It’s clear that Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee’s latest film and his first for Netflix, was always intended to feel relevant. Much like in his previous film, BlacKkKlansman, Lee uses Brechtian techniques to keep today’s politics in our minds as the drama unfolds, though the present-day setting makes that a little easier this time— it’s not hard to remember Trump when a MAGA hat features prominently in the narrative.
But when Netflix set the release date, they could not have known just how relevant the movie would be. In an America nearing its fourth week of protesting against police brutality and systemic racism, Lee’s tale of trauma and reparation resonates deeply, and his fine-tuned didacticism offers exactly what the country was looking for from its filmmakers.
Aiming in part to give voice to the underrepresented experience of African American soldiers, Da 5 Bloods follows the return of four Black veterans to Vietnam, intercut with scenes from their time fighting the war. Though officially there to search for and repatriate the remains of their long-fallen squad leader, they are just as motivated to recover the $18 million in gold bars secretly buried with him, hoping to realize his dream of using the money to fund Black liberation movements across the country. Along with the physical challenges that come with their mission, the four must navigate the resurfaced complexities of their role in Vietnam, and as they contend with both their personal trauma and the trauma that they helped inflict upon the Vietnamese people, they question whether the war ever really ended for any of them.
The assertion that trauma breeds perpetual conflict is the thematic core of the film, and Lee uses both fact and fiction to explore this from a variety of angles. Archival footage is a frequent presence, often interjected when a historical figure or event is mentioned in dialogue, and this points to a larger, (multi-)cultural memory of the Vietnam War. The story of Da 5 Bloods then incorporates several individual perspectives that manifest its effects, be they a Black American veteran’s PTSD and Trumpism, a Vietnamese market vendor’s hatred, or a French colonial descendant’s guilt. The varied, complex interplay of these personal and cultural traumas not only adds layers of richness to each interaction, but also makes the epic scope of history more tangible for the viewer, a crucial takeaway for this moment of national evaluation and redefinition.
Lee’s film is more than timely commentary, however, and Da 5 Bloods is as thrilling as it is moving. Though it takes a bit too much time to get going, once the veterans begin their quest, you’ll be firmly locked in. Lee draws a direct cinematic line back to John Huston’s 1948 classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and reminds us that the corrupting allure of gold is a constant threat to human values. While most of the characters are well fleshed out, none compare to Paul (Delroy Lindo), who constantly oscillates between sympathetic and odious and becomes a thematic nexus of sorts, doing the heavy-lifting for a number of different readings of the film. The entire work is at its best when tapping into Lindo’s incredible performance, and you should expect to hear his name a lot come Oscar season. If present circumstances did not already make Da 5 Bloods essential viewing, its cinematic quality certainly would, so I have no qualms about recommending you move it to the top of your watchlist.
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