Spike Lee’s latest film follows four Vietnam veterans returning to Southeast Asia in search of the remains of their fallen squad leader and the promise of buried treasure. Da 5 Bloods has a real Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) feel to it, at times, while providing more character development than one usually finds in a standard adventure film. Indeed, Lee’s latest is something both familiar and unique.
In Da 5 Bloods, a squad of black American GIs reunite nearly five decades after they last fought in Vietnam. Since leaving the Army, each has followed a different path with varying levels of success, but the bond they formed fighting alongside each other overseas is stronger than anything that happened afterwards. Or at least it is at the beginning of the film…
Told through a combination of flashbacks and piercing dialogue, we learn that “da Bloods” (as they like to refer to themselves) were dispatched to the crash site of a CIA plane on one perilous mission. The helicopter they arrived in quickly came under fire and the only initial survivors were the five “Bloods”. After pushing back their enemy, the team discovered a cache of gold bars amidst the plane wreckage. It seems the CIA was paying off locals to provide support to the US instead of the Việt Cộng. But their squad leader, “Stormin’ Norman” (Chadwick Boseman), quickly points out the opportunity they’ve chanced upon. Why return this fortune to a government ungrateful for all the sacrifices blacks have made to its success?
Norman, who only appears in the flashbacks, is seen as equal parts philosopher and opportunist. He teaches his men great lessons in loyalty, love, and looking out for one another, and he seems to intend for the gold to be used to benefit African-American communities back home. (At one point Norman talks about slave reparations). But Norman’s grand plan quickly falls apart as a second rush of Việt Cộng leads to his death and, in the confusions (for reasons that become clear later), both Norman’s body and the gold are left behind. Indeed, the weight of this decision is a burden on each man’s soul, none more so than Paul (Delroy Lindo).
So as the remaining “Bloods”—Paul, Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Otis (Clark Peters)—are reaching retirement age, they decide it’s time to put the squad back together for one final mission. This time each man vows to go back into the jungle and not return without the remains of their fallen leader and the treasure.
One of Lee’s strengths has always been his screenplays (which he often co-writes) and Da 5 Bloods is no exception. It’s easy to like Otis, the team medic with an arthritic hip; or to laugh with Melvin, who brings his mapping skills and a tendency to drink a bit too much. Eddie seems to have enjoyed the most success in his post-war life but is the saddest character in many ways, and then there’s Paul, who’s the heart of the team and the most pivotal character in the story.
In Paul, Lee has developed a true unicorn of a character: a black Vietnam veteran who’s firmly implanted in the Make America Great Again (MAGA) camp and a proud supporter of Donald Trump. But it’s not the almost comical dichotomy that makes Paul so important. In fact, there’s little about Paul that’s funny at all.
As the story continues to unfold we find that Paul is arguably the most broken of any of his fellow soldiers. His wounds are deep and the roots of his pain are pivotal to some important plot twists. Even though some will be quick to point out the novelty (bordering on absurdity) of his character’s political views, Lindo brings Paul to life with such power and bravado that it’s hard not to feel broken with him. The tragedy of Paul is very much the tragedy of the entire squad and Lindo’s performance is the best I’ve seen on screen this year.
On that note, Da 5 Bloods seems destined to be headed for award season recognition. One can assume it would have been honoured at multiple film festivals had we not been facing a global pandemic in 2020. Spike Lee is one of those rare filmmakers who just doesn’t ever seem to turn out a dud. It’s hard to say exactly where Da 5 Bloods will ultimately rank in his filmography, except to note that the film is worthy of his name.
Lee masterfully weaves real archival footage with new shots using a grainy lens and dated colours, to craft a cinematic tapestry that spans decades without showing any seam. It’s the skilled work of a true storyteller and Lee’s ability to produce a film that both honours the struggles of black Vietnam vets, while also connecting to the ongoing fight against racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, is impressive.
The natural tendency for most directors would be to get ham-fisted and preachy when trying to deliver such an important message. But Lee manages to succeed where others would fail. He’s in your face and yet not obnoxious about it. He challenges his audience to enjoy the adventuring of his story while still feeling an obligation to take action after the credits roll. In that way, Lee delivers with Da 5 Bloods what every great film strives to do: make us laugh, cry, and want to do better.
USA | 2020 | 154 MINUTES | 1.33:1 • 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Spike Lee.
writers: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Spike Lee & Kevin Willmott.
starring: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno & Chadwick Boseman.