31 years ago, Spike Lee’s breakout film Do The Right Thing forced audiences around the world to confront the realities of police injustice perpetrated upon African Americans. The fictional film chronicled a full day in New York City’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood and ended with a police officer choking a black man to death in front of the entire neighborhood.
It was a statement Spike Lee film for many reasons, and one was its ability to weave real-life trauma into the story, whether by flashing back to stock footage of atrocities or by having characters call out African-American leaders’ quotes and philosophies. Lee’s work takes particular care to make sure truth and fiction never stray far from each other—and if that 1989 film seems painfully relevant now, remember that it was firm in calling out decades of all-too-familiar headlines back then, too.
While Lee’s latest film, the Netflix exclusive Da 5 Bloods, takes its story half a world away from America, its shadow of oppression remains as pronounced, affecting, and complicated as in any of Lee’s most acclaimed works—and takes advantage of Netflix’s platform to do so in particularly uncompromising fashion.
No age-defying CGI to be found
The film, which is equal parts heist, war story, and bloody reckoning, follows four black US Army veterans who had a particular Vietnam War tour in common. During the war, they stumbled upon an incredible fortune, though one of their unit’s members didn’t make it back. The public explanation for their trip is to find, recover, and bury their friend. They’re quieter about the vault of gold bars that they found in the ’70s—and believe they’ve finally tracked again, thanks in part to satellite imaging.
Lee wastes no time making the most of Netflix’s loose handling of an “R” rating. Da 5 Bloods‘ montage summary of the Vietnam War includes newsreel footage of American protests—and the violence inflicted upon protesters by police—along with real-life footage of immolation and a Viet Cong captain being executed. This sequence, and the entire film, begins with Muhammad Ali asking why he’d help white Americans in killing the Vietnamese—”They never called me ‘nigger,’ they never lynched me”—and this attitude rings true for the soldiers in question when they stumble upon gold.
“We’ve been dying for this country from the very get, hoping one day they’ll give us our rightful place,” Chadwick Boseman says in a ’70s flashback, alluding specifically to Crispus Attucks being the first person to die at the Boston Massacre. “All they give us is a foot up our black asses.” Thus, the heist is set, with the titular Five Bloods resolved to “repossess” the gold bars and redistribute that wealth to their brothers and sisters back home, should they survive and ever return to Vietnam.
While Boseman’s character only exists in flashbacks, the other four soldiers (played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock Jr.) flash back and forth in time between modern-day Vietnam and their wartime tour. Interestingly, Lee opts to not copy another famous director’s Netflix turn and leaves the cast untouched by CGI when they rewind to the ’70s, except for a single end-of-film photograph. It’s a credit to Lee how he pulls this off, in terms of shootouts and running sequences that use creative camera angles. When the ’70s characters have long conversations that focus on their face, the only visible difference is a mild application of make-up and hair dye, and the results are less weird than the uncanny valley of CGI. Well done, Lee.
A welcome kind of “ratio” in 2020
The filmmakers also opt to employ a few screen ratios: a TV-friendly 16:9 ratio when the heist is truly on, a 4:3 ratio for flashback and newsreel footage, and an ultra-wide, 3:2 ratio for earlier in the film, when the surviving Bloods reunite in modern-day Vietnam. Sadly, despite Lee’s knack for stunning cinematography, the throwback ’70s sequences appear to suffer from a digital facsimile of a filmic effect, rather than the subtle, striking contrast you might expect from pure filmstock.
But that’s a mild nitpick of a film that is otherwise given particular freedom to play with screen ratios whenever it sees fit—arguably a result of building a film for straight-to-TV enjoyment. If you’ve ever seen a film receive a partial Imax treatment, where certain scenes play out in 3:2 format and the others appear in an ultra-tall, screen-filling mode, you know what to expect, but Lee and crew are ultimately careful about applying this, as opposed to making the frame wax and wane too often like a poor man’s version of a 3D television. (Lee uses this more often in the film’s first half, anyway, and it’s introduced by having the opening newsreel sequence make way for modern-day Vietnam.)
And Lee’s eye for gorgeous and striking cinematography remains intact in this HDTV-minded film. One scene sees the veterans dance through a nightclub while a harsh, glowing Apocalypse Now sign glitters behind a DJ in the distance—the kind of neon-lit scar that Lee often uses to highlight the duality of a given scene. And when certain characters face brutal reckonings, Lee is keen on filling the entire screen with a single character and careful applications of harsh shadow and light. Also, for one of Lee’s most gun-filled films, he’s careful to make death and combat feel slow and ugly, and he gives his actors opportunities to mock Hollywood’s Rambo-ization of the Vietnam War along the way.
The story of these Vietnam vets is among Lee’s best.
Da 5 Bloods‘ Netflix difference in many ways is less about specific, technical elements, and more about access. 31 years ago, American film critics and theater managers spoke plainly about their concerns with Do The Right Thing, and those same concerns were floated again and again as predominately black films found their way to theaters through the ’90s and beyond. Would there be real-life riots or violence? Should those films open on a Wednesday night instead of a Friday? Headlines like that took center stage, and that crowded out the more crucial conversation about the importance of black filmmakers’ work (a battle that Lee’s own oeuvre all-too-often lost both in popular opinion and in major awards ceremonies).
Fast forward to a modern, streaming world, and Lee’s latest film is that much easier to access. As in, it’s just one click away. What’s more, its frank talk about heightened racial consciousness fits neatly into conversations you’re likely already having (or at least seeing in the news a lot more often). It’s also helped by a conceit that at times nearly feels like Lee’s version of the Adam Sandler comedy vehicle Grown-Ups, at least in terms of “getting the band back together”—even if that band of vets is connected through hardships and PTSD.
The story of these Vietnam vets is among Lee’s best in juggling humor, anger, and a cast of characters wrestling their own imperfect demons. Other than a few particularly stark moments of violence—which are absolutely appropriate, given the scope of Vietnam’s lasting wound on America—it’s an easy film to recommend tapping on your favorite smart TV or smartphone app.
And while its story mostly takes place on the other side of the globe, it’s decidedly relevant to the African-American experience on our own shores. “Every time I walk out my front door, I see cops patrolling my neighborhood like it’s some kind of police state,” Boseman’s character says with a gun shaking in his hand, miles away from home yet somehow still there. “And I can feel just how much I ain’t worth.”