Four surviving members of a squad calling themselves the ‘5 Bloods’ return to Vietnam to recover their fallen brother’s remains and retrieve a sizeable bounty of lost gold bullion into the bargain. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is not only his best recent film, but also one of the most vital of the year.
In the context of the #BlackLivesMatter protests, Da 5 Bloods feels at once astonishingly prescient and nuanced, weaving together the national trauma of the war that America never got over with the contemporary rot of modern US society. The film’s broad strokes of comedy – in the first act at least – play like a dad-bod rendition of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Yet beneath the quartet’s half-cut reminiscing lies a tremendous, dormant pain – no more so realised than in Delroy Lindo’s feverish performance as the MAGA hat-wearing Paul.
Lee uses historical context to explore contemporary racial politics, interspersing scenes with historical photos and factoids of important, Vietnam-era African Americans. Nevertheless, this is very much a work of fiction. Da 5 Bloods is rooted in American genre cinema. Indeed, Da 5 Bloods is as much an exploration of racial discourses in American film history as it is the real post-Vietnam United States.
Lee audaciously parodies Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now at the same time as dropping sly nods to Shaft. Meanwhile, the film is set to a soundtrack that contrasts Marvin Gaye with a weirdly-nostalgic score that sounds like a mash-up of The West Wing and Captain America. For some, the wildly shifting tones, homages, and a very violent third act may prove too jarring but Lee pulls it all off with the confidence and flair of one untroubled by conscious theatricality.
Perhaps the most rewarding example of Da 5 Bloods‘ exploration of form is cinematographer Thomas Newton Howard’s use of shifting aspect ratios. Beginning with the cinematic widescreen of 2.39:1 for the modern-day sequences in Ho Chi Minh, the frame shifts to the boxy 1.33:1 ratio of 16mm newsreel film of the flashback scenes, later transforming into the modern TV widescreen of 16:9. The changing frames serve aesthetic and thematic purposes – the vibrant nighttime colours of modern, globalised Vietnam are captured sharply by low-light friendly digital camera work, while the high-contrast, grainy 16mm perfectly captures the look of the Vietnam war. Later, the full screen frame of the film’s second half engulfs the cast in the vast jungle.
Lee uses these visual cues as metaphors for the encroachment of the past on the present: the choice to use the present-day’s middle-aged actors in the flashback scenes – we see only Chadwick Boseman’s deceased Stormin’ Norman as young – conflate chronological linearity as the lived past and its buried pain becomes present memory. As Paul’s PTSD-induced psychosis grips him in the third act, the expansion of the frame up and out is as if the past and the present have been fused together; the apparent psychological contradiction of his support for Trump as a black veteran is at last resolved through the exhumation of long-denied trauma.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm