Spike Lee’s latest effort, DA 5 BLOODS (2020), is messy and inconsistent, yet it has a lot of relevancy and remains a strongly felt piece on the broken men left behind by war. Whilst the film is fundamentally incomplete in addressing and contextualising American imperialism, it does a good job at re-examining American history through the men who were forgotten in the distorted, racist history lessons established as the truth.
DA 5 BLOODS instantly reminds us that America’s presence in the Vietnam War was ridiculous given the domestic situation, and Spike Lee opens the film with a montage of archive footage to highlight this. In fact, Lee treats his film as a metatextual engagement with the audience, littering the film was cinematic references, facts about black history, and tonnes of archive images. At the very least it’s informative. Though it must be said that evoking APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) multiple times through the soundtrack and visuals only leads to unfavourable comparisons, as DA 5 BLOODS is a much more shallow and superficial look at the Vietnam War. There’s no real examination of global imperialism or the ethics of either that war or war more broadly. The Vietnamese are probably given a raw deal in DA 5 BLOODS, reduced to third world criminal fodder depicted as holding too much of a grudge. It’s good to highlight atrocities and wrongs, but the crimes committed by the American government domestically and abroad are complex yet derived from the same political origins. DA 5 BLOODS compartmentalises these actions for easy digestion, but it’s muddled. The moral questions are asked, but without an answer they don’t truly challenge power.
The cast of DA 5 BLOODS are all fantastic. There are no real A-listers, but Chadwick Boseman is likely the best known, and does well in a small role. The real scene-stealer is Delroy Lindo who is absolutely extraordinary as the most broken of all the men depicted. He is a jagged and complicated character, and Lindo brings very believable energy to the role. His soliloquies in the final act are the film’s greatest scenes, and the ones that most evoke an emotional response. His paranoia and complicated relationships are the most intriguing features of the film. Many of the character arcs are merely cheap ways to build drama, like the man discovering he has a child he didn’t know about, or the rich guy who secretly isn’t, or the son scared of his father, but Lindo’s characters possesses something more tangible. His prejudices and loss of faith in brotherhood is very relevant to a society built on decades of no change. DA 5 BLOODS is a tapestry of misused political power, down to multiple Trump references, and that manifests itself in individuals taking the burden of the world upon themselves.
Whilst DA 5 BLOODS has the same writers as BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018), it doesn’t have the same entertaining yet simple script. This is much more a slog, and overlong. The plot is completely contrived so characters always turn up whenever they are needed. It is just so laden in tropes. The film is also tonally confused, switching from comedy to war film to political message, without much smoothness. Whilst BLACKKKLANSMAN re-purposed propaganda masterfully, DA 5 BLOODS fails to re-purpose the Vietnam War except to show it as less white than other media may tell you. Yet the script still delivers in many ways. The way that war is shown to never end for these characters is a powerful idea. The tensions and anger and friendship issues are also compellingly written, as is the fight for money over brotherhood. Whilst the script is the messiest part of DA 5 BLOODS, it does have elements that really succeed.
DA 5 BLOODS is far from Spike Lee’s best effort. It is haphazard, filled with action that only somewhat works and drama that is all over the place. It is a bit unreal and too embellished to engage with easily, but later on it really draws you in. DA 5 BLOODS is contrived and sloppy and ultimately an insular critique of America, yet it also has some amazing performances and a lot of power in its best moments. Ultimately it is too ambitious and doesn’t truly succeed, but that doesn’t stop it being a very interesting and worthwhile work.