Review: ‘Da 5 Bloods,’ a challenging exploration of fact and fiction

By Jonah Ocuto, News Editor

Spike Lee’s latest film “Da 5 Bloods” follows four black veterans and their return to Vietnam years later to search for gold hidden by their late squad leader.  (Associated Press)

It’s been approximately 32 hours since I sat down in front of a small screen to watch Spike Lee’s newest film, “Da 5 Bloods,” which was both strikingly familiar and entirely unexpected.

To some, this may seem paradoxical—though I’d argue it best reflects what the newest Lee film is: confusing and challenging until it all clicks in an instant, like the flick of a lighter.

Spike Lee has never been afraid of making his audience uncomfortable. His most popular film, “Do The Right Thing” (1989), an unflinching exploration of race relations and police brutality, was viewed by many critics as an unbelievable piece of propaganda filmmaking. Throughout his career, Lee has been pushing black narratives to the forefront of popular cinema, though his latest film, somehow, takes an even more analytical approach.

On the surface, “Da 5 Bloods” appears simple—five close friends, all veterans of the war in Vietnam, return back to the jungle years later in search of a lost comrade and the treasure he buried.

Lee must have known what I, a white audience member from a white suburb in a predominantly white state, would expect this movie to be: a light romp through the jungle that while occasionally heavy, wants to leave you feeling good about race and the tremendous progress we must have made. The movie, after all, is about four black Vietnam war veterans, and knowing Lee’s filmography, it was obvious to me that their race was no coincidence of casting.

And so the film began as I sat comfortably on a plush futon couch thinking I knew exactly what type of film this was going to be, what the take away was and what I expected to write about—until I realized the man on the screen wasn’t an actor talking about black on black violence, but was famous boxer Muhammed Ali.

I wasn’t watching a feature film, but a documentary. It was archival footage, a clip of a real interview, something not often found in narrative films.

But quickly it transitioned and was no longer a documentary, because soon after Ali spoke, I was brought, through a digital camera, to a lavish hotel in Vietnam, where the fabled 5 Bloods appeared on screen for a moment exchanging quite warm hugs. And before I knew it, the aspect ratio on screen changed, bringing me into a weird “A-Team” parody flashback shot on 16mm film.

While I was still reeling from the snappy transitions and undeniable chemistry in the main cast, which stars Delroy Lindo, Chadwick Boseman and Paul Walter Hauser, I was suddenly made to realize the fact that the first man who shed blood for the U.S. was a black man, Crispus Attucks.

Though not shocked it was true, I hadn’t known this before. It dawned on me, at this point, that I was watching the very process of reclamation—a two hour and 30-minute history lesson of everything public education never taught me.

“Da 5 Bloods” isn’t just concerned with the past, but rather, the way generational trauma can manifest in the present. Throughout the film, the phrase “a war never ends” is repeated like a skipping record, from both the Bloods and Vietnamese citizens. There’s a feeling here, present throughout the film, that this history between those forced to fight an immoral war—the black soldiers in Vietnam, sent to the front lines as cannon fodder, and those who died defending their homes—Viet Cong soldiers, husbands and sons—isn’t their fault, but the fault of a grander, more complex oppressor.

I could write about the lavish performance of Lindo, who plays Paul, a Trump supporter with PTSD, or the script’s medically precise language. I could write paragraphs about what I didn’t like: the cinematography, the odd choices in the staging of certain scenes and the film’s slower pace.

But honestly, none of that matters. There is something young screenwriters are taught very early on in film school: Characters are not “real” people, and your movie has no “real” value. Movies are not “real” because everything in a film is produced and, ultimately, sold as a product.

This is intended to break the writer away from their subject matter, to help them approach it from a distance, to prevent them from getting too attached so they can take their story in an unexpected direction.

This film raises a fist and a middle finger to that notion. “Da 5 Bloods” is a film that feels both too close to home and too far away from reality, a movie that’s hilarious, heartbreaking, scary and warm—a labyrinthine story about the way reality and fiction are interconnected and an unrelenting reminder that the history we’ve been taught isn’t necessarily the entire story.

It’s something that I’ll be thinking about deep into the week, months and very likely years ahead.