Da 5 Bloods movie cast: Chadwick Boseman, Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Johnny Nguyen, Y Lan, Melanie Thierry, Jean Reno
Da 5 Bloods movie director: Spike Lee
Da 5 Bloods movie rating: 4.5 stars
If there’s one director who has been emphasising just how much Black Lives Haven’t Mattered, it is Spike Lee. Right from his first clutch of movies in the late 80s, of which the terrific Do The Right Thing became as much of an anthem as the title of a film, he has built a long career graph telling us soul-stirring stories about the experience of being black.
His latest Da 5 Bloods is Lee in major key, all trumpets blowing. And what a film it is, excavating past and present, real and fictional, to become not just one of his best, but also a tremendously topical comment on race and race relations, with the impact of George Floyd’s murder still reverberating around the world.
The film opens with four former Vietnam vets back in the killing fields. They are ageing, grizzled, full of troubled memories of the gung-ho GIs they used to be, bathed in the smell of napalm, and the sights and sounds of machine guns and bloody bodies. This isn’t just a fun-and-frolic reunion. They are on a double-pronged mission: to find buried treasure, and to bury the ghosts of the past. They used to be five, Da 5 Bloods, but now there are only four: Paul (Lindo), Otis (Peters), Eddie (Lewis), Melvin (Whitlock Jr); the fifth, Stormin’ Norman (Boseman) was killed in combat.
Da 5 Blood is a non-stop riotous mix of a war drama, a western, a study of crime and redemption, a savage satire, an actioner, laced with a strong emotional quotient. And the whole is a huge punch in the gut. Lee’s purpose is as clear as it has always been, and he starts as he means to go on, picking on salient historical points. The black movement was at a fever pitch in 1968, amplified through the powerful voices of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King: the five young soldiers hear the news of the latter’s assassination on the radio, while they are on the field. In the present day, as they are readying for their trip into the jungle, one of them says: ‘we fought in an immoral war that wasn’t ours, for rights we didn’t have,’ and it feels like an epitaph.
Meanwhile, their old stomping ground does indeed yield treasure. Slabs of gold turn up where they had buried them: it’s all very reminiscent of panhandling cowboys in that beloved American genre, the Western. Modern-day bounty hunters show up, as do a group of seemingly well-intentioned mine-hunters, and everything goes bottoms up: there are as many claimants to the gold, as there are people on the screen, and everything is awash in treachery and betrayal and double-cross-ery.
Lee bungs in some softer, nobler aspects to his rough-and-tumble, trigger-happy, PTSD-laden bunch, whose ageing faces are what we see even in the flashback (none of the age-defying trickery of The Irishman): only the dead Norman stays young. One of them uncovers an old love he left behind, and a secret worthy of a soap opera, another finds the tight bands around his heart loosen with long-pending forgiveness, and pays it forward, as benediction to his only son (Majors).
Some rah-rah moments cause you to roll your eyes. A couple of sequences go on for too long. But Lee never loses sight of his story. Or his intent. Right through the film runs the thread of racism wielded as a weapon, and the untold damage it has wrought: the ‘boys’ fighting on the frontlines may have been American, but they were black. As the great Mohammad Ali is heard saying in the film, the ‘enemy’ in Vietnam had never called him ‘n—r.’ Whose war was it?
Da 5 Bloods ends on an upbeat note, which is great for a movie. Real life sucks. The war is never over, says a character as the film is drawing to an end. True that. And it never will be, till every one of us does the right thing. And till every one of us can breathe.
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