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Friday December 2nd

Oscars Spotlight: 'Da 5 Bloods' teeters on the line between insightful and ineffectual

Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters Delroy Lindo and Jonathan Majors star in "Da Five Bloods"; a film directed by Spike Lee debuting on Netflix Friday. Photo courtesy of Netflix.
Buy Photos Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters Delroy Lindo and Jonathan Majors star in "Da Five Bloods"; a film directed by Spike Lee debuting on Netflix Friday. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Spike Lee is rarely one to disappoint. 

The renowned director of “Do the Right Thing” and “BlacKkKlansman” has long been praised for his adept manipulation of the medium he works in, using unique constructions to tell unique stories. “Da 5 Bloods” is a continuation of this trend. 

While fighting in the Vietnam War, a group of five Black soldiers — who dubbed themselves “Bloods” — found a crashed CIA plane full of gold bars, which were meant to be given to the local population in exchange for help fighting the Viet Cong. The Bloods decided to keep this gold for themselves, but were ambushed before they could get away with it. The group had a close bond to their leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and his death during the raid left the remaining members emotionally scarred.

The other four Bloods — Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) — reunite in the present day, returning to Vietnam after they heard news that the tail of the plane they found the gold in was recently discovered. 

Otis’s wartime girlfriend Tiên (Lê Y Lan) introduces the Bloods to Desroche (Jean Reno), a businessman who agrees to help the Bloods smuggle the gold out of Vietnam after they recover it. The Bloods also hire a local guide, Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyễn), to help lead them out into the countryside, and are later joined by Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), with whom he has a testy relationship.  

As is typical of any Spike Lee movie, the dialogue in “Da 5 Bloods” is exceptional — not only in terms of the writing, but also in the themes it conveys. 

The movie does a great job to raise thought-provoking questions about the use of Black soldiers in frontline infantry divisions, with some of its characters even going so far as to suggest that this was done because they were seen as more disposable by the military establishment. The movie also contains criticisms of institutional racism and the treatment of Black people in the present-day United States.

There is no greater vehicle in the film for this frustration than Delroy Lindo. His impassioned portrayal of Paul — who offers strong, poignant critiques of the government that shipped him off to fight in the Vietnam War — is captivating. His embittered demands for any semblance of justice are topped off by a gripping, fourth-wall-breaking monologue in the film’s third act. 

The performance gained another layer of complexity when Paul and his son shared the screen, as Lindo’s emotional portrayal of a flawed father was immensely heartfelt and relatable. The fact that he wasn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actor is almost criminal.

However, none of the other characters can muster any serious emotional reaction with their performances. Lindo shines so bright, it almost blinds audiences to their contributions, though their conventional acting and underdeveloped character arcs are also to blame.  

“Da 5 Bloods” also struggles in terms of storytelling. Its plot branches off into multiple, underexplored directions, engorging its runtime and slowing its pace to a halt before the first hour is through. Likewise, the film’s action sequences, though serviceable, seem to detract from the overarching points the film is trying to make by relying on tropes and false tension. Questionable editing decisions also undermine the viewer’s immersion into the story. 

Still, credit must be given to the cinematographers, who, alongside Lee, work to deliver a truly stunning visual landscape for viewers to admire throughout the movie. The rich score from Terence Blanchard serves as a perfect auditory complement to the events on screen. Its rousing fanfares and luscious strings helped earn the movie its only Oscar nod, a nomination for Best Original Score.

The messages “Da 5 Bloods” intends to convey are certainly strong, but I question whether the means by which they conveyed them were effective. Though there were individual moments of brilliance, the movie struggled to blend these together to form an engaging, cohesive unit. 

By the end of it all, I was stumped — there were times when I couldn’t be bothered to pay attention and times when I couldn’t look away. I still don’t know how I feel about this movie. Maybe I never will. (7/10?) 

"Da 5 Bloods" is now streaming on Netflix and is nominated for Best Original Score at the Academy Awards.


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