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Renowned writer and director Spike Lee adds to his portfolio of thought-provoking movies about race with "Da 5 Bloods."

In the opening sequence of Spike Lee’s newest film, “Da 5 Bloods,” America’s in turmoil. Soldiers are dying overseas. Protestors take to the streets to fight for equality and justice. Civil rights leaders speak about police brutality and the potential rise of fascism. 

These moments are a combination of events from the late 1960s and early 1970s, but the montage could easily have been made today. As one character says, “After you’ve been in a war, you realize it really never ends.” This sentiment is the crux of “Da 5 Bloods”: nothing ever really ends.

Debuting on Netflix on June 12, “Da 5 Bloods” tells the story of four black Vietnam veterans who return to Saigon 50 years later to fulfill a promise to a fallen friend and search for buried gold. Loaded to the brim with political resonance, Lee’s film succeeds on the strength of its performances and his eclectic style that walks the line between defiance and sobriety. Easily the best film of 2020 so far, “Da 5 Bloods” once again proves Lee’s brilliance as a filmmaker, coupling his energetic style with a virtuosic understanding of character and human emotion.

Filled with actors who Lee collaborates with frequently, the film’s stand out is clearly Delroy Lindo, giving what will undoubtedly go down as one of the best performances of the year. Lindo plays Paul, an aging soldier haunted by the terrors of war, who attempts to mask his own trauma with a mix of performative masculinity and repressed anger. Wearing a MAGA hat like a protective shield, Lindo is at his best when he channels Paul’s broken emotional state, giving a performance so raw and real it borders on uncanny.

In one particular scene, Paul fights an anxiety attack with pure rage and anguish while facing off against native Vietnamese citizens who still resent the sight of former American soldiers. In that moment, Lindo captures a sense of fear and exhaustion rarely seen on screen, processing countless emotions in a matter of moments for a truly unforgettable performance.

The other acting standout of “Da 5 Bloods” is the biggest star of the cast, Chadwick Boseman, as the late soldier Stormin’ Norman. Boseman is an interesting choice for Norman, playing to the actor’s “Black Panther,” superheroic persona to create a sense of invincibility, making his death all the more tragic. Norman hangs like a shadow over the whole film, haunting the veterans’ every move as they become reacquainted with the jungle that took so much from them.

As an entry into Lee’s filmography, “Da 5 Bloods” feels like an ideal follow up to the director’s last film, “BlacKKKlansman.” Using the recent past as a method of understanding modern American politics and racial dynamics, both films feel like Lee attempting to reckon with the Trump presidency. While “BlacKKKlansman” largely focuses on the driving forces of white supremacy, “Da 5 Bloods” takes a more nuanced approach, unpacking Americans’ understanding of history, oppression and violence from a wide variety of angles. The result is a film that feels far deeper in its understanding of the American psyche and what it means, to paraphrase Paul, to fight for rights that one has been deprived of.

To make this work, Lee relies on his bevy of knowledge with regard to American history. Recontextualizing history has been a primary theme of Lee’s films, peaking with his 1992 magnum opus, “Malcolm X.” Through his characters, Lee’s able to explore historical figures ranging from Crispus Attukus to Kwame Ture. 

Lee’s understanding of America’s past is combined with an overwhelming knowledge of film history, which emanates from every scene. While some of these film references are quite obvious, like how the main characters go to a bar named “Apocalypse Now,” others are more subtle, as Lee uses shots similar to John Huston’s adventure films “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen.” Lee’s encyclopedic knowledge of film also allows him to get away with risks like constantly changing aspect ratios and breaking the fourth wall.

But through all of this technique and flash lies a profoundly complicated text on the relationship between the armed forces and the black American population. Beyond that are even more intricate ideas about colonization, fascistic rule, oppression and trauma. With each of these topics, Lee manages to use his unique vision to display multiple facets, all with a sense of empathy and care.

As America once again finds itself in a time of mass protest and civil unrest, there are reviews and articles once again praising Lee and calling “Da 5 Bloods” “the movie we need right now.” But while “Da 5 Bloods” does come complete with direct references to Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, the opioid crisis and MAGA hats, the film always remembers that, at its core, humanity never really changes. As evidenced by all of the history Lee brings to the forefront, figures may change, but the “war” never really ends.

Contact Chris Carr at carrtc@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Instagram and Twitter @Breeze_Culture.