How Da 5 Bloods Paints a Portrait of Race and Brotherhood in Vietnam
“He was something to believe in,” reflects African American Vietnam vet Otis in Spike Lee’s new film, Da 5 Bloods. “A direction. A purpose. He was our Malcolm and our Martin.” He is remembering his fallen comrade Stormin’ Norman, their former squad leader who schooled his brothers in arms about black history and, with his free-thinking, opened their eyes to the hypocrisy of fighting a war for a country that did not believe in them.
Lee’s film dropped on Netflix this past weekend, and it could not have come at a better time.
Da 5 Bloods tells the story of a group of aging war buddies who call themselves the ‘Bloods’ – including the sensible Otis (Clarke Peters), the volatile Paul (Delroy Lindo), and the ‘woke’ Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who was killed in action. (Don’t worry, not a spoiler!) The surviving Bloods reunite in the present day to return to Vietnam, where they plan to find the body of their fallen friend, as well as search for a cache of gold they left buried deep in the jungle. A delectable mishmash of genres, Da 5 Bloods mixes elements of the war film, drama, adventure, and sharp social commentary—perhaps too sharp for some, but then Spike Lee has never shied away from expressing his messages loud and clear. I respect Lee for his resounding voice and unwavering conviction and, in short, I loved this film.
You will learn a thing or two watching Da 5 Bloods, not only about the atrocities of the Vietnam War, which Lee depicts viscerally through sobering archival footage but about black history as well. In particular, these lessons come from Boseman’s Stormin’ Norman, whose social consciousness inspires his band of brothers to take action against racial inequality. “We repossess this gold for every single black boot that never made it home,” Norman says in a flashback after he and his troops discover the payload of gold bars. “Every brother and sister stolen from Mother Africa to Jamestown, Virginia way back in 1619. We give this gold to our people.”
Boseman, who gives a rock-solid performance in his limited screen time, appears only in grainy letterbox flashbacks—an effective technique Lee and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel use to visually distinguish memories of war from the present day. While the majority of the film is presented in a standard 16:9 aspect ratio (or widescreen), the frame converts to 4:3 for the flashback sequences. Additionally, while the modern-day scenes were shot digitally, Sigel filmed the flashbacks on period-accurate 16mm film stock, creating the sensation that you’re watching archival news footage of the Vietnam War. This inspired cinematography works brilliantly to immerse you in the Vietnamese jungle, whether in the 21st Century or the 1970s.
While Boseman and Clark Peters as Otis both do fine jobs, I have to mention the true standout performance of this film, and that is Delroy Lindo. I was already a fan of Lindo, but I’ve only seen him in a handful of 90s action movies. This was a side of Lindo that I’ve never seen, and he completely blew me away. Lindo’s tortured, resentful, MAGA-hat-wearing Paul exists at the dramatic and social core of Da 5 Bloods. An African-American Trump supporter who struggles with PTSD, Paul is the most complex character in the film and one that Lee uses to explore many big ideas. Lindo does a remarkable job of showing that while his character may have left Vietnam, Vietnam has never left him. Delroy Lindo had better be in the Oscars conversation when awards season rolls around because the man deserves recognition for this phenomenal and emotional performance.
In an enlightening interview with the Hollywood Reporter (which I highly recommend reading!), Lee explained that this script was originally written to feature a cast of white soldiers, which he and writing partner Kevin Willmott revitalized and recolored to give us Da 5 Bloods. With this major change, what could have been a broad and unoriginal story became a unique glimpse into the singular experience of black soldiers in Vietnam—an infinitely more compelling and timely narrative. Indeed, the five Bloods’ racial identities are central to their characterization and to the story and message of the film. I could not imagine Da 5 Bloods any other way.
If I had to nitpick a few negatives, it would be that the timelines of certain characters’ ages don’t seem to add up, particularly regarding Otis’s family. Also, Lee made the interesting choice to feature Lindo, Peters, and the other Bloods in flashbacks at their current ages, rather than utilize digital de-aging or simply cast younger actors to portray them as young men. While I understand this was a decision made out of practicality, I found it to be a tad distracting. But did these things detract from the impact or potency of the story? Not at all. Lastly, one could argue that the ending was heavy-handed, but I’d counter that it serves as a salient reminder and an important message to hammer home, especially in light of the racial inequality rampant in our country today.
I admire Lee for using movies as his megaphone to speak out against social injustice and declare—quite literally—“Black Lives Matter.” The film is a powerful medium and Spike Lee has a powerful voice. He has done the work; now it is up to us to watch, listen, and learn. The alarm clock has been ringing and ringing and ringing, and—in Lee’s famous words—it is time to “wake up!”