December 17, 2020 – Spike Lee's “Da 5 Bloods” is a unique amalgam of a heist movie plot peppered with documentary-like elements concerning the history of civil rights, racism and imperialism in the U.S.
Actual historical footage is tied in to modern day sequences and flashbacks (which tellingly are narrowed down from widescreen to the same 4:3 aspect ratio that was viewed 50 years ago during what was called “The First Television War” in Vietnam. This is a more subtle kind of visual cue than the use of black and white for old flashback scenes seen in many other films.
The five main characters in the film are the four Vietnam vets, Otis (Clarke Peters of “Harriet”) Eddie (Norm Lewis of “Winter's Tale”) Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr. of “The Old Man & the Gun”) and Paul (Delroy Lindo of “The Cider House Rules”) joined by Paul's son, David (Jonathan Majors of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”). They team up to recover a CIA gold shipment that the vets had hidden long ago during the war.
The four GIs, fifty years earlier, along with their inspirational 1st Infantry Division squad leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman of “Black Panther”) who was killed during the mission to recover the gold. Instead of recovering it, they buried the gold, telling their superiors that the Viet Cong had stolen the gold. The four vets arrange for permission from the Vietnamese government to hike into the area to recover Norman's body, with gold being a secret additional goal.
So what could possibly go wrong with this plan? That is pretty easy to imagine, but start out with overtones of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” gold fever, distrust, betrayal, along with other armed parties gunning for the same gold.
The morality of stealing the gold is discussed in the movie in the context of slavery and reparations (echoed even in the name of Spike Lee's “40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks” production company) and the unfair burden of the Vietnam War on American Black families. The long, sad, history of white supremacy and black exploitation in America is a topic that appears throughout the movie, along with America's very complex relationship with Vietnam.
Other characters show up in the film to further complicate matters, including the Vietnamese tour guide Vinh Tran (Johnny Trí Nguyen) Hedy (Mélanie Thierry of “Babylon A.D.”) who runs a land mine removal project, Tiên Luu (Y. Lan) an old friend of Otis, who connects the vets with a fence, Desroche (Jean Reno of “Flyboys”) who promises to convert the gold into untraceable cash, for a price. Nobody trusts anybody in this scheme, and for good reason.
It also turns out that a couple of the vets are carrying some dark secrets from their past in Vietnam, both Otis and Paul must finally face some of the consequences of their actions that took place a half century before. To further provide these linkages to the past, the movie makes the unusual, but very effective, decision to use the same actors, not younger ones, to portray themselves during flashback scenes from the Vietnam War.
Delroy Lindo, who plays the most emotionally erratic character, Paul, gives and Oscar-worthy performance in this film, at times menacing, and at other times almost paralyzed by guilt. This is a long film, over 2.5 hours, and Spike Lee effectively uses that time to explore these four main characters in depth. Movie fans will probably also enjoy the many movie references to “Apocalypse Now,” the “Rambo” movies and many other films sprinkled throughout this movie.
The late Chadwick Boseman gives a literal haunting performance in both the flashback scenes, and as a kind of ghost in the modern day scenes. These scenes are made all the more poignant by Boseman's untimely death this year. Few people will fail to notice that a renowned, admired, recently deceased actor is playing an admired dead soldier as a kind of ghost. This is especially moving in the final emotional scene between Norman and Paul near the end of the film.
Black actors in general, and Chadwick Boseman in particular, have not gotten their due from Oscar voters, maybe Lindo and Boseman will be properly recognized at the next Academy Awards show. Spike Lee often tackles the issue of racism, in fact, he seldom avoids it, but he also seldom fails to entertain his audience.
This is no dry history lesson about the past. It is a rousing adventure tale, that also happens to have lots to say about racism and history along the way. This is yet another excellent Spike Lee movie. It rates an A.
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