This latest Spike Lee Joint was in the works last year and wasn’t planned for release just now. But it arrived on Netflix, not in theaters, last week, and perhaps at an optimal moment.
The original script, written by able television writers, was about white Vietnam vets revisiting their “tours” “in country,” and most likely was based on news reporting about same. It didn’t resonate with the usual sources.
But Lee took it and made it his own, focusing on African American soldiers’ participation in an unpopular war that cost 58,000 American lives and whose name echoes even to Americans born since 1975, the year that war was abandoned.
In this iteration, the story involves four older black veterans gathering in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) with a plan to find the remains of the “best one of us all,” Norman (Chadwick Boseman,) who died in battle; the four older friends want to find his remains and take them home for permanent burial.
They also are there to find a fortune in gold bars they found and buried before they left; some want personal wealth and others want reparations for African Americans who made up a disproportionate number of the front-line soldiers who fought and died in Vietnam. Much discussion ensues on the matter.
The plot here is broad and, frankly, weak, but Lee makes the most of it by layering in context.
Da 5 Bloods opens with a several-minute montage of American culture between 1965 and 1975: Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted, war protests met with police shootings on campuses, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, two failed presidencies and, then as now, a country deeply divided.
What works about the film are, first, its characters, whose bond is strong all these years later; second, the early battles seen on film and then repeated almost totally in current moments, and third, the relevance of its Vietnam lessons in a current day marked by frustration and anger that could not have been anticipated when the Da 5 Bloods was assembled.
All the acting here is excellent, but the role of Paul, played by Delroy Lindo, commands attention for the Vietnam memories/PTSD that deepen and disturb him as the story unfolds. (Note to producers: Organize a King Lear film or Broadway play around this actor.)
Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors of last year’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco,) arrives to support his deeply conflicted father, who alternately loves and repudiates him.
Then, too, are the observations of the war’s remnants: One of the four, Otis (Clarke Peters,) visits an old lover and meets the grown daughter he never knew he had. An angry Vietnamese peddler who cannot sell his chickens yells at Americans who “killed my father and my mother!” Vietnam is a different country now, but it still bears the marks of French colonialism and the American war.
What also stands out is the musical score of Terence Blanchard, a musician who has worked often with Lee and whose themes blend seamlessly with the script moments. Also included are solo vocals by Marvin Gaye and the opening scene’s accompaniment by the Chamber Brothers’ version of their song, “Time Has Come Today,” which certainly will endure longer than other pop/rock music of the Vietnam era.
In the film Paul’s son says that he was not named for the Biblical David but for a member of the Temptations, presumably the Temps’ lead singer, David El Ruffin, during the late 1960s.
The four veterans’ first names — Paul, Otis, Melvin and Eddie — just happen to be the first names of the first Temptations group. The last of the 5 Bloods, the late Norman, has the same name as the Temptations’ first producer, who is remembered for his efforts to secure for his artists full and equitable compensation for the popular music they made.
These names, as well as the film score, suggest that Spike Lee is serious about his music. Personally, I would like to attend a Michael Jackson Dance Party of his in Brooklyn one August, but I fear that my own dancing would embarrass me.
Yes, there are references to Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (which itself was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness) and, yes, the veterans’ reunion begins in an actual Vietnamese bar named for the Coppola film. And, yes, when the four veterans and one son set off upriver in a boat, they do so to the only European music in the piece, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” which also was featured in the film. But, no, the plot of Da 5 Bloods, only imitates the plots of the other two works in a few places. It is a different story and deserves to be understood as such.