Let’s go back.
Da Five Bloods is Spike Lee’s new one on Netflix. The production behind this film was troubled and had originally been slated to be an Oliver Stone project. I think the production issues may have slipped onto the screen in many ways.
We follow four Vietnam veterans who are returning to an old battlefield to find and recover the body of their beloved commander. Oh, they are also there to steal a bunch of gold.
Did the gold thing sound a little weird? It is. We get a Treasure of the Sierra Madre vibe mixed with Spike Lee’s unique style and a lot of PTSD. I felt as though this movie was constantly moving back and forth with quality. There are moments that are truly beautiful, timely, heartbreaking, and important, but there are also moments of sheer annoyance, convenience, and pointlessness.
Paul (Delroy Lindo) is a frustrating yet real character (and man does he nail this role). One who has ignored his own mental health issues (at the distress of his son) and seems to be barely able to control his anger. All of these men carry anger with them, and they are justified. The near removal of African American presence in war, horrific race relations, treatment of veterans, and the failure of the American dream are but few of the things hanging on these men. When the film focuses on the destructive nature of war, and the mistreatment of African Americans, it is an excellent movie.
Another thing that is interesting is the idea that war never ends. The Vietnamese people they encounter are somewhat frustratingly militarized, but they are given room to share their perspectives. The colonial violence the Vietnamese suffered is compared to African American enslavement and mistreatment. At first, I was worried this parallel would not work, but it mostly does. We could argue the specifics of colonial trauma versus enslavement trauma, but both groups are traumatized by violence and we see how this can lead to individuals lashing out.
Unfortunately, the messaging gets muddled once we add in the gold. I’m not entirely sure the characters even knew if they were there for Norman’s (Chadwick Boseman) body or the gold. The priority certainly seems to be the money, and while we get a passionate and powerful scene over a grave, we can’t quit shake the excitement at the idea of being rich.
As the narrative goes of the rails so do the characters. We begin to see irrational decisions that do play into the idea of trauma, but also play into B-movie action stereotypes and tropes. Elderly African American vets winning against dozens of young Vietnamese criminals seems to be playing into the same uneven narrative this film is trying to critique.
The gold is likely present to offer a glimmer of hope for the characters’ futures. Unfortunately, this is probably why it becomes so unbelievable. Racial issues in this country seem to evolve at a glacial pace. It seems the only solace these men can find is at least they and their families will be okay. In this way, I appreciate the addition of a cathartic ending (I wouldn’t call it happy). However, the war still lingers behind them.
Removing the treasure hunt from the film would have made it a better story in my opinion. The focus could have been sharper, and we wouldn’t have the oddly placed action film third act. I wanted to love this movie, and while I think the messaging is important and well done, the story itself doesn’t work as well due to a lack of focus.
Being the idiot that I am, I looked up some other reviews of this one. There are some complaints of the film that I wanted to address though.
First, I like that it is the old actors in the Vietnam flashbacks. I think the film is playing with the idea of memory and that these men cannot escape the war. They remember it now as older men trapped in the jungle. Could this have been telegraphed better? Yes. However, examining the film as a continuous line of trauma from the 1960s to at least 2016 allows for this odd age change.
Second, I see a lot of people saying that this film is provocative. I disagree. Perhaps I am part of the choir that Lee might be preaching to, but I don’t see anything provocative in asking for the African American sacrifice in war to be recognized. For us as a nation to actually get our heads out of our asses and address racial inequality. I do recognize how monumental this task is, but it shouldn’t be. These issues seem so simple to me. How is it so hard for us to deal with this (the us here is the white majority)? The fact that asking for equality is seen as provocative is shameful.
The film is flawed, but it is timely. I think that the importance of the message soars much higher than the specific story told. I wanted more here. It is worth a watch, but more for the experience and the knowledge you’ll gain rather than the narrative quality.