Narratively, Da 5 Bloods plays out like a conventional war movie, which is partly the point. A team of soldiers head into the jungle and there's a lot of shooting, etc. But Da 5 Bloods is about war in the same way the Covid-19 pandemic is about an illness comprised of flu-like symptoms.
A lot of black Americans went to war in Vietnam but Hollywood has never been much interested in their stories. Da 5 Bloods is a re-examination not just of history but of the way that history has been told.
That America is currently in a mess is a fact universally acknowledged but the emergence of a movie into that mess, speaking so directly to that mess, feels like an astonishing coincidence. Spike Lee could surely never have imagined that, upon its release, his work, years in the making, would read with the relevance of a daily newspaper report written on deadline this morning.
The movie's opening, with its montage of black voices expressing disgust and disappointment with what was happening in Vietnam, could - absent the war - have been directly transposed on to our present moment. Philosophy professor and activist Angela Davis is shown in a speech from 1969, saying: "If the link-up is not made between what's happening in Vietnam and what's happening here, we may very well face a period of full-blown fascism very soon."
The film was initially written for white actors, with Oliver Stone attached to direct. That might have been a good film but what do we mean by good? Is "good" an interesting story well told, or is it something more? Something like an interesting story well-told that also takes a subject we've seen over and over from one perspective and gives it new meaning by showing it from a different perspective at a time in history that, more than anything, is crying out for an expansion of perspective?
When Lee was asked, in an interview with The Atlantic, about the incredible timeliness and relevance of Da 5 Bloods, he said: "We're addressing stuff that did not just show up overnight."
From the outside, it might feel incredibly fresh, but for black people in America it must feel like it will never end.
There were two choices on the table for which film to review this week: The one Greg called "The Polish sex movie" which was number one on Netflix NZ, and the painfully relevant Spike Lee film Da 5 Bloods, which just scraped into the top 10. This is us, New Zealand.
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Firstly, I need to confess something that, in retrospect, I find embarrassing and abhorrent. Greg and I watched this film over two nights. We interrupted Lee's skillfully crafted work of art about the consistent and deliberate erasure of black stories throughout history because we were tired and wanted to go to bed. Please don't do that.
We lost some of the film's expertly calibrated momentum in those 24 hours. According to Greg, he was hooked from the get-go but it took me a bit longer to get into. There's a relatively long set-up before the men head out on their mission in the jungle but, as the characters start to reveal themselves more fully, it becomes utterly engrossing.
The film opens with some pretty graphic documentary footage of the Vietnam war set to the music of Marvin Gaye and yet I was unprepared for the way the violence in the story escalates into a virtual bloodbath in the final act. I was naive of course: it makes perfect sense that four black former GIs returning to Vietnam to retrieve the remains of their comrade and a trunk full of gold won't just dig it up and skip out of the jungle filthy rich singing Kumbaya. The world doesn't work like that if you're black.
There's a particularly powerful sequence when everything is unravelling at breakneck speed in which the MAGA hat-wearing Paul, played by Delroy Lindo, heads off on his own and spirals into a PTSD-induced monologue in which he stares straight down the barrel of the camera and addresses the audience, saying things like, "I ain't gettin' f***ed again" and "You hear me? You will not kill Paul. And the US Government will not take me out." It was so affecting I lost my breath for a moment.
There's so much to discuss about Da 5 Bloods. Lee is just very good at film-making. In large part, it's about the unfulfilled promises that have been made to black people in return for their service to the United States, how they've continually been asked to be patient and how patience has run out. Da 5 Bloods does an excellent job of putting the Black Lives Matter movement into a historical context. It's not a subtle film, but the time for subtlety is up too.
SCORES (out of 5)
Cultural relevance: 5
Time for subtlety: 0
Da 5 Bloods is streaming on Netflix now.