“Will history ever stop repeating itself?” It’s a question most of us have been asking a lot this year, but it’s one that Spike Lee has been pondering his whole career. At the start of June, Lee had to ask it again in his online short, 3 Brothers (responding to the death of George Floyd), and he repeats the question over and over throughout Da 5 Bloods – a powerful, sprawling war epic that deals in cycles of violence, systemic racism, and people doing ugly, stupid, awful things in the name of a uniform. Da 5 Bloods might be all about digging up the past, but this is the movie 2020 needs right now.
With an Oscar under his belt at long last for 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, Lee turns in his most ambitious film to date. Covering a long sweep of American history from the first Black man to die in the revolutionary riots of 1770, through the violence of the Vietnam War, civil rights protests and assassinations of the late 1960s, right up to a battered, bloody MAGA hat that makes its own loud statements about the state of modern politics, Da 5 Bloods is a movie with plenty to say.
Luckily, it has a whole lot of running time to say it in. Netflix seems to have given Lee the same blank creative cheque they lent Martin Scorsese for last year’s The Irishman. Here is another long, unique masterpiece by a director at the very top of their game.
Just like Marty’s thrilling gangster tale, Da 5 Bloods is about old men reliving their past. We meet ex-G.I.s Paul (Delroy Lindo, from Lee’s own Malcolm X, Crooklyn and Clockers), Otis (Clarke Peters, The Wire and His Dark Materials), Eddie (Norm Lewis, mostly known for his musical roles) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr., The Wire) as they land back in Saigon 40 years after they completed their last tour.
They’re back to pick up the remains of fallen buddy Norm, tragically killed in action. But they’re also back to find a cache of stolen CIA gold that they secretly buried during the war. Paul’s son turns up, old flames appear, and crooked Frenchmen try to swindle the guys out of their money, but the real focus here is on the personal journey of these four Americans. They might have left the jungle long ago, but most still haven’t dealt with the horrifying things they saw there.
The film cuts back and forth between the present day and 1968, but unlike Scorsese, Lee doesn’t digitally de-age his characters. Instead, his leads play themselves in their own memories alongside Chadwick Boseman’s young Norm – the kid who never got to grow up. It’s a bold choice, but it never feels out of place thanks to Lee’s use of saturated, ’60s-style filters. The past is separated from the present via two different shooting styles and a tone that wavers wildly between comedy, horror, heist movie, trippy psychodrama and actual newsreel footage.
Not that it all works. Some of the oddly exaggerated violence feels out of place and some of the plotting gets baggy when the script starts taking shortcuts, but it’s hard to criticise a film with this much style and substance. Lee has never been great at picking a lane and sticking to it, and Da 5 Bloods is pretty much everything you’d expect his take on a war movie to feel like – putting personal trauma and national guilt on the same pedestal, using old men to tell the story of today’s youth, and throwing in a few A-Team-style shootouts that are equal parts hilarious and horrific.
Where else would you see a scene that restages the famous ‘Ride Of The Valkyries’ charge with a slowly moving tourist boat? And who else would pick that piece of music to nod to Apocalypse Now and Birth Of A Nation simultaneously, all the while played like a joke that feels too poignant to laugh at?
Bookended by real speeches from Martin Luther King Jr., and spanning decades of American history from the Kent State massacre to the Black Lives Matter movement, Lee has made a Vietnam War movie the only way anyone really can – by acknowledging that no awful event in history can ever be defined by a single start or end point, and that no one person’s take can ever feel definitive. History will probably never stop repeating itself, but Spike Lee will hopefully never stop reminding us about it.
- Director: Spike Lee
- Starring: Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Chadwick Boseman
- Released: June 12 (Netflix)