Da 5 Bloods Review
BLOODLUST – OR BLOOD FIRST?
Dictionary Definition: The red liquid that circulates in the arteries and veins of humans and other vertebrate animals, carrying oxygen to and carbon dioxide from the tissues of the body? Or maybe it’s–
“West side Piru, I love this shit Blood
Elm street to the Fruits yeah I love this shit, Blood
Crip neighbourhoods too, even though they blue
Compton is where we grew and I love this shit, Blood”
– The Game (“Gang Related“)
(I suggest clicking on the links to really feel the music.)
Perhaps it’s also–
Wikipedia: The Bloods, also known as Original Blood Family (OBF), are a primarily African-American street gang founded in Los Angeles, California. They are identified by the RED colour worn by their members and by particular gang symbols, including distinctive hand signs.
But to truly understand this movie – and get a snippet into the mind of Spike Lee and try to sneak a peek at the powerful parallels this movie draws from – you have to dive into what unites us all. Underneath the race and colour and language and culture is the one thing that we cannot deny – our Blood. And maybe just a little background into “Nam”– as the hyper-cool American gum-chewing soldiers in every Hollywood blockbuster pronounce it, followed by a mesmerising shot of a helicopter framed against the sun as a series of cluster bombs go off behind a row of trees with Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” playing at least 3 times louder than necessary completing the epic-ness – all in an attempt to dramatize one of the most distressing defeats American soldiers have faced on foreign soils during a period we now call – ‘the Vietnam War’.
And while I’ll attempt to steer clear of infamous chapters like “Agent Orange”, “The My Lai” massacre and distressingly perverse practices like competitive “Kill Boards” to measure total kill counts – it’s important to keep these in context when judging this movie. The same way it’s important to remark on the irony the phrase “Make America Great Again”, and how it seems to imply they were objectively the greatest. And yes – this is all relevant to the movie. You’ll see. Trump is everywhere.
“I don’t know why I’m over here this job is evil
They send me there to Vietnam to kill innocent people
My mother wrote me said the President he doesn’t care
We trying to leave the footprints of America here
They say we’re trying to stop Chinese expansion
But I ain’t seen no Chinese since we landed
Sent my whole entire unit thinking we can win
Against the Viet Cong guerillas there in Gia Dinh
I didn’t sign up to kill women or any children
For every enemy soldier, we killing six civilians”
– Jedi Mind Tricks (“Uncommon Valor- A Vietnam Story“)
(Now that the background is out of the way… mostly… I think…maybe we can move on to-…)
THE ACTUAL REVIEW…
“Da 5 Bloods” is a movie that’s trying to do more than I’ve ever seen another movie even think of attempting. It’s a movie that’s part historical (think boring history teacher), part “reunion-ish” (think old people getting back together after years), part preachy (#BlackLivesMatter), part familial (think black father-son dynamic exploration), part cinematic experimentation (the aspect ratio and lenses switch with period accurate footage) and above all – a movie that’s dedicated to 2020, screaming one thing to the world “NOTHING’S CHANGED SINCE WAY BACK THEN”.
And that narrative – that parallel about the horrors of war contrasted with racial inequality is just – poetic. It is the perfect contrast to Spike Lee’s other recent masterful direction – “Blackkklansman” – and that was already going to be impossibly hard to top. There’s so much purpose and poise in the way the man directs his films – it’s hard not to stand and salute the man, all alone on a couch in your home, looking like an unhinged version of a patriot mid-salute.
The plot is achingly simple – 4 “Bloods” revisit ‘Nam’ many years after the war to retrieve a chest of treasure they’d buried during the war along with the remains of their captain. That’s about all you need to know – and if you think any of that is important, you’re about to be proved oh so wrong. Because this movie is not a war film – nor is it any of the things I mentioned above. It is all that, crammed into one glorious exercise in perfectionism so precisely executed, it makes my mother’s impeccable insults seem like a bad hair day. And I like to think I’m bald.
Obviously, you get the cliched blockbuster shots – a helicopter flying into the sun in dramatic slo-mo, flashbacks to speeches by Muhammed Ali and Martin Luther, and the customary cluster bomb explosions in the forest – but beyond and above that, you get a kind of cinematography that’s delightfully original. The camera switches between the past and the present as abruptly as if to indicate how much of the present hasn’t changed. The message ringing as far and wide as cultural exchanges in a narrow waterway in a floating market. The horrific memories of a soldier’s brainwashed patriotic narrative as hard to shake off as the mosquitoes in a jungle, as gripping as the glint of gold… as paralysing as a minefield.
“Fathers are pleading, lovers are all alone
Mothers are praying–send our sons back home
You marched them away–yes, you did–on ships and planes
To the senseless war, facing death in vain
Bring the boys home (bring ’em back alive)
Bring the boys home (bring ’em back alive)”
– Freda Payne (“Bring the Boys Home“)
But if the cuisine was the highlight of the show – it was the dishes that really did the leg work – which brings me to the next part of this review –
THE (absolutely flawless) ACTING
While everyone played their part to perfection – and Black Panther… sorry err… Chadwick Boseman… literally played a man symbolically mimicking the ‘Black Panther’ movement – the star of the show had to be Delroy Lindo. Paul, the character he plays, was – just – perfect. Period.
If you think you’ve seen PTSD depicted accurately enough before. You haven’t.
If you think you know what pain looks like. You haven’t.
If you think you know how war and blackness and loss all combine to manifest themselves in the psyche of a man – you don’t.
Cause if you haven’t watched this movie – you’re missing out on a performance that deserves much more than mere applause. It deserves recognition, and – man was this man brilliant. The rest of the crew – Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr. – all fit their roles like a glove. There was enough differentiation between the experiences and reaction of each character to make the “5” people seem as necessary and crucial to the plot. Spike Lee also incorporates white characters – both in a positive as well as negative roles – in addition to incredibly diverse Vietnamese characters – and again, all played by characters fitting their roles like gloves. Like a band with each person on their own trip – all contributing to the perfect jazz track – which brings me to my next part –
THE MARV(in)ELLOUS MUSIC
If the words “Motown” and “Marvin Gaye” don’t ring a bell, I’m afraid this section might best be avoided. Although if you choose to carry on reading instead – in the words of my high school teacher – “maybe you’ll make something of your life you good for nothing son of a *****-” … you get the point (without the expletives), right?
If you’ve not been living under a rock, or getting high on hydroxychloroquine, you’ve probably heard of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement currently taking hold of the US is response to the racially motivated killing of George Floyd by the police. What you probably don’t know is how this a repeat of the “1967 Detroit Riots”, that took place between Black residents and the Detroit Police Department – and how all this ties in with the relocation of “Motown Records” – a hit black owned independent record label that was famous among other things for bringing us the legendary Marvin Gaye.
And if you don’t know who that is – let me show you what Motown sounded like –
“Inflation no chance
To increase finance
Bills pile up sky high
Send that boy off to die
Make me wanna holler
The way they do my life
Make me wanna holler
The way they do my life”
– Marvin Gaye (“Inner City Blues”)
Yup. That’s the opening track of the movie. And as you proceed through flashbacks of the movie characters, then back to the present, to flashbacks of historical moments in Black American History – you’re treated to a bevy of iconic hits like Curtis Mayfield’s “If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go”, and psychedelic cult songs like The Chambers Brothers’ ‘Time Has Come Today’ and Motown hits like “I’m Coming Home” by ‘The Spinners’. And above all Marvin Gaye gets the top spot with about 6 tracks in the movie – giving his music the status and respect it deserves.
If you made the mistake of thinking “Da 5 Bloods” was going to feel preachy or boring – I can say with absolute certainty you’re in for treat just on the basis of the soundtracks alone. And while the Cinematography frame-o-philes (I think that’s a word – and if it isn’t I’m patenting it) and History buffs are guaranteed to have a ball with this movie, the audiophiles and musicians are sure to sway to the tunes of the great cinematic DJ we’re introduced to in this endeavour – Mr. Spike Lee.
Which is why – in a ironic sort way – this movie kinda proves that –
THE SOUL AND THE BLOOD ARE ONE AND THE SAME
This movie is great not only because it talks about the core of our soul, and co-relates that with so much cultural context and historical fact – it’s impossible to miss the parallel they draw with the blood in our veins. Too often, we find ourselves thirsting for the blood of others as easily as we stay possessive about our own.
There are segments about abandoned minefields, Napalm bombings, real footage of executions – and the horror of what really happens in war is woven intricately in between the fictional story that’s laid on top of these brutal truths. The movie doesn’t pick a side politically, but rather shows us how the repercussions of war echo through the empty chambers of our consciousness, even decades later. There’s a hint at the co-relation between Capitalism and the power of propaganda and controlled narrative. For Black American soldiers who joined the war – the local radio channel continued to question their subservience towards a government that was asking them to kill on foreign soil, while the same government (ironically) continued to kill their brothers back home – with racial prejudices continuing to rise during that era…
Eventually it came down to this –
“Sittin’ here thinkin’, thinkin’, thinkin’, I don’t wanna go to Vietnam
You men in the street have so much trouble of their own; why they wanna fight in Vietnam?
Lord, have mercy: don’t let me go to Vietnam
Lord, have mercy; Lord, have mercy: don’t let me go to Vietnam
I have my wife and my family; I don’t wanna go to Vietnam
We got so much trouble at home; we don’t need to go to Vietnam”
– John Lee Hooker (“I Don´t Wanna Go to Vietnam”)
Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” does not deserve to be called a great movie. Cause it’s not just a movie. It’s an iconic extract from a shameful history, a snippet of a unjust mentality that continues to thrive unabashed even today – but above all, an ode to those who laid their lives down for a cause that was bigger than their own. For those who dared to question Dear Uncle Sam, and challenge the patriotic notion that the only value an African American could bring to the country – was when he fought for it. This a movie that every snot-nosed child, bickering self-righteous adult and sweater knitting grandparent needs to watch.
Cause we’ve been focussing on our self-righteous hands for far too long now.