Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee’s 21st joint available on Netflix starting today, is many things: brutal war film, tense meditation on African-Americans’ unrequited service to their country, a display of the joys of black brotherhood and a portrait of a failed fatherhood. It’s a tour de force, one that proves Lee doesn’t just still have “it,” but is still forging new ground in his filmography. Even in a year where the film industry wasn’t hobbled by COVID-19 thus leaving slim pickings and low bars for mid and year-end lists, it would and most certainly should be a favorite for Oscar nominations. And whenever those come around, it would be an absolute travesty if Delroy Lindo’s name wasn’t among the five contenders for Best Actor.
[Ed note: Spoilers for Lee’s Da 5 Bloods lie ahead.]
The film is an ensemble piece foremost: In Bloods, Lee has assembled a murderer’s row of veteran black capital-t Thespians for his four leads: Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr (both Wire alums), Norm Lewis, and Lindo (plus a supporting turn from rising star Jonathan Majors). Each cast member delivers a performance of the caliber they’ve come to be expected for. But it’s no slight to the other three gentlemen to say under Lee’s stewardship, Lindo finds a fifth gear and steals the film; what we have here is a defining 50-point game from one of the most reliable character actors of the last thirty years.
The script favors him, for sure. The titular 5 Bloods were cut down to four in the Vietnam War; in the present, their mission to recover their fallen leader Norm’s body and return to the site of their trauma comes with a guarantee of triggering old wounds. Still, Lindo’s Paul quickly stands out as having sustained more damage than his cohorts and as a result, quickly sets himself apart as the wild card sure to fuck everything up. He’s paranoid, jumpy, openly racist to nearly every Vietnamese local the group comes into contact with, and aggressive in their negotiations—their mission isn’t just for the physical retrieval of their fallen leader’s body, but the treasure trove of US gold he died with. Complicating his already fractured emotional state, his estranged son (Majors) muscles his way into the group. Money makes even the tightest unit turn on each other, Paul is already mid-180 before the group even enters the jungle.
Whether film snob or casual viewer, we all know Delroy Lindo. He’s a staple amongst black audiences, sure—an actor you, your parents, and your aunts all recognize, but that extends far into the wider swath of the last few decades of cinema overall. He’s the cool-headed, clever detective of moral fiber in your favorite thriller to watch on TNT (Gone in 60 Seconds, Ransom); the stabilizing patriarch in underrated family dramas (This Christmas); Aaliyah’s dad (Romeo Must Die) as well as Erykah Badu’s (The Cider House Rules); and a card-carrying Spike Lee troupe member (Malcolm X, Clockers, Crooklyn, this). [Ed note: Delroy so ill, Lee had him PLAY HIS FATHER in Crooklyn.] To say nothing of his TV work ranging from a cornerstone in the eponymous Good Fight to his turn as a ruthless but charming corrupt city official on the long-canceled, underrated Chicago Code. Delroy can do it all, in a manner that’s so consistent it almost lulls audiences into complacency towards his skill. Of course Delroy Lindo’s in this, of course he’s fucking great. What Lee does in Bloods is cleverly complicates that consistency. Even across that wide spectrum, Delroy characters almost always maintain their cool—it’s not uncommon for the actor’s real-life hoop earring to make it onto the screen—rarely lose their head, until they don’t. By contrast, Paul is jittery and uncomfortable almost as soon as we meet him—swaggering confidently through the Vietnam airport in his intro scene sets him up to be another smooth Delroy type. But that quickly reveals itself to be a veneer.
It’s frankly jarring to see, and that’s before the film really gets going and sets him loose. Throughout the course of Da 5 Bloods’ two-and-a-half-hour runtime, Lindo’s Paul runs the gamut from deadbeat dad to concerned hero father, from brother to traitor, from avenger to villain. His actions are ugly and selfish; he has a deep-seated loyalty to the group’s fallen leader that sustains itself as the purest emotion and motivation in the film. War has fucked this black man up. He has never recovered nor adjusted. Paul is a complicated, dynamic character, one to root for and against, and Lindo sells every contradiction. It crystallizes in a scene unto himself, a captivating tracking shot where Paul addresses the camera directly—is he breaking the fourth wall, losing his mind, pleading his case to the spiritual courts? All three? Regardless, it’s the stuff of Academy Award reels, and that’s before he encounters a vision of Norm elsewhere in the jungle.
There’s a special thrill in watching an actor who has always been great continue that legacy with a role that doesn’t just coast but instead edges itself into the conversation as the defining performance. And it’s a narrative the Academy loves to reward (see Joe Pesci just last year), almost as much as they love to course-correct a figure who should have several golden statues by now with a late career win, as Lindo’s director can attest for his recent win for BlacKkKlansman. Across his 40-odd years in the industry, Delroy’s scored a handful of NAACP Image nominations and a couple of Screen Actors Guild noms from his peers. So whenever nominations roll around, to the voting board: heed the good brother Spike and do the right thing.