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Spike Lee’s ‘Da 5 Bloods’ Puts Him in the Oscar Race, Even with 10 Months to Go

Spike Lee won an Oscar for writing "BlacKkKlansman," and this powerful Netflix drama could be his time for Best Director.

Spike Lee Oscars Academy Awards BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee at the 91st Academy Awards


After Spike Lee made a triumphant 2018 return to Cannes with “BlacKkKlansman,” which later won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, he was meant to premiere Vietnam drama “Da 5 Bloods” at Cannes 2020: It would have played out of competition as he presided over the Competition jury. Instead, the movie went straight to a June 12 Netflix release — but that low-key bow won’t keep him out of Oscar contention. While COVID-19 pushed back the Oscars 2021 calendar, this early contender is strong enough to last the next 10 months.

Cinephiles and critics (81 Metascore), hungry for a movie of substance, are praising Lee’s rip-roaring fable about four Big Red One infantrymen (led by Lee alumnae Delroy Lindo and Clarke Peters) who return to Saigon to dig up not only the remains of a fallen colleague (Chadwick Boseman), but also buried treasure. The movie references “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,”  “Scarface,” and “Apocalypse Now,” and reprises many of Lee’s favorite hit singles: The Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” doubles as the film’s sticky tagline.

That’s only one reason why the movie is going to nab multiple Oscar nominations — and might even win a few.

It’s Spike Lee’s time.

Timing is everything when it comes to Oscars and right now folks are stuck at home watching Netflix. “Da 5 Bloods” has captured the attention of movie fans, breaking at Number One on Netflix’s top 10. And, just as the movie hit Netflix, weeks of Black Lives Matter protests increased viewer interest. As Lee marketed his movie, he became a go-to spokesman, conducting interviews from his Brooklyn home office.

Also getting views on YouTube were video clips of Radio Raheem, choked to death by police in “Do the Right Thing,” which underscored how long Lee has been telling this story. Popping up on Twitter were relevant lists of movies for people to watch, including Lee’s oeuvre, from “25th Hour” and “Jungle Fever” to “Inside Man,” “Clockers” and “Crooklyn.” He’s been making good movies for 30 years.

Many “Da 5 Bloods” reviews were raves, from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times to Vulture, with few naysayers. Lee also scored substantial Twitter support.

If the newly woke Board of Governors felt the need to upgrade the Academy’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, even forming a committee to set standards for eligibility for hiring on movies, then the largely liberal Academy voters — who have grown up with Lee — are going to lean into movies about the Black experience this year.

Da 5 Bloods

“Da 5 Bloods”

David Lee/Netflix

Spike Lee is in the zone.

Winning an Oscar, as Lee did two years ago, grants access to the special club. It adds momentum. And Lee conducted himself with grace and charm on the awards circuit last time around, keeping his lip zipped on many of the things he would have loved to say until after he won (see: “Green Book”). He won over voters then; now he knows how to play the game. “He doesn’t have to fight his way into the awards space,” said awards campaigner Michele Robertson. “As a followup to ‘BlacKkKlansman,’ it makes sense.”

Good marketing.

Netflix has hit its stride with effective marketing to consumers as well as awards voters. The Egyptian Theatre may be closed for now, but later on they will be able to use that theater as well as New York’s Paris to push its full slate of contenders, led by “Da 5 Bloods.”

Academy nominations.

First off, the movie nabs serious cred for showing — for the first time (!) in a major motion picture — the experience of black soldiers in Vietnam. Here are the most likely nominations.

Best Original Screenplay: Lee and his frequent writing partner, Kevin Willmott (“BlacKkKlansman”) rewrote a screenplay by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, fleshing out the characters and leaning into comedy as well as tragedy, menace, and powerful action-packed wartime flashbacks.

Best Director: It’s long overdue for a black director to win this elusive prize. Barry Jenkins won Best Picture for “Moonlight,” not director. Jenkins and Lee are among the six black directors nominated for the directing Oscar. John Singleton was the first (“Boyz ‘n the Hood”), followed by Lee Daniels (“Precious”), Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) and Jordan Peele (“Get Out”).

Best Actor. Delroy Lindo finally runs with an unforgettable leading role (he has the most screen time, measured by @MatthewAStewart as 52.45 percent to Clarke Peters’ 44.20 percent) as he confronts the camera with tragic madness on a Marlon Brando scale. It’s just the sort of masterful, larger-than-life performance that actors love.

Best Supporting Actor: Two are in the running. Clarke Peters has delivered powerful character performances for decades on HBO (“The Wire,” “Treme”) as well as movies (Lee’s “Red Hook Summer,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”). While he’s more modulated than Lindo, Peters’ role as the empathetic adult of the group, who finds out he has a love child in Vietnam, keeps the movie together.

And Yale Drama grad Jonathan Majors, who broke out in “Last Black Man in San Francisco,” gives a poignant turn as the son of a man who never recovered from his war trauma. His adrenaline-hopping jungle-landmine sequence is a tour-de-force of nail-biting tension.

Best Cinematography: “Da 5 Bloods” has scale and scope; Lee is a superb shooter with an eye for the best angle, aided by his veteran DP, Newton Thomas Sigel, who shot Netflix’s recent “Extraction” as well as BAFTA-nominated “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Drive,” and “Three Kings.” Sigel is overdue.

Best Score: Like “Summer of Sam,” Spike Lee leans on a Marvin Gaye soundtrack in “Da 5 Bloods,” as well as Terence Blanchard’s elegiac horns, which are occasionally intrusive but reach emotional crescendos when it counts. Following up his first Oscar nomination for “BlacKkKlansman,” Blanchard deserves a win.

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