Da 5 Bloods (2020) is Spike Lee’s new Netflix produced film covering the return of four African-American soldiers to the body of their squad leader and a deposit of gold they had buried in the Vietnam War. It was released amid a tumultuous American political climate, and it was not shy in recognizing that. In the wake of the George Floyd protests is a film interspersed with historical footage of significant acts within black liberation and their corollary figures. There are cuts of atrocities committed during the Vietnam War, as well as those from modern American politics. Anyone who felt like they were going into this film needing a history lesson gets at least the groundwork for it within the first half hour.
Needless to say, the film is clearly political. It follows Otis, Eddie, Melvin, Paul, and Paul’s son, David. Each character is initially introduced as just one of the five members of this tight-knit group forged by blood in a time of war. As the film develops, the gold seems to reveal the inner attitudes of each character. It is with each moment of distrust and conflict regarding the gold that important questions are asked – what is a black man’s role in black liberation? Does he give more, even if he does not have enough? Or should he look out for himself because the world does not seem to? These deep moral questions are mixed in with their own personal and emotional convictions, most especially regarding their obligation to their fallen leader, Norm.
This film is definitely smart. Spike Lee shows that he’s ready for more nuanced discussions regarding ‘Nam, moving beyond the normal American vs. Vietnamese dichotomy in the war. He brings in discussions on the VietCong and South Vietnamese people, on black American soldiers and white American soldiers, on the remnants of French colonizers. This is a much-needed take in a war often portrayed in a pretty slanted manner, showing not only their own distinct roles, but how history has brought all of these influences together in ways the uniquely interact within the country.
It seems, however, that Spike gets lost in all the ambition to tell a great historical epic. This is made clear in the final act where an exciting sequence culminates in closure for its characters but does not seem to pack the emotional punch it intended. A lot of the different ideas here are brilliant individually but seem bolted on together rather than trying to seamlessly weave through them. This critique is true especially for the development of each blood, where we get mere crumbs of their greater motivations that in turn, seem either underdeveloped or unconvincing. Particularly Paul felt like he was in an endless questioning of his love for his son that is unsatisfyingly resolved. While it is certain the answer is much more complex than either or, he treads on extremes rather than reaching a convincing middle ground. Beyond that, the main change of heart for him happens in an honestly corny reveal of Norm’s death with a Christian B-movie type apparition and hug.
The film also leaves more to wonder about characters like Eddie and Otis, who seem to serve more as ways to counterbalance Paul’s own outlook on his personal responsibility rather than fully fleshed out character. Eddie’s headstrong attitude is chalked up to his nature rather than giving ground for him to selflessly offer himself to the cause of black liberation. The closeness Paul attributes to Otis does not seem to have much ground because their relationship on camera seems to only cover conflict.
Clutter seems to be the only thing holding this film back. There are great performances found throughout the whole cast, and a lot of the technical decisions shine in trying to portray the squad’s return to guerilla-style Vietnamese warfare. Overall, the film clearly has the brains of a good flick. There are many clever references to earlier parts in the film, there’s a wealth of great dialogue, and it’s clearly knowledgeable on the history and politics it intended to unravel. It just lacks a little heart, and that would have let all of the brilliant ideas come together.