In the first few minutes of Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, which premieres on Netflix on Friday, everything happens at once. Opening with Muhammad Ali disassociating himself from U.S. military action in Vietnam, the film tumbles into a thicket of emotionally charged images: street protests, burning draft cards, Agent Orange, napalm, Nixon’s resignation, Neil Armstrong landing on “da moon.” The rules of montages covering the turbulence of the late 1960s and early 1970s more or less mandate that they’re scored with Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” but Lee picks Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler),” and it’s striking how different it feels. Whatever power “For What It’s Worth” might once have had has been sanded away by decades of boomer nostalgia, and the song has an undercurrent of remoteness, as if the singer hasn’t quite figured out what everyone’s so upset about. Gaye is steeped in the turmoil. He knows what’s going on.
After the overwhelming images of the past few weeks (to say nothing of the months and years before them), the beginning of Da 5 Bloods feels like a pitcher dumped into an already full glass. But Lee isn’t just reminding us that the ’60s were a crazy time. He’s tying the movie’s story, which mostly concerns four black American Vietnam vets going back to the country to retrieve the remains of a fallen comrade (and, oh, yes, a lost cache of CIA gold), to a history that goes back to 1619, when the first African slaves were brought to the British colonies, and to the wars that followed, when black soldiers fought to defend freedoms they were never given themselves. “If the link-up is not made between what’s happening in Vietnam and what’s happening here,” Angela Davis says in the opening montage, “we may very well face a period of full-blown fascism very soon.”
That warning hits especially hard, and although most of the movie takes place thousands of miles from the United States, the man referred to in an on-screen caption as “President Fake Bone Spurs” is always present in spirit, often in the form of the MAGA hat worn by the Trump-voting veteran Paul, played by Delroy Lindo. Lindo’s performance is titanic, so full of emotions that you can practically see them fighting for space on his face, and while the movie criticizes his choice (his buddies are immediately horrified when they find out whom Paul voted for), it doesn’t condescend to it. He’s a man who’s lost and angry, full of anguish and fear, one who still sees the ghost of his fellow soldier Norm (Chadwick Boseman) more than 40 years later and recoils from Vietnamese people as if their touch would burn him.
The other surviving Bloods—serene Otis (Clarke Peters), brash Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and big spender Eddie (Norm Lewis)—have managed to put what the Vietnamese characters invariably call “the American war” behind them to some extent, and for all of them, there’s a kind of liberation to being outside of the U.S. When Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” plays in a Ho Chi Minh City disco, the four of them weave through the crowd as if they’re weightless, their bodies moving to the music as if they’re in their 20s and not their late 60s. I thought of James Baldwin saying that he moved to Paris with no more than a few dollars in his pocket “on the theory that nothing worse could happen to me there than had already happened to me here.”
Da 5 Bloods moves back and forth in time, but Lee doesn’t digitally de-age his actors the way Martin Scorsese did in The Irishman. In fact, he doesn’t change much more than their clothes. The aspect ratios may shift, but the actors’ faces stay the same because, as their Vietnamese tour guide puts it, once you’re in a war, it never really ends. The city streets, now lined with American fast-food joints, are unrecognizable, but outside their limits, the grounds are still littered with land mines, pieces of the past just waiting to explode. (There’s even a team of white activists, run by Mélanie Thierry, devoted to defusing them.)
In the movie’s second half, those mines start going off, and what’s been a leisurely character drama develops into a violent and bloody conflict, because while the reckoning may be delayed, it cannot be avoided. Lee keeps interjecting photos—sometimes of characters tied to the story, like James Anderson Jr., who threw himself on a Vietnamese grenade to save the lives of his fellow Marines, or sometimes just to footnote or underline references, like a passing mention of Aretha Franklin—but he’s not throwing you out of the story so much as he is reminding you that it’s bigger than these characters, bigger even than this sprawling 2½-hour movie can encompass. (More than any new movie I’ve seen post-lockdown, I wished I could see Da 5 Bloods on a big screen, and I hope Netflix finds a way to release it in theaters once there are big screens to show it on.) It’s a weakness of the film that it finds few ways to flesh out its Vietnamese characters beyond dividing them into friendlies and hostiles, but Lindo’s character and his performance are for the ages. As he spills out decades of pain and confusion, anger and mistrust, he talks straight into the camera, and you’re brought literally face to face with him, a pure product of America driven mad by the denial of his full humanity. If America is to be great, again or otherwise, men like him must be first made whole.
For more on Da 5 Bloods listen to Dana Stevens’ and Aisha Harris’ spoiler-filled discussion of the movie.