Spike Lee has made some 25 feature films and five documentaries in a career devoted to putting the black American experience onscreen. His latest film is Da 5 Bloods.
I go back with Spike to his second film, She’s Gotta Have it in 1986, when I took an unknown Spike and the only slightly better known Jim Jarmusch to dinner at El Teddy’s, a bogus Mexican restaurant for SoHo hipsters just south of Canal St. Spike was basically tongue-tied at dinner, but he subsequently found his tongue and set it loose in a few different venues, one of them court-side at the Knicks until he was told to use the customer door, not the team door, this past winter. And in movie theatres, where his best contribution is normalizing the concept of a black American filmmaker putting black actors on screen to speak to the black American community first. Everyone else can listen in and should, but Lee is not a missionary.
Spike Lee’s films often situate on the home turf, Brooklyn--like Crooklyn, Red Hook Summer, or Mo' Better Blues—and find the color where others only used to see black and white. Or they follow black men into battle, whether it’s the drug and gang wars of Clockers and Chi-Raq, and the buffalo soldiers of The Miracle of St Anna, his 2008 film about black soldiers in Italy in 1944.
Lee’s new film, Da 5 Bloods, now on NETFLIX, comes out of the same root. A troop of black veterans venture back to Vietnam on what seems like a reunion trip. We are happy to be in on it, as it starts in the lobby of a Ho Chi Minh City Hyatt, with the bloods sipping candy colored umbrella drinks and slapping backs.
There is no Vietnam war movie, however, that doesn’t soon go upriver. That’s what this very watchable cast does, including Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Delroy Lindo, as the story toggles back and forth between now and one fateful mission back then. It’s to Lee’s credit and to his budget that the cast remains as men in their late 60s – early 70s; there are no Irishman de-aging special effects tricks here, they’re just themselves going up river in two time periods, with the linchpin their dead squad leader, Stormin’ Norman, a plum supporting part given to Chadwick Bozeman, whose remains they say they want to find. A gifted leader, Stormin’ Norman has stayed forever young, and so, haunts them.
Da 5 Bloods marks the return to Lee of British actor Delroy Lindo, who made three films in some kinda man heat with Lee in the early 90s —as Malcolm X’s first godfather, West Indian Archie in ‘92—then Crooklyn in 94. He just stopped after Clockers in ’95. Lindo has had a productive, good career in film and TV, having just stepped out of about 40 episodes over four seasons on CBS’ lady lawyer show, The Good Fight.
He’s a big guy, around 6’4 in his prime, and makes eye contact with a light hero’s nod to both the characters and the audience that he’s already gamed out the possibilities you’re just starting to see as dangerous. And he’s not afraid. Even when the film around him is falling apart.
Lindo’s jungle soliloquy here is being talked about in Academy nomination terms. Not sure what that means in the plague year, as Covid19 has done to Oscar what it has done to the World Series, Carnegie hall, and college, to name just a few monuments of seasonality we thought were rock solid but turn out to have feathers for feet. Blink and they blow away.
As the boat moves upriver and away from the setup, the story starts adding parts and characters in both time frames, as the duffers’ motivations ricochet: between a reckoning, a hunt for buried gold a la The Treasure of Sierra Madre (Spike practically beats you to death with a paddle on that one), plus some unfinished personal business that every soldier has, some daddy and son business I’ll spare you, I’ll also spare you some geopolitical business — the French subplot that brings aging French mec Jean Reno to town (or jungle) -- and some philosophical arguments among the booby traps waiting to upend the plot. You slump deeper into your chair, as the film spins out of control the way the helicopter does in the opening sequence that is the genesis of events here.
Da 5 Bloods is 2:35. Lee has never been one to simplify, get in and get out. It was on display even in a Zoom press conference hosted by the Broadcast Film Critics Assn last week, and you could feel the Netflix PR team’s agony as Spike went rogue way past the end, reeling off plot points and cackling, as the others onscreen sat frozen in place. Relax, strong Netflix PR women; it’s in his DNA, and it’s kind of charming.
The cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel, who showed chops on Three Kings , Drive and The Usual Suspects here seems to go for muddy instead of crisp and big.
Spike also doesn’t trust silence. Da 5 Bloods has an ever-present soundtrack, another by Terence Blanchard, who did BlacKkKlansman, 25th Hour and Inside Man for Lee, like all Lee’s films, that too often is a throwback to 1950s Cinerama wallpaper. Lee’s films are haunted by Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing, obsessively carrying a boombox everywhere so he knows he must be somewhere — the soundtrack says so.
Here’s what’s great about Lee. In Spike territory, race is always a player, never better than in Do the Right Thing, his 1989 and fourth film which I urge you to re-see on Amazon. Do the Right Thing is something like a masterpiece and will stand with any big American film ever made that tried to take the pulse of its own country and see what made it race. It is simply stunning, brilliant and ageless. It could have finished shooting yesterday morning, it’s utterly current in its concerns and its filmmaking. It even has a couple characters talking about Trump, as if his hotel casino is some far away Oz that doesn’t include them—Spike really reached into the future for that line.
With a breakout cast inhabiting characters named Mookie—the role only Spike could play—the late Bill Nunn’s Radio Raheem, Giancarlo Esposito’s Buggin’ Out, royalty couple Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee’s Da Mayor and Mother Sister, plus Frankie Faison’s Coconut Sid, Robin Harris’ memorable Sweet Dick Willie, Samuel L Jackson’s Mr. Senor Daddy Love, Rosie Perez’ Tina and the pizza three, the late Danny Aiello’s Sal, his sons Vito and Pino, Richard Edson and John Turturro.
Lee lets us listen to black characters and feel what the world does to them as they talk about it in the poetry of vernacular. He willed into being the image of black Americans onscreen as full-blooded characters in some of his better moments, in Brooklyn. He makes it beautiful, or ugly, but home. Most importantly—and I cannot say this with more admiration — he did this over 35 years with his own production company, 40 Acres and A Mule, right there in Brooklyn, with a little hello from his friends and a lot of goodbye to anyone who got in his way. The rest of the world now looks at a Spike Lee film like Da 5 Bloods as way more than a passport.
This one happens to be a bumpy ride that may go on too long, but you can’t help but like the brothers on it.