story follows four Vietnam War veterans – Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Paul (Delroy Lindo) – along Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors), as they return to the jungles of Vietnam to recover the remains of their fallen Captain, dubbed ‘Stormin’ Norman’ (Chadwick Boseman) – oh, and find the stash of gold they hid with him.
Spike Lee is no stranger to developing films around tougher topics, and Da 5 Bloods is no exception. The film takes care to depict the realities of war and the history around it. The film starts with a montage of historical footage – civil rights leaders and other prominent figures, like Muhammad Ali and Bobby Seale, speaking out about the rights of Black people and their opposition to the war.
Images of anti-war protests as they experience brutal retaliation from the police, and those of war atrocities committed by both the American forces and the Viet Cong create a rich backdrop for the story. It continues throughout the movie, with images of historical Black figures, specific references to casualties in Vietnam and, at one point, a radio broadcast reporting on the death of Martin Luther King Jr, during which ‘Hanoi Hannah’ reminds the Black G.I.s of the injustices committed against them back home, and how they continue to be sacrificed by their country abroad.
Composer Terrence Blanchard also utilised music to emphasise the feeling of being held captive in that moment. In particular, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?’ underscores the continued relevance of the civil rights and anti-war struggles of the era. It is used effectively at some of the movie’s rawest moments and as such, lingers in the minds of the audience.
For the majority of the film’s runtime, the story follows the characters in the present as they revisit Vietnam for the first time since they served. However, Da 5 Bloods also makes good use of flashbacks to their time during the war. The format adapts to the time period, smoothly transitioning from grainy, squared footage to the modern letterboard, compacting then expanding the viewer’s perspective.
The characters and their ghosts, more so than any plot, work to drive the story forward. Out of the four characters, it is Otis and Paul that are given the most focus, mirror opposites of one another. Paul still suffers severely from his time in the war and refuses help from others, angry and wounded as he is. This has poisoned many aspects of his life, but particularly his relationship with his son. Otis, on the other hand, seems to have led a stable life. He has a family, goes to therapy, is kind and level-headed. Upon his return to Vietnam, he even reunites with a Vietnamese woman whom he had loved, Tiên (Le Y Lan). The story unfolds with symmetry, allowing the two men to explore their conflicts and beliefs and, in the end, to find peace.
With this script, the movie also seems to explore how America confronts its past. One significant scene involves Vinh (Johnny Nguyen), a tour guide for the group, talking about his family. He mentions his father was a soldier – he is receives approval and solidarity from the veterans; however, when he makes reference to the aftermath of the war in Vietnam, the group grows quiet before abruptly changing the subject.
The suffering of the Vietnamese people is ever-present in the film. Tien speaks of how she and her daughter were treated because of her relationship with a Black GI. A child with one leg begs for money. A seller snaps about the deaths of his parents at the hands of American troops. A soldier seeks revenge for the murders and crimes committed. Whilst refusing to downplay the discrimination against Black people at the time, Da 5 Bloods also brings awareness to the fact that whilst America has collectively moved on from the war, Vietnam and its people are still reeling from the effects of the conflict. One line summed this feeling up: “Strange how war never seems to leave the people involved. It’s there, whether mentally or physically. It’s just degrees”.
Da 5 Blood is a film about friendship, about war, about racism, about consequences. It exists to tell a story, and also to remind its audience of the dark, gruesome facets of American history. Despite its grim subject, Spike Lee’s work still shines with moments of hope, love and compassion as much as it is fuelled by its anguish, anger and pain. It is incendiary, and it is beautiful.
Da 5 Bloods is available to stream on Netflix