It’s felt as though we’ve been on the precipice of something huge for a long time, and it looks like the magnifying lens of lockdown was what it took to bring deserved worldwide attention to the #blacklivesmatter movement. Personally, I’ve been somewhat aware of this campaign since the murder of Mike Brown in 2015, and I recall that its online presence barely left the bubble of Twitter and Tumblr – events like this that aren’t broadcast on mainstream news outlets are easy for most to ignore. But all of a sudden, no one has a chance to look the other way; COVID-19 has forced white people to sit down, shut up, and confront their own racism and biases. Of course, the legendary Spike Lee has been putting out messages like this for years, most notably in films like Do The Right Thing, She’s Gotta Have It, and most recently BlacKkKlansman. However, the release of his latest film Da 5 Bloods has come at a time of intense reflection on the history of white supremacy and anti-Blackness, where white people who may have otherwise feigned ignorance have nowhere to bury their heads. The worldwide availability of this film matches the international urgency of addressing systemic racism, and though Lee’s anger isn’t the most organized, it’s certainly a call to action.
Da 5 Bloods has a fairly straightforward narrative on the surface: four former Vietnam vets return to the former battlefield to pay respects to the fallen fifth Blood, leader Stormin’ Norman, and to retrieve the gold they buried long ago. But what this allows for is a journey back into the heart of darkness (as indicated by numerous Apocalypse Now references), in which the darkness itself is clearly defined from the start as white colonialism. Thankfully, Lee avoids the trope of painting the Vietnamese as a homogenous group to be fought by individual Americans – instead, he unifies the Vietnamese people and Black Americans as two victims of the same perpetrator, with nearly all of their collective trauma traceable to historical American atrocities.
In my opinion, Lee is at his strongest when presenting you with singularly arresting images, pictures that carry so much weight and so many connotations that they have burned into your brain for a long time after. There were two that stuck out to me in Da 5 Bloods, the first of which is the image for this very review. Chadwick Boseman plays the late Norman in this film, but he’s no doubt known in most people’s minds as the Black Panther, a Marvel superhero who rules a Kingdom and can take down any enemy with ease. Needless to say, Boseman’s face carries certain associations and seeing him posed as a true to life Black Panther makes for an unforgettably potent image, one that suggests future hope while reminding us of the bleak past. The second image I’d like to mention is something of a spoiler, so I’ll only say this much about it: quiet white solidarity is a powerful force in helping end the brutal violence enacted upon Black people, and the intensity of the scene I’m referencing brings home that racist violence isn’t an issue of the past – it never ended.
When the Oscars roll around in 2021 and there’s hopefully more than three films competing, I sincerely hope that critics band together to ensure that Delroy Lindo’s intense performance isn’t lost in the shuffle. As Paul, the least stable of the Bloods, he takes so many contradictory character elements – supporting Trump yet following Norman, hating yet loving his child, inner conflict between peace and violence – and somehow unifies them into a painfully believable and organic whole. Moreso than anyone else in the film, Paul is a character defined by his pain and anger, having suffered so many losses to a system rigged against him and others like him. His growth throughout the film is fascinating, and Lindo creates a character who you can both love and hate with ease.
I’d like to conclude this review by pointing you towards reviews by Black critics I know and respect who likely picked up many nuances in this film that I may have missed. I’d also like to say outright that Spike Lee isn’t the be-all and end-all of Black cinema; if you’re newly interested in this area, I can highly recommend works by members of the LA Rebellion, as well as directors like Dee Rees and even Oscar Micheaux if you have an interest in silent films. But to summarise – the chaos of Da 5 Bloods may sometimes put you off, but the urgency and anger are unparalleled, and considering the time of its release, I can’t think of a more important film for 2020.
Kathia Woods: https://www.cupofsoulshow.com/da5bloods