Arguably the most shocking images of 2020 so far, and there have been a few to choose from, is the image of LA cops smashing the water facilities being used by men, women and children protesting Black Lives Matter, deliberately exposing them to the virus and essentially weaponizning it against Americans. This actual urban genocide makes fiction redundant; we don’t need a made-up story to tell us what’s happening in America today, the world can see it with our own eyes. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods was one of the most anticipated films of the year, deservedly after the peerless BlacKkKlansman, but critics seem to be at a loss to understand what he’s getting at here ; faint praise like ‘Delroy Lindo’s career-best performance’ doesn’t scream a must-see event, and it’s probably to Lee’s credit that his film isn’t the kind of simple, rousing polemic that many expected.
Instead, D 5 Bloods is a reprise of the John Huston’s 1948 classic Treasure of the Sierra Madres, based on a venerable 1927 book, right down to lifting plot-points, story elements and iconic dialogue like ‘We don’t need no ….steenking badges,’. Gold is the morally corrosive goal, and we see the effects of greed on men who seek to find it; Da 5 Bloods of the title. Except one of the Bloods is missing in action as we shift between Vietnam flashbacks and the same group of men in 2020; Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) is dead, and his share looks likely to go to the son of Paul (Lindo). The old men meet up in a Vietnam very different to the one they left, and all four of them suffer from PTSD, making their journey to where they stashed government gold a hazardous one; minefields and hostiles await. But whose gold is it anyway? Having struck a deal with a sinister Jean Reno, it’s no big surprise when this ill-advised return to Vietnam goes violently south.
The script for Da 5 Bloods was written seven years ago, and the project was once to be directed to Oliver Stone; Lee brings a different sensibility to a traditional and familiar story, and re-adjusts the familiar war movie/Vietnam clichés to accommodate a black perspective. He also indulges himself; Donald Trump, and discussion of Trump, draws Lee like a moth to the flame, and aside the regular digs at ‘fake president Bone-Spurs’, a MAGA hat is used throughout as a signifier of venality and mental decline. Lee also indulges some of his lazier stylistic conceits; when a character mentions Aretha Franklin, an image of the singer flashes on-screen in case the viewer might imagine some other Aretha. Even the word ‘gold’ glints in a coloured font in the subtitles, as if we might not think it was important otherwise. Such slick forth-wall breaks and graffitti in the margins might have suited his hipster She’s Gotta Have in tv show for Netflix, but they drain crucial dramatic impact here.
More pertinent in the image of the four survivors crossing a nightclub dance-floor with the poster for Apocalypse Now in the background; despite some digressions, Lee’s film is vital in understanding the complex legacy of the sacrifice of black people in war, a position white film-makers have been slow to accept beyond tokenism. As Paul’s world falls apart in the jungle and he dissolves into manic monologues, Da 5 Bloods slowly graduates from political sub-text to essential text, a crucial, dramatic, meaty Vietnam movie that successfully attempts to redress a genuine historical imbalance in cinema.