Old Wounds, New Perspectives

A Review of Da Five Bloods

By: Nicole Klein

The Vietnam War is often remembered as unnecessary and brutal for all involved. Civilians were caught in the crossfire and soldiers who survived came home to scorn and ridicule. The Vietnam War was also known for the infamous mass-conscription of young men in the United States. Where young, wealthy, college-attending white men could very easily avoid the battlefield, young men who were anything but didn’t have the privilege to dodge the draft. Oft forgotten are the men of color who comprised a quarter of the armed forces and were relegated to the more dangerous tasks.  Spike Lee attempts to rectify these wrongs with Da Five Bloods. On the heels of Spike Lee’s triumphant return to critical acclaim comes a refreshing perspective on arguably one of the most, if not the most, controversial wars in the United States’ history. Starring a slew of up-and-coming and experienced actors of color, Da Five Bloods is the story of an entirely African American squad of soldiers returned to Vietnam to repatriate the bones of their squad leader and uncover their buried cache of gold. Though the tone and performances can be a bit off at times, Spike Lee has created a visceral and cathartic homage to the African Americans who fought for American freedoms they didn’t yet have.  Unfortunately, but not for lack of effort and talent poured into this film, Da Five Bloods fails to leave an impression on me. 

Spike Lee pulls no punches in Da Five Bloods. Right away he seeks to both use and mock the classic earmarks of the typical war film. Every flashback is heavily saturated and edited to look old and grainy. Lee also chooses similar cinematographic and auditory techniques to mock the romanticized vision of war that candy coated a great deal of older war films. These scenes play out to an over-the-top musical score and are shot by a dynamic camera. The Việt Cộng fighters’ faces are rarely shown and they are made to sound alien and high pitched, as though they aren’t human. These sequences are heavily contrasted by the raw and realistic approach applied to the rest of the film. Those scenes, which comprise the majority of the film contain more static shots and are edited at a slower pace. All scenes and sequences taking place in present day are typically lit and colored naturalistically. Save for a couple of notable exceptions, even the color of blood is downplayed. The cinematic pastiche found in the flashback scenes can work to disadvantage the film, as several important moments shown through these flashbacks can get lost in the scenes’ satirical bombast. 

While the film’s musical score is quite enjoyable when it showcases the talents of the late Marvin Gaye, it suffers from the same problem as some of the flashback scenes. Terence Blanchard (whose works are fairly regular in Spike Lee films) has created a score that mimics the snare-and-brass heavy sound of a drum-and-bugle corps. This style of music even bleeds into scenes that take place in the present. While this serves to create both somber and explosive atmospheres, it can sometimes take away from this film’s more emotionally weighty moments. The moments of raw catharsis set in present day and the plot-heavy scenes of the past are at their best , and made ever more cutting and visceral, when the music is either subtle or absent. Ultimately, this issue slightly distracts from the outstanding performances of this film’s cast.

Da Five Bloods is, at its core, a six-man character study, both of the four surviving Bloods and David (the son of Paul, one of the Bloods) both individually and as a group. Such a character study lives or dies by the performances of its leads and Da Five Bloods is no exception. Fortunately its cast portrays this group dynamic excellently. Paul (Delroy Lindo), David ( Jonathan Majors), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Melvin ( Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and “Stormin” Norman (Chadwick Boseman) are as close as brothers, with every ounce of messy drama that entails. These five men (with Norman appearing occasionally in spirit) have incredible chemistry, even when their characters pitted against each other by circumstance.  Some of their individual performances are nothing short of spectacular. Particularly notable are performances of Delroy Lindo and Norm Lewis. Norm Lewis plays Eddie, the ‘heart’ of the four surviving Bloods. Lewis is passionate, wide-eyed, and almost sickeningly optimistic whenever onscreen.  Delroy Lindo, on the other hand, plays a broken and mean-spirited rambler whose dialogue and performances range from intensely emotional to downright surreal. While the other actors’ performances are wonderful in their own right, I struggle to recall them as vividly as the performances of Lindo and Lewis. 

While not without beautiful performances and fascinating direction, this film has one fatal flaw. It simply isn’t as memorable as Spike Lee’s previous works. That isn’t to say that it is poorly made; on the contrary, it is a well-constructed film with visual and narrative techniques employed in unique and interesting ways. Da Five Bloods only fails to use them in a way that would make a lasting impression on an audience. The greatest and worst of films can keep a person talking about them for days, but only a day after viewing it, I fail to recall most of its content (save for one or two key moments and its inherent educational value). Just as an autumn leaf is significant in marking the change of seasons, Da Five Bloods is significant in teaching others of the plights of African-American soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War. Although, like an autumn leaf passing in the wind, Da Five Bloods sadly passes out of the mind as quickly as it had come in.

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