“Da Five Bloods” is a snare trap. Director Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”) draws viewers in with an adventure story about four African American veterans returning to Vietnam, on a mission to find a long-buried treasure and the remains of their squad leader. These instantly likable characters, who call themselves “The Bloods,” plan to split the gold and send their leader’s body home to the States for a proper burial. While this setup is as Hollywood as it gets, Lee uses it to give the audience a false sense of comfort, which is ripped away to devastating effect.
The movie’s first act, where The Bloods explore Ho Chi Minh City and get reacquainted is deceptively joyous, humming with music and color. One scene, when the vets dance through an “Apocalypse Now” themed bar with smiles on their faces, is infectiously groovy.
Still, there are hints towards what’s to come. At the bar, a victim of American landmines asks the vets for money, and Viet Cong veterans send over drinks, both of which make The Bloods visibly uncomfortable. Soon after, there is also a brief flashback to the war. While the scene itself is a hyperbolic, ’70s film-grain romp, with machine gun fights, a helicopter crash and hyper-gory blood effects, The Bloods are played by their older actors, hinting towards what inevitably undoes the movie’s rollicking sense of fun; more than 40 years later, The Bloods are still fighting the war. Like the first act itself, the flashback has a facade of adventure, but a deep undercurrent of lasting trauma.
As the quest progresses into the jungle, Lee springs the trap. What first seemed lighthearted immediately darkens as The Bloods’ trauma resurfaces with brutal, shocking violence. The adventurous, gung ho tone from the setup is replaced by a disturbed climate of tension. Danger can come from anywhere in the dark trees, be it from hidden landmines, a mercenary group stalking The Bloods and hoping to steal the gold or even the Bloods themselves. It’s jarring, like watching Indiana Jones descend into “Macbeth.” Yet this complete tonal shift, while disturbing, is far from inauthentic. “Da Five Bloods” depicts the brutality of post-war life by showing that post-war life doesn’t exist. As The Bloods, decades after the Vietnam War, contend with hostility from the jungle, one realizes that wars never end for those who fight them.
While “War is Hell” is no new idea, Lee puts his already affecting narrative in a distinctly American context. The Bloods were drafted into a war that they had no stake in, fighting for America’s imperialist Cold War ideology. To make things worse, they were met with hostility upon returning home, both because of the American public’s distaste for the Vietnam War and its institutionalized, widespread racism. Lee highlights how this historical injustice is only one of many, following in the lines of slavery, the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Throughout American history, Black Americans have been brutally oppressed and denied equal opportunity, while also being simultaneously forced to defend and work for the society that did so.
This is no subtext. Using dialogue, historical photos and archival footage throughout the film, Lee wraps “Da Five Bloods” with American history in an unflinching, frequently disturbing fashion.
In the opening montage, Malcolm X gives what could be the movie’s thesis: “When you take 20 million Black people and make them fight all your wars and pick all your cotton, and you never give them any real recompense, sooner or later their allegiance towards you is going to wear thin.” The Bloods’ leader, Stormin’ Norm, played by Chadwick Boseman (“Black Panther”), says something similar: “War is about money. Money is about war. Every time I walk out my front door, I see cops patrolling my neighborhood like it’s some kind of police state. I can feel how much I ain’t worth.” The weight of unresolved trauma from the entangled, inexorable forces of systemic racism, capitalistic exploitation and warfare is an ever-present chokehold on these characters, and turns the story’s adventure into horror. Lee also reveals the gap between history and how art depicts it, as the terror and chaos of historical injustice bleed into, and eventually destroy, what initially is an enjoyable, almost-conventional narrative.
In “Da Five Bloods,” Lee makes some of the most ingenious directorial decisions of his entire career. In one sequence, a Blood gives a quasi-Shakespearean monologue while staring directly into the camera and hacking away at the jungle, a long take so engrossing it appears the character speaks directly to the viewer. The bullet-riddled climax weaves together the film’s themes of imperialism, trauma, senseless violence, sacrifice and prejudice in a thrilling no-holds-barred fashion that only Spike Lee could pull off.
Also, like all of Lee’s movies, “Da Five Bloods” screams out a vital social message. The film places the Vietnam War where it belongs, in the context of American imperialism and racist ideology. It asserts that, while America’s conflict with Vietnam has been over for decades, its reasons for fighting, the systemic racism, violent, exclusionary nationalism and unfettered capitalism, are stronger than ever.
A cutaway to Angela Davis puts it best: “If the link-up is not made between what’s happening in Vietnam and what’s happening here, we may very well face a period of full-blown fascism very soon.” With national guardsmen tear-gassing peaceful protesters, predator drones flying over Minneapolis and the 45th President waving a Bible to rile up fundamentalist radicals, “Da Five Bloods,” and Spike Lee’s oeuvre, have never been more necessary.