Why ‘Da 5 Bloods’ Has One of the Best Acting Ensembles of 2020

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Photo Source: Courtesy of Netflix

As we look back at 2020, we at Backstage have pinpointed the year’s best big- and small-screen ensemble work for your SAG Awards consideration and beyond. For more voting guides and roundups, we’ve got you covered here.

Main Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Paul Walter Hauser, Nguyen Ngoc Lâm, Lê Y Lan, Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Johnny Trí Nguyen, Jasper Pääkkönen, Clarke Peters, Jean Reno, Mélanie Thierry, Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Casting by: Kim Coleman
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott
Distributed by: Netflix

“I see ghosts,” says Paul to three of the men he fought alongside in the Vietnam War. “Do the dead come to you at night?”

Delroy Lindo delivers the question, breathless in the aftermath of his character’s latest PTSD episode, triggered this time by a floating-market chicken salesman. We watch Clarke Peters as Otis, one of the other titular Bloods, and Jonathan Majors as Paul’s son David, hold him, whispering “I gotcha” and “just breathe,” in one of this ensemble’s most revealing moments. 

The true-to-life specificity in clashes like these—between Vietnamese locals and returning American vets, both grappling with a war decades gone—is just one of the conflicts driving Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.” Encompassing the racial unrest of ’60s and ’70s America and the rising anti-imperialist sentiments in both wartime and present-day Vietnam, Lee’s story provides a rich well for his actors to draw inspiration from.

The film picks up in today’s Ho Chi Minh City, where four of the titular Bloods, Eddie (Norm Lewis), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Otis (Peters), and Paul (Lindo), plus Majors’ David, have gathered to recover the remains of fallen squad leader Stormin’ Norman (a shining Chadwick Boseman, in one of his final screen performances), along with dozens of solid gold bars buried with him. Surrounding their mission is the film’s supporting ensemble: Lê Y Lan as Otis’ wartime lover, Tiên Luu; Jean Reno as money-laundering French businessman Desroche; Nguyen Ngoc Lâm as the group’s local tour guide, Quân; Johnny Trí Nguyen as guerilla soldier Vinh; and Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jasper Pääkkönen as an international trio clearing land mines. 

As the Bloods enter the Vietnamese jungle, they play the return to their former battlegrounds with proud nonchalance. But slowly, Lee, Kevin Willmott, Danny Bilson, and Paul De Meo’s complex script pulls back the curtain on these characters’ hidden fears, using narrative devices as overt as flashbacks and as tactile as nighttime rustling in the bushes. The actors are gifted with revelatory subtext to play on screen. Lindo, in particular, plays along every inch of his emotional spectrum, forging a chaotic yet cohesive identity as an anti-immigration, MAGA-hat-wearing widower. He’s scrupulous and subtle in his choices, catapulting a direct-to-camera monologue that’s deeply rooted in Paul’s lived experience to Shakespearean proportions. 

Part buddy comedy, part buried-treasure adventure, and part period drama, “Da 5 Bloods” navigates various tonal shifts—comedic exuberance, anguish, violence, flirtation—while juggling both present and past timelines. Fortunately, it succeeds in hitting them all. While Norman’s youth is trapped in the amber of memory, no makeup or technology is used to de-age the older main cast in flashbacks; they instead expertly leverage their characters’ mental exhaustion, making it physically manifest. (Lee further sharpens the film’s lens on American Blackness as it relates to U.S. militarization and freedom by using archival footage and historical facts, starting with the first death of the Revolutionary War: Black laborer Crispus Attucks.)

As “Da 5 Bloods” shifts between its themes—PTSD, anti-Black racism, global colonization, generational trauma—in stunning succession, the ensemble delivers on them all. Lee and casting director Kim Coleman  have turned a group of formidable, talented actor-warriors into a true squad.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Briana Rodriguez
Briana is the Editor-in-Chief at Backstage. She oversees editorial operations and covers all things film and television. She's interested in stories about the creative process as experienced by women, people of color, and other marginalized communities. You can find her on Twitter @brirodriguez and on Instagram @thebrianarodriguez
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