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'Da 5 Bloods' Shows Director Spike Lee Still Has A Wild Side


Da 5 Bloods is like a lot of Spike Lee’s films. It can be brilliant and original, and also tedious and commonplace. It’s sometimes thrilling and perceptive, and also dreary and routine. Overall, though, it’s a critically important demonstration of what the war in Vietnam did to the disproportionate number of black soldiers at the time – and by way of fearsome, debilitating PTSD, how that misery continues in the present.

The movie opens with a montage of footage from the Vietnam era, with famous words from such figures as Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

The images come like a flood. Film and still photos in color, and black and white, of mostly black soldiers in the fighting, relaxing, carrying a fellow soldier to a helicopter. The famous photo of a nude child fleeing, and the iconic footage of a Vietnamese officer shooting a prisoner in the head. And shots of poor black people in American cities, also the killings of students at Kent State and Jackson State, wartime funerals. The mélange makes the intimate connection between fighting that war and the miserable living conditions and social injustice for black people here in America.

It’s a history lesson, and while it may be horribly familiar to some of us, younger people in particular may not know these pictures, and the formidable cultural weight they carry.

In the present, four black Vietnam vets and the son of one of them reunite in a hotel in Ho Chi Min City – once called Saigon. They’re jolly and exuberant. They dance in a nightclub, called “Apocalypse Now,” for Francis Coppola’s terrifying, poetic movie about the Vietnam War. And, obviously, what the four go through in the next two hours will not be much like a high time in a nightclub named for that grim film. The fifth soldier of the title is Stormin’ Norman, who died in combat in 1968.

These are not perfect men. They’ve had varying success since the war and have not seen each other in a long time. They’ve come to Vietnam with a common purpose, though, actually a dual purpose, and it’s not all admirable. Officially, and they have government papers, they want to recover the remains of Stormin’ Norman, whom they revere. He died on a mission to rescue the cargo from a downed plane, which turned out to be millions in gold bars that were to pay troops to serve the U.S.. So, the motives of these four vets are not pure, and at least for the past 700 years or so in the Western tradition, any time you have men looking for lost gold, you’re into the realm of morality, questions of value and the rough terrain of human character.

Da 5 Bloods has too many jungle firefights, too much yelling and arguing, and too many side issues. It treats the Vietnamese still as sneaky and vicious. That’s a failure, but the film also does important work. With all their complexities, these aging men are what the Vietnam War and the years since did to them as black men in America. Paul (Delroy Lindo) has it the worst – three tours in Vietnam left him with debilitating PTSD and fierce anger.

Spike Lee looks at a segment of black life with a critical, poetic eye. And he does it with fine actors, not seen enough in our movies. Delroy Lindo is electrifying and complex as the most twisted by his war experience. Clark Peters as Otis is calm and rational, and he simmers with rich complexity.

Not just now, but maybe over time, Da 5 Bloods matters.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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