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Spike Lee’s Latest Is a Thorny Portrait of Black Masculinity and Generational Trauma


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From left to right: Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo, Clark Peters, and Jonathan Majors in Da 5 Bloods (2020), dir. Spike Lee (all images courtesy Netflix © 2020)

Spike Lee’s latest film, Da 5 Bloods, was produced before protests erupted globally over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and other Black people at the hands of police. The film successfully conveys the feeling of dread that many Black Americans experience daily — the feeling that they are fighting a war which may never really end.

We are introduced to our protagonists in Ho Chi Minh City with a warm airport reunion scene. Handshakes, insults, and hugs are exchanged as viewers meet the  four African-American veterans who have returned to Vietnam to recover a buried chest full of gold and the remains of their friend Norman, who died in combat. “The Bloods,” Paul, Eddie, Otis, Melvin (Delroy Lindo, Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) and “Stormin’ Norman” (Chadwick Boseman) shared a close bond. The de facto leader, Norman emphasized the importance of brotherhood: “He was our Malcolm and our Martin,” Otis recalls at one point.

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The poster for Da 5 Bloods (2020), dir. Spike Lee

Fittingly, we are presented with Malcolm X and MLK-style speeches from the get-go. The film begins with a montage of historical footage chronicling significant events of the 70s, effectively setting the stage. Muhammad Ali argues against Black people fighting in Vietnam as images of Black soldiers in faraway fields fill the screen, meanwhile Black children dig through piles of trash in Harlem. Kwame Ture announces to a crowd that “America has declared war on Black people,”  instilling a sense of urgency to the film. Decades-old footage of protests against police brutality and racism resonate particularly strongly, echoing the injustices of the present.

While sometimes gratuitous in its use of violence — photos from the My Lai massacre, and images of severed limbs, explosions and gunshot wounds abound —  the film effectively conveys the gravity of the circumstances. In booming voice-over, Malcolm X scolds, “You take 20 million Black people and make them fight all your wars and pick all your cotton and never give them any recompense,” before the film cuts to the airport reunion.

In an Apocalypse Now-themed bar, the Bloods catch up. Lee, who co-wrote the script with Danny Bilson, Paul DeMeo and Kevin Willmott, offers an interesting moment from Paul, who wears a MAGA cap throughout the film.“I’m tired of not getting mine,” he shoots, defending his support of Trump. It’s an age-old argument: individualism at the cost of other people’s lives. It’s an argument that fueled the Vietnam war in the first place.  Throughout the film, we see how Paul arrives at this belief. The voice of Hanoi Hannah (embodied by Ngo Thanh Van) plays throughout the film, reminding Black GIs that their country does not care about them. Based on the real radio host who worked with Northern Vietnamese fighters to broadcast propaganda to American troops, hers is a voice internalized by the Bloods. When they return to Vietnam decades later, they’re still reckoning with her truths.

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From Da 5 Bloods (2020), dir. Spike Lee

Lee presents Vietnam through a flawed, but Black lens: in the present, the country is still recovering from the “American war,” and there is palpable tension between the returning Bloods and locals. It’s unclear who has the right to claim the treasure: the Black American vets, or the Vietnamese gunmen who also feel owed reparations for their generational suffering? Either way, both parties seem to agree that it doesn’t belong to Uncle Sam. While Vietnamese characters are portrayed as resentful, often unfortunately appearing as nameless beggars and market vendors, the Bloods similarly resent the US government for drafting them into a violent conflict while refusing them basic rights.

Memories of Norman act as a kind of moral compass. In flashback scenes, Norman remains young while the Bloods are portrayed by the same actors as those in the present-day. Norman, unchanged, remains perfect in their memory. Time has aged the other Bloods and made them weaker as a unit. “War is about money. Money is about war,” Norman advises in one scene. The Bloods’ disjointed mission to find buried treasure indicates how far they have strayed from Norman’s beliefs over the years.

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From Da 5 Bloods (2020), dir. Spike Lee

Lee expertly juxtaposes vulnerability and violence throughout the film. In one scene, Paul has an intense experience with a firing squad while giddily singing Marvin Gaye’s “God is Love.” The Bloods tease each other, until a joke hits a nerve or an explosive argument breaks out. It creates a strange pace, one that makes viewers laugh both out of humor and out of nervousness. You can feel this tension most through the addition of Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), to the team. He tags along, awkwardly infiltrating the trip. Lee grapples with masculinity most evidently using David’s relationship to his father’s PTSD. The film makes it clear that David too has suffered as part of the war’s cost.

The men often recite a mantra: “Bloods don’t die — we multiply.” The centrality of brotherhood — and its bonds through joy and pain — comes up often in Lee’s films, including his canonical Do The Right Thing (1989). While this latest film’s ending feels a little too on-the-nose when it comes to grappling with other weighty themes like legacy and forgiveness, it hits the nail on the head with the complicated nature of Blackness and brotherhood.

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From Da 5 Bloods (2020), dir. Spike Lee

At its core, Da 5 Bloods is about unfairness. David struggles to understand his father’s ways, just as the Bloods struggle to understand why they ever fought in the war in the first place. This crux and the unwillingness to accept such unfairness continues to fuel the Black Lives Matter movement today.

Da 5 Bloods (2020), dir. Spike Lee, is now streaming on Netflix. 

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