Bloods don’t die. They multiply.
The only thing that’s more forgotten than a soldier of war is a black soldier. Spike Lee’s Vietnam war epic Da 5 Bloods observes this truth with sobering reality and honesty, taking you through the plight of five black soldiers who went through hell in Vietnam only to trade it for another hell when they came back home to America. Several movies have been done about the Vietnam war now, from Apocalypse Now to Born on the Fourth of July. Yet I’ve never seen a movie quite like Da 5 Bloods.
In Da 5 Bloods, a group of veterans venture back to Vietnam to bury their fallen squad leader and recover treasure they left behind during the war. Their squad leader is Stormin’ Norman, powerfully portrayed by Chadick Boseman in his first major role since Black Panther. The rest of the Bloods include Otis (Clarke Peters), David (Jonathan Majors), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Paul (Delroy Lindo), who is the most devastated and haunted by Stormin’ Norman’s demise in Vietnam.
One of the immediate things you’ll notice about Da 5 Bloods is its creative direction. While Spike Lee is no stranger to displaying style and pizzazz in his movies whether it’s BlacKkKlansman, Malcolm X, or Do The Right Thing, Da 5 Bloods is noticeably less flashy than his other major projects. While his other films place an emphasis on color, music, and production design that visually pops from the screen, Da 5 Bloods is more grim, bleak, and dark, not just in its storytelling, but also in its visual design. Whether its scenes take place in the 1960s or the present day, the shading is so unrefined and gritty that it doesn’t even feel like a movie: it feels like real life and you’re simply witnessing these men’s experiences play out in front of you.
The cinematography and editing are equally essential when it comes to further realizing the film’s sense of character. One creative detail Spike Lee utilizes is the method of filming the movie’s two different eras. In the present day, Lee and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel capture the scenes on high-definition digital cameras, reflective of today’s technological achievements. But in 1960s Vietnam, Lee and Sigel switch to 16 mm film, making the picture frame smaller and more grainy. The result is a fuller, more immersive experience that vividly places you in the same period as the Bloods. Few films do this mesmerizing of a job with its cinematography, yet Spike and Sigel make it look serene, striking, and epic (although for some reason, Spike annoyingly decided not to de-age his 60-year-old actors in the Vietnam flashbacks).
The cast is just as exceptional as Spike’s sense of artistry. While John David Washington, Samuel Jackson, Don Cheadle, and Giancarlo Esposito were originally slated to portray the living Bloods, scheduling conflicts prevented them from joining the film, so Lee had to seek alternatives in Peters, Majors, Lewis, and Lindo. Scheduling conflicts may have been the best thing to happen to Spike for this movie, because this quartet feels organic and authentic in relationship to one another. It’s not often where a film brings together an ensemble cast and makes it feel this natural and fluid, yet these actors do such a great job at portraying their love and affection for one another that they can’t help but really feel like long-lost friends reuniting under tragic circumstances.
But of the four leads, Delroy Lindo easily shines the most. You’d recognize him as West Indian Archie from Lee’s Malcolm X. But unlike most of his other supporting roles, Lindo takes more of a leading presence in Da 5 Bloods, and he handles the pressure very well. There’s one moment in particular where he’s vividly expressing his pain, hurt, and anger, and he’s staring into the camera while he’s delivering a heart-wrenching monologue. In context, he’s obviously just talking to himself, but in the shot, it feels like he’s talking directly to you. “You” as in the white man. “You” as in the American. “You” who are unaffected by the issues that plague him and his loved ones every day. His passionate and convincing delivery feels so raw and honest that you can’t help but feel guilty by the time he delivers his last impactful line to the camera.
And of all of the elements that bind this beautifully-wrapped cinematic package together, the most essential is the themes Lee explores in his screenplay. While the script was originally written on spec by screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, Spike rewrote it to include a black American perspective. The result is a spellbinding, rich, and dense narrative filled with many relevant themes to today’s society, including racism, police brutality, violence, war, mental health, poverty, generational wealth, greed, division: even Donald Trump’s election is provided with some commentary.
All of this leads to a grim reality we’re forced to face at the end of Da 5 Bloods: many of the battles Paul, Otis, David, Eddie, and Stormin’ Norman were a part of back then are still being fought to this day. We’ve entered five wars since Vietnam ended in 1975, one of which is still ongoing in Afghanistan. The Black Lives Matter movement is still fighting for the same civil rights that Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X died for in the 60s. Hell, there’s even been multiple teases to World War III in just this year alone. Yet in their misery and despair, Da 5 Bloods reminds us of another truth that perseveres: Bloods don’t die. They multiply. The Bloods never gave up fighting. Neither should we.