Da 5 Bloods Offers A Vision of Black Autonomy
Interspersed throughout Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is a series of still photos and archive footage depicting Black historical figures, many of whom white history books have consigned to the waste basket of antiquity – Crispus Attucks, Milton Olive, Edwin Moses. As four Black GIs return to the jungles of Vietnam to reclaim a chunk of their own past, Lee moves on a parallel path to his characters, spinning the threads of their shared story to recontextualize a larger piece of black history. It’s always been there; most people are just tuning in for the first time now.
Da 5 Bloods follows the journey Paul, Otis, Melvin, Eddie, and Paul’s son David take to recover the remains of their former squad leader and the gold bars they buried in the jungle nearly 50 years ago. Lee’s most important filmmaking decision comes across initially as a luddite protest to the recent reliance on de-aging technology. In flashback sequences, the four older men are played by the same actors in their 50s and 60s with no makeup or digital effects, fighting alongside their twenty-something brother in arms, Norman, played by the much younger Chadwick Boseman.
But this juxtaposition of past and present actually strikes to the heart of both the film and the ongoing fight for racial justice. Like an older generation of (then-young) Black men who fought overseas for a country that withheld their own freedom, a new era of Black men and women have had their futures snatched away by police killings and violence. Watching Norman fight alongside the old men he would never become is a visual reminder of how quickly these young men had to grow up. And like the soldiers in Vietnam, Black children in America are regularly forced to abandon their childhoods because of the omnipresent risk that they won’t make it to adulthood.
And at its core, Da 5 Bloods shows us how that trauma – the trauma of war, the trauma of simply having black skin in a world that treats being black as a crime – becomes a constant companion. Paul has turned to chest-beating Trumpism in response to the repeated injustices thrown his way – he’s “a man who needs a win,” according to Delroy Lindo, who portrays Paul with viscera and sympathy in one of the best performances of the year – but has been unable to outrun the ghost of Norman, who he watched die almost five decades earlier. Paul’s descent is half-Colonel Kurtz and half-Captain Willard; a steady, spiraling foray into the jungle, into the past he failed to escape, into the lonely finale that he consigned himself to long ago.
Paul’s fellow Bloods may have grown apart from him in the intervening years, but his scars never faded. For many Black Americans, the feeling might be recognizable. The entire world may have recently focused its gaze on police brutality and racial justice, but when this nth round of international attention inevitably subsides, Black Americans do not stop being black, and they certainly will not stop experiencing daily discrimination, aggression, hatred, fear, and violence. This is the inescapable burden of trauma, whether caused by actual war or a society that treats you like the enemy. And in bearing that weight, Paul holds tight to an important lesson from his departed commander: “we bloods don’t let nobody use our rage against us, we control our rage.”
We Control Our Rage. It’s a credo that Paul relies on as he stumbles through the jungle alone, delivering a direct-to-camera monologue that is as uncompromising in its substance as it is unrelenting in its delivery. It’s a philosophy of Black organizers and protesters and community leaders who face the constant barrage of white “allies” trying to tell them how, when, and where they should properly express their discontent. And it is a filmmaking code for Spike Lee, whose movies rarely take a form that pleases everyone, but always manifest the unvarnished truth as Lee sees it. Spike Lee’s movies will never belong to his audience or his critics; that’s part of what makes them special.
And Lee’s fingerprints are all over Da 5 Bloods. He wears his cinematic influences on his sleeve – from Apocalypse Now (he worked in both “Ride of the Valkyries” and a chicken scene) to Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Lee opted for a slight twist on the misquoted version of the film’s most famous line), he doesn’t bother masking his inspiration. And as always, he borrows from his past work, this time re-using “Time” by The Chambers Brothers, which he indelibly included in his 1994 Crooklyn.
Lee’s most notorious visual flair – the famous double dolly “floating person” shot – marks a period of continued development for the filmmaker. With Da 5 Bloods, Lee continues his latter career shift away from using the shot in climactic, tragic moments and toward using it to capture the melancholy optimism of moving forward together. The optimistic wrap-it-all-up coda in Da 5 Bloods may disappoint certain viewers – some have contrasted it to the harrowing finale of Lee’s 1989 Do the Right Thing. But Lee has always walked the line between love and hate, lest we forget the scene after the death of Radio Raheem, where Mookie and Sal reach a cautious reconciliation, with the words of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. scrawling across the screen.
And anyway, Spike Lee controls his own rage. And as manifestations of that rage, his films, whether they disappoint you or not, are the purest form of cinematic expression.