For decades Spike Lee has been going there—deep into American racial politics—when neither Hollywood nor American mainstream culture was either interested or invested. He did this whether or not contemporary unrest suggested the reality, and this meant that he was too often cast as the provocateur. It wasn’t until the well-deserved Governors Awards in 2015 and his Oscar for best adapted screenplay for BlacKkKlansman in 2018 that the Academy stopped flirting with the idea of Lee as a distinctive, essential American film artist and digested that he is one.
Directed and cowritten by Lee, Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, and frequent Lee collaborator Kevin Willmott, Lee’s new film, Da 5 Bloods (out today on Netflix), features five Black American Vietnam veterans: Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). The deeply bonded men return to Vietnam decades after the war to fulfill two missions: reclaim the gold bars they secretly buried and collect the remains of their fallen brother, squad leader Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). They’re accompanied by Paul’s uninvited grown son, David (Johnathan Chambers), and the cast includes several Vietnamese characters: their tour guide and ally Vinh Tran (Johnny Nguyen), whose family was split by the war into differing sides; Eddie’s former lover Veronica (Ngô Thanh Vân); and their rather muted mixed-race daughter.
Spike Lee at the Oscars in 2019Photo: Getty
As Willmott stated in a recent interview, he and Lee believe that “most people get their history from movies, not books.” And in this film—Lee’s first war film since 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna—they have created a rich mosaic for this chapter in history, one that demonstrates Lee’s outrage over white supremacy’s continuing legacy.
As in many of his films, Lee continually contextualizes the present through history. Historical footage and still photography frame Da 5 Bloods. And throughout the film, he underlines the singularly difficult reception that met Black veterans when they returned from the war. In Da 5 Bloods, that experience is presented through the lens of double consciousness‚ W.E.B Du Bois’s concept of a divided interior life. Black veterans returned not only to a nation ambivalent about the war, but to an unchanged second-class citizenship.
In the film’s dominant character, Paul, Lindo brilliantly portrays the toll this takes, as he hacks his way through the jungle until redeemed by the narrative’s messiah figure, Stormin’ Norman, an example of the almost religious motif of psychic pain that has been a signature of Lee’s work. These motifs, tied together with his secular, broad-stroke canvases of Black culture, are conscious cultural signifiers.
This latest entry joins Lee’s cycle of films chronicling the Black American experience primarily through representing Black male subjectivity. He decenters American mainstream stereotypes of Black men and critiques the neglect of their complicated vulnerability, masculinities, and relationships. The last time Lee took this kind of deep dive, it was arguably with Get on the Bus (1996), in which a diverse group of Black men travel together to the Million Man March.
Lee has stayed unapologetically true to the Black aesthetics that shaped him and the resulting desire to expose the racial truths of American life and history. It’s been a counterpoint in Hollywood, a culture that’s perpetuated the marginalization and stereotypical representation of Black people. Has the world caught up with him? This week, HBO Max pulled the classic racial melodrama Gone With the Wind, citing its racial stereotypes.
In a Spike Lee joint, Black history is not an artifact or the cool fetish of American culture. When Da 5 Bloodswas shot in Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh City last spring, Lee didn’t know that it would premiere in the middle of a global pandemic and nationwide protests over police brutality. The surprise isn’t that Lee’s newest film resonates with present times, but that the times are in tune with Spike Lee.