But what gives “Da 5 Bloods” not just immediate relevance but also lasting moral power is the way it poses deeper questions that have animated Lee’s entire career — questions that have come to the fore as the the novel coronavirus pandemic and protests against police brutality have forced a national reckoning.
Like so many of us right now, the Vietnam veterans of “Da 5 Bloods” are struggling with how to be good and how to do good — and especially with how to answer those questions without moral authorities to guide them.
Lee sets his characters up for moral trouble from the get-go. The four surviving Bloods come to Vietnam in part on a noble mission to retrieve the remains of Norman (Chadwick Boseman), the one Blood who died in-country, and to return his body to his grieving sisters. Norman was a natural soldier and leader who counseled his friends through their rage at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder and taught them black history. He also persuaded them to steal — as a form of reparations — gold they’d been sent to retrieve from a crashed CIA plane on their final mission. As much as they want to do honor to his memory, his brothers-in-arms also really want that $17 million in bullion, which they stashed along with his remains.
Norman’s death in the war left all the Bloods adrift, none more so than Paul (Delroy Lindo), who arrives in Vietnam wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and trailed by his concerned son David (Jonathan Majors). "Your pops was closest to him,” David’s godfather Otis tells him. “Believed in Norman. Believed in him like a religion. I'm not sure he's believed in anything since.”
In search of the clarity the living Norman provided him, Paul talks to his friend’s ghost and embraces the gospel of selfishness preached by President Trump. Eddie (Norm Lewis) is torn between keeping up the appearance that he is wealthy and a sense of obligation to fulfill Norman’s dream of donating the gold to black liberation organizations. Otis, who has a stable family life in the United States, learns that he has unmet obligations in Vietnam when he visits an old girlfriend, Tiên (Lê Y Lan).
Some of the best stretches of the movie are the ones in which these aging men argue with each other, praise each other and confess to each other, trying to work out how a black man can vote for Trump or whether their personal financial needs ought to outweigh the demands of the fight for broader equality.
The twin crises of the covid-19 pandemic and the national uprising against police violence and racism force a lot of Americans to ask, as the Bloods do in this movie and as Lee has done for his entire career: What does it mean to do the right thing?
Some of the answers before us are obvious. We should wear masks to protect ourselves and others. Policing in America cannot be allowed to continue in its present course. We must demand that our elected officials dedicate themselves to reform.
Other conundrums are more difficult. Can we reopen schools safely — and can we afford not to even if it’s not? Given the danger of spreading covid-19, is it safe to take part in protests against police brutality, or an abdication of responsibility to stay home? What is the best way to set up a police service so citizens get the help they want and need from it?
And some questions are downright agonizing. Of course there’s no clear right path when you’re asked to choose between keeping a job and risking a deadly virus, yet the pandemic has forced millions to decide. And as the fight against racism deepens, a lot of white Americans will find that they have to choose: abide by their stated convictions or continue to use privileges they have accepted all their lives.
In the absence of moral leadership in the White House, Americans are desperately searching for wisdom and direction. After for decades of making films that refuse to spare his audience by giving them easy answers, Lee has a lot to say about that.
It’s in serving us a cocktail of good intentions, occasional ridiculousness and the sense that the stakes are urgent (but the road isn’t clear) that Lee’s latest struck such a deep chord with me. “Da 5 Bloods” doesn’t pretend that it’s easy to figure out what’s right, especially when you’re toting a rucksack full of gold through the jungle with crooks in hot pursuit. But the magnitude of the task isn’t an excuse not to take it on. At least some of the Bloods make it out of Vietnam. The rest of us still have a long way to go.