You never see their younger selves. That's the critical choice Spike Lee makes in his latest film, Da 5 Bloods.
Though mostly set in the modern day, whenever Da 5 Bloods flashes back 50 years to the battlefields of Vietnam, you don't see strapping young actors replace veteran actors Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock Jr., all of whom are in their 60s. You don't see them de-aged, caked under video game CGI. These actors playing their younger selves in a critique Lee makes about America's unending wars. The "American War" changed these men forever, arguably for the worse, and time has not separated them from who they were forced to become.
Da 5 Bloods is Spike Lee's newest and possibly greatest movie. Armed with his usual auteur arsenal — Lee likes to have his characters speak to the camera, he likes them debating popular culture, and he likes archival footage to tell a new story — the director puts his stamp on the heist film genre, one that comes dressed up as an epic war drama set long after the war was lost. With a cast of characters who reflect the many ways war haunts soldiers lucky enough to survive, Da 5 Bloods is an arresting, beautiful movie about Black brotherhood, Black trauma, and how the cost of reparations for Black Americans can never be enough.
In Da 5 Bloods, streaming now on Netflix, four Black Vietnam veterans reunite in modern-day Hanoi, a bustling city with skyscrapers, pristine hotels, and well-lit McDonald's lining its streets. The four, plus one of their sons — David (Jonathan Majors) — seek to retrieve the remains of their fallen leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman), along with a stash of gold worth millions. But problems arise in the jungle that force these men to relive their worst nightmares and survive new ones.
While a heist movie through and through, Spike Lee indulges in the aesthetics of classic Vietnam War movies, from Platoon to Apocalypse Now (the latter gets a big shout-out in a nightclub scene). Oh so much Marvin Gaye and Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" score the film's most poignant moments. In flashbacks to '67, Spike Lee squishes his widescreen frame to a letterbox 4:3 image that's dirtier, noisier, and more raw than the high-definition clarity of 2020 Hanoi.
It's almost like Spike Lee made a war movie 30 years ago and kept it under his bed until now before shooting a whole new film around it.
Over two hours, Da 5 Bloods plays as a mosaic of moods and genres. It's a soaring war drama one minute and a pulpy treasure hunt heist the next. But the single commonality throughout is its exploration of Black trauma. Lee doesn't hold back on the resentment Black Americans had towards Vietnam after they were drafted into yet another war for a country that never cared for them and continues not to.
Like Blackkklansman before it, Lee has once again crafted a movie that is timeless in its content yet urgent in its message. The four surviving Bloods, who revere their late leader like he was both Malcolm and Martin in a single entity, represent the spectrum of ways Black Americans have never ceased to wrestle with living for and dying for a racist Western power. One, you’ll learn, is a benefactor for Black Lives Matter. Another is a hardcore conservative, who lets racial epithets leak from his mouth and subscribes to American exceptionalism. It becomes telling who wants to spend the gold for the community and who wants to keep it for themselves.
The stashed gold — the story's primary MacGuffin — represents the reparations Black Americans were never paid for the sins of slavery and dehumanization. When the Bloods argue over how it should be split, or even what it should be for, the characters engage in a new war with their own conscience. Through this debate, Lee raises questions about how America ought to repay its debt. There's no question about reparations, but what should that even look like? Is it personal wealth for all, or is there a greater common good?
Lee also brings attention to the local Vietnamese, who were abandoned and left with a politically and economically divided country. The Vietnamese also seek a debt from America as children continue to lose lives and limbs to landmines left behind.
Although an ensemble piece that sports a host of Vietnamese actors, including Lê Y Lan, Johnny Trí Nguyễn, and Veronica Ngo, along with French actors Jean Reno and Mélanie Thierry, the undeniable standout is Delory Lindo as the haunted Paul. A Black conservative whose MAGA hat plays a role in a devastating plot twist, Paul is clearly the most shaken of the Bloods. His coarse personality serves as a liability for the mission, but you never once roll your eyes at him. It's thanks to Lindo, whose mesmerizing performance is pregnant with pain and gravitas, that Paul and Da 5 Bloods reach a deeper dimension. Da 5 Bloods is about shared trauma, but Paul epitomizes the loneliness of that pain under a dirty red hat.
Da 5 Bloods streams on Netflix at such a perfect time, it almost feels like witchcraft. Beyond its timely ideas and emotional catharsis that feels necessary right now, Da 5 Bloods itself is simply so gripping and so enthralling. It's a throwback to classic war pictures without the bleak nihilism of napalm in the morning.
That it's still unabashedly a work by Spike Lee, whose unusual rhythm and confidence as a storyteller ensure there's no other artist like him, makes Da 5 Bloods the can't-miss streaming event of the summer. There's gold in this movie, and it isn't hard to find.
Da 5 Bloods is streaming now on Netflix.