Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods ★★★

During a short break that I took in the middle of watching Da 5 Bloods, I stumbled upon this article which made me think of Delroy Lindo's character, Paul. Here's an extract:

President Donald Trump’s handling of the nationwide anti-racism protests and the response to George Floyd’s killing are prompting a private reckoning, spurring sadness or soul-searching among some people of color who continue to serve in the administration after three and a half years, say several current and former aides.

These Republican aides — people of color appointed by the Trump team — say they are mystified as to why the president can so forcefully call for law and order amid ongoing protests, yet he cannot speak with the same conviction about racism in America, or offer words to soothe a divided and scared nation as it faces social unrest alongside a pandemic and an economic downturn.

“They had a huge opportunity, and they botched it,” said one senior administration official, among several people of color who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid putting their jobs at risk. “They could have gotten out ahead of it by having the president say something or go to Minnesota, where he’s been many times. I don’t know what led to the botching. Maybe he needs more advisers who have a better sense of what is going on in the real world.”

I thought this article would be a good starting point for me to discuss the film's strengths. Da 5 Bloods explores the consequences of fighting for a country that doesn't care about you and doesn't belong to you. This is true of all soldiers (billionaires' sons don't fight wars), but especially relevant in the case of African-American soldiers, and even more relevant when looking at the times of the Vietnam War. And those flashbacks set during the war, together with the archive footage montage that opens the film, are undoubtedly some of Da 5 Bloods' strongest moments. There is something inherently powerful in watching the five protagonists form a bond with each other and in spite of their country. It makes you sympathise with them even though they are murderers and lackeys of an imperialist regime, as their unwillingness to fight for the regime is exacerbated by their identity alien to the very values that they are fighting for.

Moreover, by setting the story in the present, Spike Lee is able to extend those meditations to the present day in a manner that feels more accomplished than BlacKKKlansman, which only looked at the Trump era in its final five minutes. By looking at its protagonists in the present, Da 5 Bloods explores some of the other ways through which they have been led to believe in a country and a flag that isn't theirs (not yet, at least). I was particularly interested in the intersection between blackness and wealth – how those characters who have become rich want to hoard the treasure for themselves while Eddie, who has lost all of his money, is the only one to talk about reparations, giving back to the community. There is community in desperation, and selfishness in comfort. And obviously we come to Paul, the violent, Trump-supporting, MAGA hat-wearing black man, who acts more as an obstacle than a friend to the other Bloods. Lee seems to find his motivations to be rooted in internalised self-hatred, which leads to Paul becoming a race traitor and begrudging his own son (the "blood" parallel there should be obvious). But it is curious to see him behave in a context (Vietnam) where black Americans are the oppressor. Not because they are black, but because they are American.

Also, I can't talk about the film's strengths without mentioning its style. First of all, the LB poster absolutely kills, please never change it. Secondly, the explosive colourfulness of the poster is certainly reflected in the film. The changing aspect ratios to signify flashbacks are a wonderful touch, but some of the stylistic flourishes that I appreciated the most include the well-aimed intercuttings of archive photos when the characters comment on a historical figure/event, and the monologues delivered into the camera in pure Spike Lee fashion.

But now, I must come to the film's flaws, and there are more of those than I would like. All of the strengths I discussed above can be said to belong to the film's conceptual sphere, and its stylistic flourishes amount to mere moments. But these moments are glued together by a narrative that leaves a lot to be desired. How can a 2 ½ hours long film feel so cluttered? At one point, I was beginning to hope for the flashbacks to become more frequent because the present-day story was quickly losing its grip on me. I commended it conceptually, and I appreciate that Spike Lee's age might have led him to want to focus on a group of characters in their silver years, but the whole jungle odyssey felt like a dad movie was getting in the way of the Spike Lee joint that I was trying to watch (I have similar concerns with BlacKKKlansman, now that I think about it). Interminable bouts of expository dialogue, characters to be introduced and disposed of on a whim, a structure that rivals the cheesiest Hollywood action movies. And when I say it's cluttered, I mean that the film is prone to digressing into endless subplots and introducing a staggering amount of characters which, to me, only took away from the main journey. In a film entitled Da 5 Bloods, I was expecting more interactions between the 5 Bloods and less will-they-won't-they bickering between one of their sons and a French lady.

Also, a small note on the film's conclusion, just because I like to be pedantic. I like that Spike Lee decided to have the surviving characters donate the money made off of their gold to charities, and I like that it goes two ways between BLM and a demining charity in Vietnam. That was truly the best way for the narrative to conclude. However, I must make an important note which Lee didn't make, and that is that charities are a symptom of our problems, not a cure. They exist to supplement those wants that governments won't fill with public funds and, as such, they should only be considered as a temporary solution to problems that must be solved at their root with political action, rebellion and reforms.

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