As we enter his fifth decade of filmmaking, there are two separate ways to measure a Spike Lee movie: how vital it is for the moment, and how well it holds up against the rest of his prolific filmography. Da 5 Bloods may be mid-tier Spike for me, but man did we need it in June of 2020.
Righteous anger over systemic, historic police brutality against African-Amercans had crescendoed into global protests just as Da 5 Bloods came out on Netflix (a fortuitous distribution strategy, given that COVID-19—which has hit communities of color harder than others—has kept us out of conventional theaters). As such, this story of four Black Vietnam War vets (Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., and Norm Lewis) who return to Vietnam decades later registers not only as a piece of confessional history, but also as contemporary witness testimony.
The returning vets arrive in Vietnam with two goals: honor their fallen squad leader (Chadwick Boseman in flashbacks) by finding his remains; and locate the cache of confiscated gold bars they had discovered but weren’t able to take home the first time. (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Apocalypse Now references abound, the latter more convincing than the former.)
Delroy Lindo, as Paul, dominates the storyline—often to the detriment of the other men). His Paul is the most haunted member of the group and the most obvious sufferer of PTSD. He carries an unnamed burden of guilt and is prone to threaten violence—especially when triggered by interactions with Vietnamese citizens. (Lee and his co-screenwriters—Kevin Willmott, Paul Da Meo, and Danny Bilson—contrive a few too many of such situations.) What’s more, Paul is also written to be a reactionary conservative who sports a MAGA hat, no less—perhaps as a joke that only a Black man with PTSD would support someone like Donald Trump.
In his performance, Lindo goes full speed on all of this. It’s not subtle work, even for a Spike Lee film. And yet then comes a moment where everything clicked. Later in the film, Paul abandons the others to cut his own path through the jungle. We watch him wearily hacking away toward the camera in a reverse tracking shot. Looking into the lens, he details the many ways serving in Vietnam ruined his life. “You made me malignant,” he says at one point. Then, listing the many things he’s survived in his life thus far, he concludes, “You will not kill Paul. The U.S. government will not take me out.”
Suddenly, Da 5 Bloods came together for me: as its own prodigious achievement and as a necessary work of art for 2020. All the insert shots of archival photos Lee had been sprinkling throughout the film—as well as the statistics about African-American men being sent to Vietnam at a higher ratio than Whites, and of being sent to front-line duty more than Whites when they got there—reverberated with what much of the world was currently protesting: the discriminatory treatment of African-Americans by another branch of the U.S. government, the police.