The introduction to Spike Lee’s Netflix movie Da 5 Bloods flashes through archival footage of key moments from the Vietnam War and the American civil rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s. “America has declared war on Black people,” says Kwame Ture. Moments later, Angela Davis warns of the rise of fascism in the United States. Images appear from the Kent State shootings, where four unarmed students were killed by members of the Ohio National Guard, and from the Jackson State killings, where city and state police opened fire on a group of students, killing two. That montage might seem prescient, but part of the film’s message is that it shouldn’t. The protests that began in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery may be front and center in the public consciousness right now, but violence against Black Americans has been omnipresent throughout American history.
Da 5 Bloods returns to that point again and again. As Vietnam veterans Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Otis (Clarke Peters), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) return to the country under the pretext of exhuming the body of their old commander Norman (Chadwick Boseman) — though they actually plan to recover a stash of gold they hid during the war — their conversations often return to Black historical figures like Crispus Attucks and Milton Olive III, who gave their lives for America, with no apparent recompense. Lee doesn’t bother with subtlety in getting that point across, and as the film winds to its conclusion, that bluntness becomes devastating.
It’s clear from the outset that the vets, or “Bloods,” as they call themselves, care deeply for each other. But Tiên (Lê Y Lan), Otis’ old flame from his tour of duty, warns that the sheer amount of treasure at stake may change their dynamic. She isn’t far off the mark. They’ve all changed since they last saw each other; for instance, years of bitterness have turned Paul into a MAGA-hat-wearing Trump voter.
The plot of the film is a typical adventure tale — a hunt for lost treasure that sees the former soldiers going up against Vietnamese mercenaries, and a tentative romance for David (Jonathan Majors), Paul’s son who tags along out of worry. But Lee uses it as groundwork for telling a much more complex story. Paul’s reckoning with who he’s become is a big part of the tale, as the fear, hatred, and paranoia given physical form by that red hat increasingly alienate him from both his friends and his son. Given what we know Lee thinks of our current president (who’s referred to as “President Fake Bone Spurs” in the film), the MAGA hat should automatically make Paul an unsympathetic character, if not an outright villain, but Paul is the film’s lead. The script (written by Lee, Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, and Kevin Willmott) digs deep into what’s made him this way, and Lindo’s performance, which culminates in a blistering monologue delivered straight to the camera, is impossible to look away from. (It’s already generating well-deserved Oscar buzz.)
Different histories intertwine as the film progresses. The characters’ personal histories come into play, with the main cast (particularly Peters, serving as Lindo’s foil) showing how much more they can do than the supporting roles Hollywood has largely relegated them to. The histories behind America’s failure to reckon with its mistreatment of its Black citizens and its loss of the Vietnam War also wind into the story. And there’s cinematic history at work, too, in the references to the long list of war films that obscure the sacrifices of Black soldiers and glorify combat. The touchstones range from Rambo to Apocalypse Now, with some obvious quotes, and some more veiled references. One character even notes that the sheer number of American films about the Vietnam War feels like an attempt to paper over that catastrophic loss. At first, so do the exploits of the soldiers, as illustrated in flashbacks distinguished not by younger cast members, but by a changed aspect ratio. Initially, they’re portrayed as straightforward heroes, fighting their way through the jungle. But later scenes, which subtitle the conversations between the Vietnamese soldiers, are harder to stomach, especially as Lee peppers in real images of atrocities committed during the war.
While the treasure hunt turns bloody, the film’s final note is hopeful. There’s a lot to take in, and the urgency and potency keeps Da 5 Bloods from inviting complacency. Meaningful change requires action, a point made by the characters’ journeys as well as a late-film shout-out to the Black Lives Matter movement and its organizers. Lee’s films — e.g., Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, BlacKkKlansman — and his ever-present focus on the experience of being Black in America have always been galvanizing, but never more so than now. American violence against Black people and people of color has been stuck in a vicious cycle, but history continuing to repeat itself doesn’t mean that change is impossible. Lee ends the film with a card stating that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated “in these United States of America,” but the footage of King directly preceding it is of a message of hope. “America never was America to me,” King says, quoting a Langston Hughes poem. “And yet I swear this oath — America will be!”
Da 5 Bloods is streaming on Netflix now.