A group of Vietnam War veterans return to the country as old men to find the remains of their squad leader Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and the gold that they buried on the fateful mission they lost him.
Opening with a powerful but brief history lesson of the civil rights movement juxtaposed with the treatments of black soldiers during the Vietnam War focusing between the years 1968-1975 this is a Spike Lee Joint that has a powerful message to convey within the confines of a thrilling boiler plate action movie where money does crazy things to a group of friends.
Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) have returned to the country where they shared an unbreakable bond with their squad leader Stormin’ Norman and became “Da 5 Bloods”. All have their own personal scars both physical and mental from the “American War” but their shared one is that Norman’s body was never recovered and brought home. Joining them on their search will be Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) who will strike up a friendship with french land mine removal specialist Hedy (Melanie Thierry). On their journey we will be given a black history lesson and see how the racism being fought against nearly fifty years ago is still present today.
Spike Lee’s latest offering is a stunning piece of work and on the back of his last feature film BlacKkKlansman show a director on top form. It is odd to think that in the hands of someone with less skill this could be a simple but effective thriller. The sort of film where a group of friends pull off a crazy and dangerous plan that should set them up for life but thanks to the perils of money and what it does to your mind turns into a struggle for survival. Sam Raimi’s “A Simple Plan” came to mind as I was watching it. But whilst this film is that it is so much more. Using cinematic techniques that often pull you out of the film Spike Lee has an important message to convey and it is one that has never been more prescient in our current times.
The first of these techniques is to cut to still photographs and images that teach us black history and that of the Vietnam War. It shows us the atrocities committed, the fact that black soldiers were sent to die whilst their compatriots back home protested for basic human rights and that black heroes have been whitewashed from history. The second is the use of aspect ratio changes to represent different sections of the story And signpost where we are. There are four used in total; digitally shot 2.39:1 for present day cities, digitally shot 16:9 for present day jungle, 16mm reversal film in a boxy 1.33:1 for flashbacks and super 8 2.39:1 for home videos shot in present day. The third is not to use younger actors for the flashbacks, nor to use any de-ageing effects. Whilst Stormin’ Norman is played by a young Chadwick Boseman the rest of the actors play their younger selves. The fourth is to use sometimes very uncomfortable ‘direct to camera’ speeches. There is a reason we never see actors speaking directly to camera in films and that is because it is uncomfortable as we feel as though we are being stared at. Here Lee doesn’t shy away from using it to make a dramatic point, especially when he has Lindo deliver a full Shakespearean rant to camera. This is just one facet of a powerhouse leading performance from Lindo, a soldier suffering with PTSD.
The film’s prescience in current times makes it a striking piece of work, one which shows Spike Lee as a hugely important artist of our time.