Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods ★★★★½

This was amazing. The use of archival footage, weaving together reality and fiction to tell an important and complex story about the sacrifice of black bodies on the altar of Vietnam really really works. Spike Lee almost outdoes himself here, and while I think the film might be a little rough around the edges that's honestly part of its charm. I certainly have to watch it again, firstly because I enjoyed it so much, but secondly because it's a dense and layered film that I think will reveal itself further on a rewatch.

What I can say from the outset is that the film is both intimate and epic. It features two quite explicit nods to Apocalypse Now, and it's clear that film was a major influence on this. They both feature journeys into the heart of Vietnam that mirror their characters' journeys towards madness, although in Da 5 Bloods, the characters come out the other side changed for the better instead of mad. Both films are powerful and visceral. I'd argue the emotions might be even stronger in Spike's film, but Coppola's surrealistic touches really do put that film on another level.

The political and topical connections that Spike makes are shockingly relevant and quite potent. Those are really some of the highlights of the film for me, particularly the segment where da Bloods learn about the assassination of MLK. In both this film and BlacKkKlansman, Spike proves himself a master of juxtaposition, editing, and modern-day significance. The effortless weaving of footage into the narrative astounded me every time. In fact, it often outdoes the film's drama and is far more poignant.

Fortunately, although the drama does not nearly equal the film's historical and modern-day digressions, it is still an enjoyable and satisfying film that has plenty of its own strengths. Chief among those may be Spike's creative use of shifting aspect ratios. The flashbacks shot in 16 mm really add a great texture and flavor to the film, replicating the actual Vietnam war footage we have been inundated with and were shown earlier in the film. It really adds to the grittiness and gravitas of those scenes. When da Bloods get to the jungle, the film yet again shifts to a widescreen format that lets the jungle engulf the characters and makes the whole thing feel bigger. The cinematography itself is wonderful throughout, utilizing a plethora of unique shots, including Spike's trademark double dolly.

The music is just as wonderful, featuring superb, stirring work from Terence Blanchard and a soundtrack supplied by the great Marvin Gaye. The pieces of the film scored by Gaye are some of the strongest passages here and his most famous song, "What's Going On?" becomes a sort of anthem for the characters and the film.

Those characters are another strongpoint. While it's true that other than Delroy Lindo's Paul, they aren't fleshed out, I don't really see this as a flaw. The film never tries to flesh them out and it's clear that this is Paul's story, so I never saw it as Spike's intention to fully characterize each of da Bloods. Yes, if the characters were more fleshed out, it would have been a better movie, but just because they aren't doesn't make it a worse one. The actors also do a ton of heavy lifting to make the characters feel real even when the screenplay doesn't give them the light of day. Clarke Peters and Isiah Whitlock Jr. are the most charismatic, while Jonathan Majors does an adequate job in a pretty thankless role. His character had more potential to be conflicted than the others but it wasn't capitalized on. Majors' performance in last year's The Last Black Man in San Francisco was far superior and I wish he had a more juicy role here. Lindo, however, carries the cast on his back. Every scene he's in is great, and he is explosive as the damaged vet and Trump supporter Paul. His scene with Chadwick Boseman is one of the film's best. Speaking of which, Boseman makes a lasting impression in a fairly small role, something akin to what Brando did in Apocalypse Now. Boseman's Stormin' Norman is talked about a lot over the film's runtime, and his performance lives up to the hype. Not as complex as Kurtz, he's a far different type of character, and I think Boseman does an excellent job.

Da 5 Bloods is far and away the best film of the year, and I honestly don't see it getting topped anytime soon given that cinemas still aren't open. I hope this gets the awards recognition it deserves because it's a powerful, moving picture. Uneven at times, the film as a whole really works, and it's more timely than ever given the reckoning this country is having with our racist past. This film has something to say, and whenever Spike Lee speaks, it's usually a good idea to listen.

P.S. The poster is awesome


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