Even if Spike Lee’s fantastic new film Da 5 Bloods hadn’t debuted this week (on Netflix), it still would be one of the most powerful and resonant films of the year. Arriving as it does, however, in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests and national unrest, helps it hit home that much more. Which is to say, a hell of a lot.
The story of four vets who return to Vietnam 50 years later to retrieve the remains of their squad leader, Da 5 Bloods was originally supposed to debut at Cannes in May before hitting theaters this summer in advance of its Netflix launch. (And if you’ve been longing for the day when movie theaters re-open, having to watch this intense, sprawling epic on your measly living room flatscreen will only make the yearning that much worse.)
After a prologue of late-60s sound bites and news clips featuring Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and Bobby Seale—effectively setting up the racially-charged 154 minutes of brilliance to follow—Da 5 Bloods introduces us to the four men at the center. As Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) reunite in Ho Chi Minh City, the film instantly takes on the vibe of a feel-good buddy-bonding movie. The fact that the men had buried a stolen trunk of US gold (intended as payment for the Lahu during the war) near their fallen buddy takes everything to the next level, adding “treasure hunt” to Da 5 Bloods’ pedigree.
But as any Spike Lee scholar will tell you, it’s never that easy. His latest “joint” is a full-on, grab-you-by-the-throat masterwork that only adds to its depth with each passing frame of film. The further the men toil into the jungle, discussing everything from politics (Paul unapologetically sports a MAGA hat) to the state of the black soldier, the more intense the film gets, and the more the mission unravels. Lindo, for his part, leads the way with a performance as worthy of an Oscar as any in recent memory; to say he gives Colonel Kurtz a run for his money is a colossal understatement. Meanwhile, Peters, Lewis, and Whitlock turn in stellar support work (alongside Jonathan Majors as Paul’s estranged son David), and Chadwick Boseman shines in an extended cameo as their deceased squad leader Stormin’ Norman Holloway.
Lee’s direction has never been more incisive and perfectly tooled for the subject matter. Choosing to have the actors (un-aged digitally) play themselves in flashbacks and to also shoot the war-era footage in 16mm—kudos to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel—gives Da 5 Bloods a feel of authenticity, which is only one aspect of the many that combine to make it Lee’s finest film and the most close-to-perfect of his career.
Da 5 Bloods, ironically enough, has its roots in a script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo about white soldiers on the same mission, but studio delays gave Lee a chance to step in (with screenwriter Kevin Wilmott, who also co-wrote Lee’s Chi-Raq and BlacKkKlansman) and re-tool it to tell the story through an African-American lens. The result is a hard-hitting (but never preachy) film that is more important than ever—a testament to the strength of black America and an affirmation that black lives do, indeed, matter.