Spike Lee’s ‘Da 5 Bloods’ Misses the Mark—and Does a Disservice to Its Women
There is plenty to like about the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s Vietnam War effort but it still falls short thanks to some poor characterizations and Lee’s inability to dig deeper.
Da 5 Bloods is, like BlacKkKlansman, another attempt by the prolifically astute Spike Lee to blend fact and fiction so to better tell the truth of our times. But with this film, streaming on Netflix now, the subject is the complex and differing experiences of four black Vietnam War vets—the eponymous Bloods—who return to the country to uncover a lost treasure as well as the remains of their fallen commander (Chadwick Boseman, in flashbacks). It’s a weighty project, nimbly navigated by actors Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock, and Norm Lewis—titan character actors who evaded star status mostly because of the systemic racism that has pervaded the industry forever. That behind-the-scenes reality is apt context for their characters, who struggle to reckon with their complicity in violent American imperialism in light of the racism they’ve faced from all sides. Still, the Netflix sheen of the film, as well as Lee’s decision to mostly bypass Vietnamese subjectivity and experience beyond war photography and stereotype, compromises the stronger ideas within.
Even when Lee doesn’t quite succeed, he’s still making films far superior—formally, intellectually, and pure entertainment-wise—than his peers. Still, it’s his high competency and craft that brings the shortsighted and patriarchal aspects of his filmmaking into sharp relief. Peters, playing former Army medic Otis, and the most reasonable of the group, relies on a former girlfriend, Tiên, to hook him and the guys up to liquidate their treasure. But Tiên, played by Lê Y Lan, is cast as a racist caricature, the wily, exotic Asian femme who sensually and discreetly gets her way. Her daughter, Michon (Sandy Hương Phạm), is clearly mixed, her father an unidentified black man (you might guess who that is). Unfortunately, instead of examining her experience, Michon is rendered as a docile “tragic mulatto” caricature. And the black vets’ guide, Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyễn), is cast as the token cultural informant, toggling between opposing Vietnamese communities (the communism of the North and the pro-U.S. anti-communism of the South) as well as a U.S.-Vietnam divide.
So rather than writing full Vietnamese and women characters, Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott—who reworked an original script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo—focus on reinstilling a hero narrative for traumatized black American men. In reality, depicting complex Vietnamese and black American (not to mention a black Vietnamese) characters is not an either/or equation, and perhaps if Lee had listened more closely to Angela Davis—who he features in the beginning of the film—he might have understood this. An internationalist perspective is forcefully gestured to at the beginning of the film, but ultimately given short shrift. And rather than using documentary interludes to infuse and explain the black radical tradition, Lee gets caught up in transposing war-vet clichés on black characters, particularly Paul, who is a Trump-supporting bigot who it seems we’re meant to give a pass because his military buddies do.
But Da 5 Bloods contains bright spots and inquiries into blackness, imperialism, and Vietnamese-communist dissent worth hearing out. The sharp Veronica Ngo plays the famous Hanoi Hannah, a real radio host during the Vietnam War who turned her attention to U.S. troops. In one scene, she reports the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and implores black G.I.s to return home where they’re needed by their own communities to protest on the streets.
And playing Paul’s Morehouse Black Studies grad and public school teacher son David, Jonathan Majors contains the bendy, multi-dimensional acting talent of a Viola Davis or Adam Driver as well as the offhand charisma and intelligence of a Denzel Washington or Hong Chau. This is to say, as Lee himself has asserted, Majors is set to be a household name. Majors’ David is an unloved little boy in a grown man’s body, seeking out the approval of his troubled father. The actor does much, both physically and intellectually, with a character arc that isn’t obviously there, going from madcap to solemn in a moment’s notice and never hitting a false note (Wes Anderson, who tends to require precisely that range in his own films, would do well to take note).
But great performances do not make a great film. I’ve noticed that many of the white male critics who occupy the high-ranking editorial positions that allow them to write major features about Da 5 Bloods and secure interviews with the film’s cast have done a kind of polite “I’m out of my depth” bypassing of the film’s ideas, instead opting for appraisals of the story’s pacing and organization. This approach awkwardly mirrors Lee’s own missteps with Da 5 Bloods, which is to say that where the director doesn’t quite seem to understand he mainly backs off, refusing to dig deeper into unfamiliar territory while doubling down on previously-tread ground. Netflix’s backing doesn't seem to help here either, since the company’s original productions tend to get giddy on surface rather than substance. Lee will have to be willing to challenge his own relatively newfound comfort in the industry to make new films that surpass his hard-won classics.