By Johnnie Hobbs III.
While Miracle at St. Anna, Spike Lee’s first war drama, suffers from its myriad of storylines, it seems that Da 5 Bloods is the beneficiary of a lesson learned.”
Recently, I asked my father about his time in the army and how it’s affected his life. He was drafted during the Vietnam War and served from 1969-1971. Though he was hungry to see action, he never did and struggled from time to time with only a minimal dose of surveyors’ guilt. He stood side by side with men who fought and died in a war for a country that didn’t care much about them before, during, or after they landed back home. This is a thought my father and most other black vets from that era tend to have.
Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods joins the ranks of movies like Glory, Dead Presidents, Buffalo Soldiers, Red Tails, A Soldier’s Story, and Miracle at St. Anna that seek to honor black soldiers for their bravery and service, warts and all. 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna, Spike Lee’s first war drama, sought out to present a multifaceted World War II epic instead of a more streamlined approach. The movie suffers from its myriad of storylines, but it seems that Da 5 Bloods is the beneficiary of a lesson learned.
Da 5 Bloods tells the story of four black veterans who return to Vietnam some decades later seeking the remains of their fallen squad leader and the gold fortune he helped them hide. The film plays simultaneously like an epic war drama and a heist film with heart, jumping back and forth between genres. Lee’s films toggle between a history lesson and a cinematic journey. Tossing out news archives, names, photos, and events in black American history, the film encourages Google searching after watching. These “history lessons” give context to the times the characters lived through and how life has shaped them. Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis. and Isiah Whitlock Jr., play vets Paul, David, Otis, Eddie, and Melvin, respectively. Paul’s son, David, played by Lovecraft Country’s Jonathan Majors, accompanies him on the journey to check on his father and spend time with him. It’s no coincidence that these characters are given the same names as the R&B 1960’s group “The Temptations.” Each group is a tight-knit crew of men that went through thick and thin and had a leader named Norman guiding them. “The Temps” had producer/songwriter Norman Whitfield; “Da Bloods” had Stormin’ Norman, gracefully played by Chadwick Boseman in his second to last film (both for Netflix) before his passing that shocked many black Americans and moviegoers alike. Chadwick Boseman’s role, specifically the way he portrays Stormin’ Norman, is almost prophetic in the most beautiful and sometimes eerie way.
Each main actor plays well within the ensemble cast, allowing no one character to overpower the other. They all have a personal journey that feeds into the collective adventure. There are moments when the casting doesn’t seem to fit the group dynamic and feels off tonally, but every actor is a seasoned professional and is a joy to watch. The most powerful journey of them all is that of Delroy Lindo’s Paul. Lindo plays, to quote Spike Lee, “a MAGA hat-wearing motherfucker” struggling with severe PTSD from the war and the death of his dear friend, Stormin’ Norman. Lindo hits notes of violence and vengeance, remorse and regret with a hint of nostalgia, without any of them clashing. He embodies a lot of the anger, confusion, guilt, and torment that some black men felt after the war.
Where this movie falls short, in moments of tone and airy length, Lindo’s manic energy holds your attention. Lindo’s biggest moment in the film is a subtle war cry calling out to America that black men in all wars past, present, and future exist and will get the respect they deserve. This is Lindo’s fourth picture with Lee, following Malcolm X, Clockers, and Crooklyn. It’s only fitting for this new work to be applauded as one of the most powerfully vulnerable and sincere performances of the year, and one of the best from a long and respected career. (Check out “The Hollywood Reporter Awards Chatter” podcast to hear a wonderful interview with the actor.)
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was a hefty price tag for Netflix, mainly because of the de-aging of actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci over a 30 or so year period. Marvel movies also spend massive amounts to de-age there performers for just few flashbacks or sometimes cast different people in the flashbacks. Da 5 Bloods probably didn’t have those price tags and didn’t need them. The idea to not have younger actors play the vets in flashbacks or use heavy de-aging technology is daunting at first, only because we’re so used to seeing it now. The present day actors were fit and strong enough to play the scenes given to them. It feels as if they were having actual flashbacks and re-living the experience of war.
The music and soundtrack offer another layer of beauty and pain with the songs of Marvin Gaye and the score by Terence Blanchard. Where Paul and the other Bloods can’t cry their woes out in song, Gaye picks up the slack. A few songs from “What’s Going On?”, Marvin Gaye’s concept album from 1971, are sprinkled throughout the movie. The album is told from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran returning home to discover life after the war is just as hard as before, especially for a black GI. Marvin Gaye told Rolling Stone that he “was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home.” He wanted to share the stories and emotions of black people of that time in song so they had a place to grieve and pow-wow. Academy Award-nominated and underrated movie composer Blanchard also creates a grade “A” film score and continues to show himself as one of the finest movie composers we have today.
Spike Lee’s overall feel can sometimes come across more as shtick than style. Consider his use of outdated African-American vernacular, his actors talking to the camera (here, Delroy Lindo’s monologue), or the Spike Lee famous dolly shot. Yet he still manages to force you to look directly into the hearts and faces of his characters. Even if that means looking directly at you. Think of the traction of Damon Wayans in Bamboozled, Alfre Woodard in Crooklyn, or Harvey Keitel in Clockers. We are all forced to notice these characters and take them in for who they are. Da 5 Bloods forces us to acknowledge the soldiers and survivors of the Vietnam/American War and salute them for their bravery.
Johnnie Hobbs III is a filmmaker and teacher in Los Angeles, CA by way of Philadelphia. Read his manifesto for a new black period film here.