Spike Lee’s latest movie Da 5 Bloods has come straight to the streaming titan Netflix, it is equal parts heist film, history lesson, and social commentary who’s timing couldn’t be better. The film follows four Black Vietnam War Vets on the search for the remains of their fallen squad leader and the gold riches he helped them hide in the jungle years ago. The film takes risks in the way it was shot through multiple lenses as well as how the film uses real life clips and stills to supplement the continuous narrative of the Black experience in Vietnam. At its core the film is an essay on PTSD and the trauma that comes with being black in America, a country still trying to save itself from its own original sin. Setting the Civil Rights Movement side by side with Trump’s America by using flash backs and real footage of the Vietnam War creates an uncomfortable watch that I believe is necessary to spread understanding of the generational fight going on still. Passionate filmmaking and thoughtful artistic innovation make this movie a must watch. Here are five reasons why I found Da 5 Bloods to be outstanding.
Old Guys as Young Guys
In the first flashback it becomes immediately apparent that Spike Lee did something that I have personally never seen in film. Instead of using de-aging technology or younger look alike actors he used the older versions of the characters in their past setting during the Vietnam war. It’s jarring at first but once you are over the shock, the choice is an amazing commentary on perspective and how we ourselves view our own memories. It adds continuity to the character’s story arcs by subliminally making you cheer for the same face throughout the film, not two different ones in the traditional sense. In the Irishman one of many criticisms were that the de-aging technology takes you out of the film, this method keeps you locked in the story. Also, contrasting a young Chadwick Bozeman along side the older characters shows the symbolic cost of war in the death of a generation in Vietnam. A generation who stayed forever young. Spike Lee’s risk added artistic integrity by going against the grain and doing something truly unique, not to mention saving a ton of money.
Life Imitates Art
The story begins with footage from real historic events that show the United States during a period of unrest alongside clips showing the vicious brutality of the Vietnam war. The war at home vs. the war abroad. Real Quotes from Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis play over images of Kent State, bombings in Saigon, and the moon landing to show a country in transition. It sets a scene to give back story to the characters and the world that they lived in. The use of stills was very powerful when referencing real life events like the My Lai massacre showing dead children, Milton Oliver-the 18-year-old Black soldier who was the first casualty in Vietnam, as well as the anti Nixon Vietnamese propaganda. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination is a pivotal point for the young versions of the soldiers and internal struggle of how to react while fighting for a country that also views you as an enemy. In this scene you see the real video of his death. The film concludes showing a MLK speech where he delivers the thesis of the film “America was never America to me”, that is the central theme throughout the movie.
The Vietnam war movie archetype has followed a simple formula in the past when it comes to music, use as much classic rock as possible. The Doors, Credence Clearwater Revival, and Lynyrd Skynyrd being the most popular but this film chose to keep coming back to Marvin Gaye which serves as the backbone of this soundtrack. All three of the Marvin Gaye songs used are from the same album What’s Going On, who’s lyrics talk about social injustices in America making it perfect for the movie’s theme. Terence Blanchard the film’s composer created a title score using a 90-piece orchestra to tie the film together during tense moments. This makes the film run smoothly in the classic sense. For me the music’s pinnacle was during the turning point in the film where Paul (played by Delroy Lindo) separates from the group while the others seek refuge, an a capella version of What’s Going On plays in the background that is both beautiful and haunting at the same time. It creates tension by putting the main focus on the isolated vocals and powerful lyrics while the viewer wonders “what will happen next?”
Uncanny Camera Use
Shot spectacularly on location in Thailand Da 5 Bloods is a picturesque movie set in shades of green. Cinematically it is masterpiece jumping from different aspect ratios between past and present, aspect ratios being the dimensions of the image shown on camera. Past is shot with the classic 4:3 to project the realistic tone by using “TV news camera’s used at that time” said Newton Thomas Sigal, the film’s Cinematographer. The flashbacks have a grainy touch to them giving the film a lot of grit during the war scenes. The present is shot in wide screen that adds a lot of life to the jungle terrain and amazing cityscapes of modern Vietnam. Spike Lee exhibits his expertise for perspective by giving all the cameras in the movie a soul. The director shows what’s behind the lens whenever Eddie (played by Norm Lewis) uses his video camera on the river boat it shows what he sees. Also whenever he takes a photo through his other camera, the movie shows the still so we the viewer can see the final image. This puts us in the character’s shoes creating more feelings that resonate with us.
Da 5 Bloods has many reference points to one of the most celebrated Vietnam war films in Apocalypse Now. Some as subtle as naming the club they are seen dancing in Apocalypse Now or as complex as having a once honored soldier turn mad by the corruption of power and the helplessness of seeing death up close. Spike Lee a self proclaimed cinephile adds small touches like playing the Ride of the Valkyries while the old bloods are on the riverboat, a total homage to the Apocalypse Now story.
This movie is the proof that small details make a big difference. Its runtime is just over two and a half hours but the payoff at the end is superb. This period piece is a truly unique experience that ties in classic filmmaking with modern storytelling making Da 5 Bloods a movie that I believe will stand the test of time and will get better with age.