Few other filmmakers have risen to this crisis-ridden moment with the sorely needed compassion and urgency that Spike Lee has shown over the past few weeks. In early May, when New York was still the epicenter of the pandemic that led to the cancellation of the Cannes Film Festival, where he was to have been the first black president of the jury, Lee shot and immediately released New York New York, a three-and-a-half minute Super-8 “love letter” to the city and its people. A little over a week ago, just days after protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd flared up in cities and small towns all across the country, Lee created 3 Brothers, a fierce montage of the deaths of Floyd, Eric Garner, and Do the Right Thing’s Radio Raheem at the hands of police. Starting tomorrow, Netflix will be streaming Lee’s new, 154-minute feature Da 5 Bloods to subscribers around the world. The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday finds the film shot through with “moments of stinging insight and soaring cinematic rhetoric” that “once again prove why Spike Lee might be America’s most indispensable filmmaker.”
Four aging black veterans—Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.)—trek back to Vietnam to recover the remains of their fallen commanding officer, “Stormin’ Norman,” whom one of the vets calls “our Malcolm and our Martin.” He appears in flashbacks in the majestic form of Chadwick Boseman. “After playing real-life Black legends like James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and Jackie Robinson, not to mention the fictional king of Wakanda, Boseman doesn’t need to overplay his mythical status,” writes Odie Henderson at RogerEbert.com. “A shot of him just shooting the shit with an Afro pick rising up from the back of his head carries enough unapologetic Blackness to power a nuclear reactor of revolution. It is he who educates the Bloods on the history of Black and brown people dying for a country that doesn’t love them back.”
Lindo delivers “one of the best performances to come out of a Spike Lee joint,” declares Henderson, and Newcity’s Ray Pride agrees: “Lindo’s performance is nonpareil, seething greatness, from the micro to madness: he plays a PTSD-shaken MAGA man, red hat and all, walking and talking his nightmares without apology and with riveting ferocity.” Lindo and his fellow Bloods play their younger selves without any digital tweaking of their faces or analogue touching up. “It just works,” Lee tells Vulture’s Lane Brown. “These guys are going back in time, but this is how they see themselves. We did research screenings, and no one made an issue of it. Hollywood doesn’t give audiences enough credit for their intelligence.”
Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel shoots these flashbacks in boxy 16 mm, and when the frame opens up again to the digital present, the vets are scheming to find a stash of gold bars they buried half a century ago. “The film is at once a gentle septuagenarian road picture, a fire-breathing polemic, a harrowing depiction of PTSD, a meditation on reparations, and also a rollicking remake of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre complete with gory, old-man action sequences straight out of The Expendables,” writes Sean Burns for WBUR. “It’s an awful lot.”
Reviewing this “big, brash, and rightly furious sprawl of a movie” for the Los Angeles Times,Justin Chang notes that “Lee reminds us—as he did in his recent, galvanizing BlacKkKlansman—that his notorious powers of provocation are inextricable from his often under-appreciated skills as a storyteller. You could call Da 5 Bloods the victim of bad timing after the COVID-19 pandemic forced Netflix to cancel its planned theatrical release; you could also call it exceptionally well timed, since its political anger feels so urgent that it can scarcely be contained by the parameters of a TV screen.”
Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri proposes that Lee’s work is “as conversant with film history as it is with American history, from the way Malcolm X jumps genres with each stage of its hero’s journey, to the cop-pastiche procedural of Clockers, to the poignant stylistic collage of Bamboozled, to the pointed juxtaposition of tones in BlacKkKlansman. So, Da 5 Bloods winds up being as much about war movies as it is about war.” And it’s “one of the greatest films Spike Lee has ever made.” For the New York Times’ A. O. Scott, Lee’s “strength as a political filmmaker has always resided in his ability to bring contradictions to chaotic life rather than to resolve them in any ideologically coherent proposition. This is the opposite of a shortcoming. It seems safe to say that America itself has never been an ideologically coherent proposition, and its greatest artists embrace havoc as a kind of birthright, producing not analyses of chaos but indelible embodiments of it.”
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