“Da 5 Bloods” mesmerizes as an epic war drama that deals with trauma, racism, and the search for inner peace
A Movie Review by Victor DeBonis
Spike Lee’s latest film, “Da 5 Bloods” is the type of movie that I’d been wanting to see for a while, now. In a time when theaters had been economically hurt bad by the situation at hand and are, at the time of this review, just starting to open back up again, this film came along and forced me to sit through every bit of its admittedly heavy running time (155 minutes) with suspense, and it never once left me bored or feeling that certain parts need to be cut from this epic war drama. The movie stunned me to my core, and it brought me to tears numerous times as it reached the ending credits, and, when the credits finally arrived, I was still staring at the screen in shock, silently pondering its important themes and the urgency with which it illustrated them. Simply reflecting upon the movie, later on in the same day, made me sob afterwards because it did its job perfectly in expressing how far a war or another traumatic event can leave its wounds upon the people who experience them, particularly the minorities who risk their lives and show great bravery through such horrible situations but still end up either being mistreated or ignored. It’s a chilling movie that could speak strongly for someone who feels underrepresented and who fights to fully recover amidst the pains of discrimination and the severe misunderstandings from his normal surroundings or elsewhere. And, it’s brought to life by incredible direction, superb acting, and a script that isn’t afraid to leave hard imprints with its story and ideas.
To me, one of the wonderful gifts of film is the opportunity that it offers other artists and storytellers to carry out voices that can sometimes be underrepresented for themselves or others, similar to them, and give their fresh perspective on why their issues or tales matter so much from the past and today. And, in the case of Lee with this movie, he brings to light the terrible hurt and frustration that African-American lives (and others in the country) underwent during the war and back at home in America through decades of history. He accomplishes this in a way that’s real, raw, and, isn’t afraid to hit where it might emotionally hurt. The way that he tells this story is done with equal amounts of beauty, horror, and moments of optimism that encourage you to sympathize for those who struggle. This movie feels appropriate for recent times, where there have sadly been plenty of times of discord, prejudice, and violent conflict amongst others in different ways, yet it also resonates well for any time where people are seeking greater unity with each other. On top of that, it probably speaks strongly for bold soldiers and lost souls trying to find light from the terrors that they have witnessed and the process of trying to overcome their own trauma in the process. I always knew that Spike was an artist known for his ferocity and honesty when it comes to his work, yet it still surprises me all the more when he creates something, such as this movie, that reaches to my strongest emotions and looms over me in ways that I’m still reflecting over.
This story is occasionally interweaved with real-life footage from historical events and recordings of what has happened in both the past and present, particularly events leading up to the Vietnam War as well as the aftermath. Placing real footage within a fictional narrative is a tricky act that, depending on how it’s used with the context, can either help or tarnish a movie, but “Da 5 Bloods” thankfully blends such images and recordings with clear purpose. Here, the footage helps paint a picture of how torn America was as it led up to the Vietnam War and the horrors that came from it and followed afterwards with much focus on how it affected many African-American citizens as well as the prejudice and violence that followed them back home. Yet, it also vividly depicts how others were wounded from what they saw and experienced as well, and photos of important people will occasionally pause to allow the audience to absorb the strong words coming from them or related to them, allowing the impact of what they said or did to sink in more.
Images, such as these, and clips sometimes play out to either the sound of silence or mellow Marvin Gaye tunes that match perfectly with the mood and message to echo the confusion and pain that followed through these decades. Even when several African-Americans fought in the Vietnam War and performed heroic acts or suffered physical losses or wounds, some of which still lingered with them for the remainder of their lives, many of them still struggled to find shelter from the prejudice and racism that unfortunately clung to society. The mix of footage and silent images emphasizes many people’s inability to accept others who are different, and they also help to make further note of how those who plainly rejected the Vietnam War itself were also met with much scorn and derision. This film also doesn’t shy away from the fact that this conflict felt much like a lose-lose situation for so many in both Vietnam and America and how its scars never truly left those who were a part of the war, whether they were on the sidelines or charging forward with their own weapons into the heart of the violence itself.
The visual imagery for the rest of the film is stunning, thanks to exceptional work from cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. He evokes both the openness and electric life brimming from Vietnam in its urban parts, and he displays the grandeur of the more rugged parts of the country in its jungles with its towering trees and hills that stretch on for miles. The latter shots are especially significant in conveying the vastness from which the gunfights take place and make them feel more intimidating from the sheer scope. Both the beauty and ruggedness of the country comes into full view, and plenty of wide shots are displayed to practically yank people into the immense size and unique feeling of this country. There are also close-ups and other wide shots carefully used to depict the raw conviction and emotional honesty that traces across the faces of the main characters and the unpleasant situations that they’re facing. Sometimes, characters speak or look directly into the camera itself without anyone else around, and the hurt and vulnerability becomes clearer, thus making their wounded presence all the more visible. It’s hard to imagine who doesn’t participate in a real war and doesn’t come away feeling the same as he did when he first stepped in, and that comes into fuller view with how these men are shot in their moments of hesitation or times when they reach close to the brink of tears. The camera will sometimes linger as though it doesn’t want one to forget the significance of what’s happening or how someone is practically battling oneself to make sense of everything that’s happened.
At certain points, the aspect ratio of the screen changes to represent the time and location and to creative effect. For instance, when there’s a scene from the past, the aspect ratio will shorten into a 1:33:1 format (square-shaped) to give the feeling of watching the type of images that one would see from a “home movie” filmed by an older camera back in the 70’s. In present day-Vietnam, the aspect ratio turns into a widescreen format when capturing the city and turns into a full-screen format when the five men venture into the jungle itself. The visual quality also shifts to being fuzzier in the flashback images to help depict the graininess and withered look that a documentary or old camera from this time would normally have, and it becomes more distinct and colorful in the present day to represent the slicker images that most people have with technology and screens today. All of these moves deliberately capture the feel of their times and places to bring in more of a feeling to them, and they’re wonderfully executed without ever being distracting. They’re done with a great knowledge of the way that a film can effectively connect the past and present.
Terence Blanchard often collaborates with Spike Lee by composing the music for his films, and his work here is incredible. His orchestrations lend genuine pride and hopefulness to the scenes that require them, bringing the right mood of respect to them. Yet, such music isn’t afraid to echo the solemn heartbreak that results from times of hurt or painful reflection. Blanchard’s beautiful music blends perfectly with the vigor and emotion of this epic war drama, and it never lets up. Even through some of the tougher scenes, there’s a quiet dignity that the composer breathes to such moments and can’t be mistaken for anything else.
The acting is terrific across the board with every performer bringing exactly what defines that character. Clarke Peters evokes the level-headed demeanor and sympathy that his role as Otis requires. He approaches his encounter with loved ones, including those with whom he disagrees with, with far greater fairness than one might expect when bumping heads with some of the people that he does. Veronica Ngo delivers every line of hers with an unwavering bluntness, playing this film’s version of Vietnamese radio personality, Hanoi Hannah, a real-life figure who was handed scripts written by the North Vietnamese army that tried hard to dissuade American soldiers from fighting in the war and would painfully attempt to spread fear and uneasy feelings through the troops. Ngo handles her position with unnerving poise from such a dubious task to a point where you’re almost in amazement of how she coldly speaks her words into the shaken hearts and souls of every American fighter. Jonathan Majors also deserves kudos as the son of one of the former soldiers who joins the men on their quest, and he brings a pleasant charisma and intelligence that makes his more aching moments brim all the more with their soft vulnerability.
Amidst so many great actors, the two standout performances to me come from Chadwick Boseman and especially Delroy Lindo. Having played the leader of a highly advanced African kingdom from “Black Panther” Boseman comes across as a choice that is harder for me to contemplate another actor better to fit his role as squad leader, Stormin’ Norman, a man built with all the decisiveness and conviction that one wants from the type of war hero that others love to tell stories about. He’s regarded by the men from his squad as someone who’s practically a god in their eyes and said to embody the essential qualities from influential leaders from their time, such as Martin Luther King Jr. In certain scenes, he’s eloquently shot in a way that practically presents him as a “holy savior” of sorts. A lesser filmmaker would’ve probably presented himself and his film as heavy-handed with this approach, but the combination of Lee’s direction, genuine compassion echoed through Norman’s war brothers for him, and the undeniable passion breathing from Boseman’s intense gaze and surprising calmness make him feel alive, human, and someone that the audience wishes to hear more about. The squad’s respect and love for Boseman reminded me of the types of real-life heroes that many, including myself, are lucky enough to meet, at least, once in our lives. These people won’t always be agreed with on their decisions, but they undoubtedly bring a definite enlightenment of sorts and hope with their presence in others’ lives.
Delroy Lindo is downright mesmerizing and practically snatches everyone’s attention with his charisma and steadily unraveling state. He’s more of a character actor than a big-name star, but that never prevents his presence in every movie from locking into others’ entertained minds. A likable sense of control and humor often follows him, providing charm to spare in films from both good and bad categories. In “Da 5 Bloods” all of Lindo’s talents thrive to the fullest force as Paul. Here’s a man who harshly lashes out in uncomfortable moments and spouts out questionable beliefs and decisions and still remains fascinating through every step of his path in this movie. Much of it comes from him believably wearing the shock from fighting in the Vietnam War on his sleeves, and the film isn’t afraid to linger long enough on his wounded state to show how far he is from finding a resolution for himself. The horror is clear as day through his glassy eyes. In one unforgettable moment, Lindo speaks in a way that one can debate about whom he might be enraged at the most about what he’s been through (Is he the most angry at God? Is he the most angry at the U.S. government? Or, is he the angriest at himself for the choices that he made along the way?), but he brings all of the humanity and trauma of trying to find inner salvation from his mental and emotional war scars, even if it’s often not done in the most reasonable ways. The man embodies a haunted soul in every meaning of the word, and, while it’s debatable how much value awards shows have for media, I will remain all types of disappointed if Lindo isn’t, at least, nominated for his work here.
Spike Lee directs this movie from head to toe with the same courage and fiery passion that many know and love him for. Yet, watching this most recent film of his caused me to recall a truth that can sometimes be easy to forget in regards to movies: when one breaks it down, films, regardless of what the intention may be for them, are a form of art, and the potential beauty of that comes from how an artist has the opportunity to take his strongest feelings, maybe his heaviest fears and frustrations, and use the camera as a way of painting them in a simultaneously beautiful and chilling manner that stays with the audience and releases much of the strain within himself. Throughout his filmography that includes titles, such as “Do The Right Thing” “25th Hour” and “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee has increasingly sealed himself as one of the most vivid examples of an artist in his craft, often taking his anger and fears in regards to topics, such as prejudice, urban dilemmas, and connections with others against the evil of racism and a complicated background, and guiding them with a force that can get uncomfortable but never loses how unflinchingly real it is and how much he cares about what he’s discussing.
For years, people have labeled his movies as controversial and found his ways of expressing his feelings on certain topics unpleasant. Yet, while I understand where some of those criticisms are coming from and I won’t disagree that his work can undoubtedly get aggressive at times, I look at his movies and don’t see a man using anger for the sake of simply expressing it however he chooses. I see a man using his conflicting emotions because he has something genuine to say and express. Lee’s strong feelings, including his anger in regards to racism and the hard experiences of the African-American community (and, his country, in general), come from a sincere place. That shows once more in “Da 5 Bloods,” where he’ll let the camera pause on a photo of an influential activist or a shot of a former soldier trying to absorb the weight of how much trauma has shaken him and never left. There are moments shot to either illustrate the harsh tone of the injustice from the situation or highlight the spirit from an event that might not completely heal someone but is cathartic in a different way, and Lee accordingly expresses the right amount of confusion or joy for every scenario with precision and grace.
Of course, it also helps that the screenplay, as credited towards Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Lee himself, and Kevin Willmott, is superbly written, bringing together five emotionally and personally wounded men whose brotherhood with each other feels true and strong. Their camaraderie shines through in their abilities to share hearty laughs and the knowledge to know when to become serious or alert for a confrontation or unpleasant situation. Only real brothers can make it through such hardship with that amount of love in spite of their frustration with each other. There’s also a special type of handshake between them that looks a little tricky to get down but is undeniably rather awesome. I chuckle with admiration each time that I watch it.
Yet, these men are even more interesting when they’re facing their individual issues to deal with and their demons from their own pasts. Some of them can be pretty good at hiding what they go through, but it becomes increasingly evident in the film that they struggle hard with personal dilemmas, including PTSD, alcoholism, past relationships, and financial problems, and it is tragic to see yet interesting in witnessing all of their steps along their quest. When Otis starts to reconnect with a lovely Vietnamese comrade from his own past (played well by Le Y Tran), the audience doesn’t know as much about what happened to them before yet, but the initial smiles on their faces and the anxious quietness that follows their first reactions makes others immediately invested and want to know more about what went on between them. Similar to much of Lee’s work, this film possesses characters that feel incredibly human and, whether one loves or hates them, they’re intriguing to follow.
The themes of this film are handled incredibly well, too. As aforementioned, much of this movie centers around the conflict that the five main protagonists of this movie (and, African-American soldiers, in general) faced with having fought boldly for their own country and yet, in addition to the trauma from the experience, still had to deal with the prejudice, disrespect, and urban problems that they faced in their own home and country. The paths of these men to find comfort and solace is shown as a frightening one that requires much strength, courage, and love and community from the right places, and it never holds back from revealing how hard things were and still are for them and how torn the rest of the U.S.A. and Vietnam was from this awful conflict. In addition, the movie remains interesting through its entire run, partly from its ability of wrestling with the idea of what the right thing to do is for one’s own health and well-being in the face of intense trauma, mistreatment, and a failed understanding from others about surviving a physical war or a personal one. In a scene that perfectly defines the journey to find peace through violent and angering times (This scene is perhaps my favorite in the film.), the heartbreaking news about an important hero and real-life figure is shared, and the hurt from hearing what has happened runs all over the characters’ faces. This moment lets its weight and confusion sink in, doesn’t provide any easy answers, and remains powerfully handled with the right hints of grace and reality that made me re-visit it again and again.
The theme of different minorities (specifically, African-American and Vietnamese people in this movie’s case) bonding with each other through similar experiences also occurs at certain points in the film. The bonds that are shared through how they both experienced their share of discrimination and trauma and tried to discover inner solace through their own methods brought insight to how people can sometimes find community and connections from their similar pain, and that aspect of the movie felt different and realized in a compelling way. Much of the movie, in general, discusses attempting to find inner tranqulity from the trauma of any horrific event (personal or national) and the arduous journey that the path consists of. Plenty of pain and sadness follows along the road, yet it’s the selfless love and optimism that keeps people going, and, for a movie with much violence and fury, it never loses sight of its own heart and hopefulness that beats at the center.
“Da 5 Bloods” is the type of movie that I’m surprised that more people aren’t talking about, right now. Yes, it has horrific scenes, and many of its themes may hit too close to home for some people, which is definitely understandable. However, there is a bravery and strength that carries this movie and its themes, and it never falters under its own weight. The timeless truths behind many of these ideas stands steady, and Lee’s smart, fearless filmmaking, coupled with an excellent script and cast, left an astonishment that was hard for me to shake away. “Da 5 Bloods” played a good part in reminding me why movies are so important. Even when my love for cinema was never once lost or forgotten, this film felt special because it helped remind me of the sheer power that film can have. While it is nice to find distractions and genuine entertainment from them, movies have the power to tell genuinely great stories, to challenge others, to tell honest truths that strike home in our own hearts, specifically the importance of looking past prejudice and differences to try to understand each other better and help one another find peace beyond dreadful times from before. Movies can sometimes give hope, and this film is wondrous in that aspect in great part from the conviction of its direction and the soul and honesty of a hero, such as Norman and so many other great factors.
Upon further inspection, I realize that part of the reason that this film may have made me as emotional as it did was not just for the beauty of some of its messages but because it revealed some humanity and much needed light through film during a year that has been a dark one. “Da 5 Bloods” is not always a comfortable movie, and it can be pretty harsh and shocking with its images and message.
(In fact, as a huge warning to those who are squeamish, there are several graphic images in this movie that show adults and children killed in war and other brutally violent situations, and any who are easily triggered or disturbed by such visuals might want to approach this film with caution.)
Yet, through “Da 5 Bloods,” there is a hopefulness and passion guiding the story and its themes with a firm light that recognizes how hurtful prejudice and overcoming trauma or horrific events, particularly war, can be and how difficult it can be to find peace but that it’s worth looking for and that, sometimes, it’s not always as hard as long as one is with others. It is a film that doesn’t shy away from the shadows of the wars brewing within ourselves and beyond but still encourages others to promote unity, never lose sight of the power of relationships, and keep fighting for what is right and good against a complicated past and present. “Da 5 Bloods” is a powerful movie and, undoubtedly, one of the best of the year.