Spike Lee is doing pretty great these days, so much so that he’s been recast as a beloved elder statesman in the cultural memory. Not that this positioning isn’t deserved — Lee’s filmography is easily the finest of any contemporary Hollywood auteur after all — but it does disregard the decade-plus timespan in which Lee was a favorite punching bag of the generally racist critical elite. Many who slandered modern masterpieces like Bamboozled, She Hate Me, Old Boy, and Red Hook Summer (while praising the smarmy, liberal weepy 25th Hour, no less) now rush to claim Lee as a #resistance figurehead. This sudden “awakening” to Lee’s formidable artistry has, of course, coincided with the trajectory of American politics over the last few years, and, understandably, the director has seemed content to fulfill this expectation. Yet, the clearest realizations of Lee’s Trump-era reconfiguration, 2018’s BlacKkKlansman and Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It series, are two of his most compromised works, charmed by the youthful fervor of current day social justice movements, but insistent on redeeming the institutions they seek to abolish. But where these projects appeared to be confounded by the challenge of reckoning past and present, 2020’s Da 5 Bloods sees Lee steering straight in. Indeed, the film is literally about a group of five men recklessly pursuing a shared history: Black American vets returning to Vietnam 60 years after the U.S.’s illegal invasion. Complicated by a treacherous treasure hunt, war-related trauma (embodied by a ghostly Chadwick Boseman), and, maybe most significantly, emblems of Western imperialism, Lee has crafted the rare film that is properly equipped to survey war in totality. Da 5 Bloods addresses the American occupation of Vietnam in a fashion unlike any Hollywood film before it, acknowledging the victimhood of the Vietnamese people without othering, redirecting ire from the participants of the war to its capitalist architects. Da 5 Bloods understands that racism is of a piece with imperialism, and that pushing back on both requires one to truly interrogate the histories fed to us by Hollywood. And Lee does just this, not just using Da 5 Bloods to critique “The Vietnam War Film,” but to investigate his own failings, specifically 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna, a thematically and structurally similar WWII film that lacks this film’s coherency. So precarious a challenge, yet it is rare to notice the mechanism behind Lee’s production, several layers of text wrapped up into a nimbly paced script, sensitive discourse strung elegantly across the 156-minute runtime. Stated simply, Da 5 Bloods is a film of great poignancy, one that is keenly aware of “history” as both a source of trauma and a means of healing it.
Published as part of Top 25 Films of 2020 — 10-1.