It bears repeating that Martin Luther King Jr., at the time of his assassination, was a much more polarizing figure than he became posthumously. That’s because, in the final years of his life, King had pivoted from the optimism of his “I Have a Dream” vision toward a broader critique of American society that crystallized into fierce opposition to the Vietnam War.
The war, he told an audience at a Manhattan church in 1967, signaled a “deeper malady within the American spirit.” It was a sickness in which “profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people” and “the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” He was killed a year to the day after giving that lesser-known speech.
There’s an unforgettable scene in “Da 5 Bloods,” the latest film by Spike Lee, when the title characters, a quintet of Black U.S. soldiers fighting in Vietnam, first learn of King’s death. It’s through a propaganda radio broadcast from the Viet Cong, addressed to African-Americans in the Vietnamese jungle, who were fighting in disproportionate numbers for a country that oppresses them more than any foreign enemy ever would.
Stranded and unconnected to anyone but each other, the men — played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis and Chadwick Boseman — fill the air with screams and gunfire. It’s a harrowing moment in a movie full of them.
Lee’s film — or “joint,” as he prefers — is as timely as it is vivid, a major flex from an iconic American filmmaker enjoying a late-career run of popular and critical acclaim, whose voice and art have never been more vital. (Lee won his first competitive Academy Award last year for the “BlacKkKlansman” screenplay.)
“Da 5 Bloods” is the rare war film that reckons with trauma specific to Black soldiers, contextualized as part of a bloody history encompassing slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, police brutality, institutional racism, mass incarceration — all symptoms of the malady King diagnosed.
The story follows four Vietnam vets, now in their late 60s, who return to the jungle, ostensibly to recover the remains of their fallen fifth brother, Norman (Boseman, who appears in flashbacks), but also to smuggle away a stash of buried gold. Along the way, they reckon with their place in American history, and American history’s place in each of their damaged psyches as they enter minefields that are figurative until they’re not.
If “Da 5 Bloods,” released last week on Netflix, already belongs in the canon of great American films about Vietnam, such as “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Platoon” or “Full Metal Jacket,” much of the credit will belong to Lindo, a longtime Lee collaborator who’s overdue for the type of showcase he gets here.
He delivers a towering performance as Paul, a deeply wounded, MAGA hat-wearing vet who is like a walking mousetrap of unaddressed damage, a man who never really left a jungle that somehow didn’t kill him the first time he was caught in the flow of those three polluted rivers — racism, capitalism, militarism — that carried him there.
Yet “Da 5 Bloods” is as full of confusing creative choices as it is provocative ideas. Lee’s decision, for instance, to have the older actors play their younger selves in flashbacks really only makes sense if he tried and failed to get the budget for de-aging that Martin Scorsese obtained for “The Irishman.”
It’s possible that national events have primed viewers and critics to be more receptive than otherwise to a film like “Da 5 Bloods,” which is messy, sprawling, unwieldy and seemingly disinterested in resolving every subplot or answering every question it poses.
One that Lee addresses deftly, though: Why does every Vietnam movie soundtrack include Buffalo Springfield or Creedence Clearwater Revival when they could have been using Marvin Gaye this whole time?
The film’s pivotal emotional sequence is set to a stunning a cappella version of Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” In a nation where that song suddenly seems to resonate louder than ever, “Da 5 Bloods” is the Vietnam movie this moment demands.