Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (on Netflix) is an extraordinary mixture: a swashbuckling pirate movie about buried gold and a shoot ’em up Western mysteriously transplanted to the East. But then where do the landmines come from? Oh yes, from the war film. Even with the lively incursions of other avatars, this is supposed to be one, or at least a film in which warriors visit an old battleground. But then ‘Hollywood’ is pronounced in the film as ‘Hollyweird’, so we should be prepared for a bit of shape-shifting.
The warriors are four black American veterans returning to Vietnam for what looks like a trip down memory lane. It is some time after 2016. We know this because one of the men voted for Trump. He expresses the appropriate bitterness about immigrants, and wears a MAGA baseball cap. The cap ends up on the head of an ill-fated French money launderer, so perhaps it carries its own little allegory about dreams of greatness.
But Vietnam isn’t just memory lane for these men. They have some left luggage to collect: the body of a comrade, to be returned to the US for reburial, and a large box full of gold bars which they had thought lost. Piety and capital: excellent motives, but not closely related, perhaps. Much of the plot concentrates here. What happens when money carries history – or when we see that it always does?
The film’s best scene manages to get the landmines in too. The warriors are Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) and Otis (Clarke Peters). Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) has belatedly joined them. They have been trekking through the jungle for a day or two and (with the exception of David) aren’t as young as they were. Tempers fray, the men pick on each other’s weaknesses and begin to mistrust all motives except their own. They have found the body and the gold, and the gold is a heavy burden. Morally heavy too, since they have different ideas about what to do with the cash they will convert it to. Will any portion, perhaps even a large portion, go towards the improvement of black lives in America?
That was the plan of their dead leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman), whose body they have dug up, and who was with them when they came across the gold in the first place. It was American gold, intended to pay for operations in Vietnam, and Norman thought America owed them at least this much in return for the continuing exclusion and exploitation of black people. Malcolm X talks about this sort of thing in the footage at the beginning of the film: ‘When you take twenty million black people and make them fight all your wars and pick all your cotton and you don’t give them any real recompense, sooner or later their allegiance towards you is going to wear thin.’ This prophecy turns out to be largely untrue, but allegiance can also mean protest. At one point in the soundtrack we hear Marvin Gaye singing ‘There’s too many of you crying,’ and ‘There’s far too many of you dying.’ Otis underlines the point by saying that Norman ‘was our Malcolm and our Martin’.
The men quarrel about the plan, and Eddie says he can’t afford to give away any of his share because, though ostensibly the richest of them, he is in reality entirely broke. Silence follows; anger and bafflement hang in the air. Eddie makes an eloquent speech about the raggedness of the bonds that once united them, walking away from the group as he talks. He steps on a mine which explodes, killing him instantly.
There could hardly be a better example of the role of accident in lives that are supposed to be about freedom of choice and possible reparation. But of course the mine wasn’t there as the result of an accident. It was a legacy of war, a horribly direct illustration of the film’s central theme, clearly formulated later: ‘After you’ve been in a war you understand it never ends. Whether it’s in your mind or in reality. There are just degrees.’ The mine theme is planted earlier in the film by a scene that seems at first to be just an insert on French colonial guilt borrowed from the director’s cut of Apocalypse Now (the film is referenced more than once, through the name of a bar and the sound of ‘Ride of the Valkyries’). Hedy (Mélanie Thierry) tells David how her family made its fortune in Vietnam; she’s trying to atone by running a company that locates mines and disables them.
There are other legacies, or possible legacies. Otis has a Vietnamese daughter he didn’t know about until he returned to the country. Paul still talks regularly to Norman’s ghost, and has fits of rage that may or may not have originated in his wartime service. He patches up his lifelong quarrel with David, and then compulsively quarrels with him again. He would rather be his boss than his dad. And of course there are several moments where the Americans and the Vietnamese return to old hostilities.
After Eddie’s death, things get very busy. There is a massive and bloody shoot-out, which is probably more violence, more suddenly, than we need, especially as there is more to come, but Lee has an important visual point to make. We have seen our veterans in their Vietnam days a number of times in flashback, but all we saw, effectively, were small groups of men firing at each other from behind bushes and rocks, with the occasional lapse into death on both sides. That is what is happening now. The war is over, but its violent staccato persists.
The weight of the last part of the film shifts entirely to Paul, who has a long monologue as he hacks his way through the jungle. Lindo has appeared in three previous Lee films – Malcolm X (1992), Crooklyn (1994) and Clockers (1995) – and in the third, especially, he showed a great talent for revealing contradictions even as he seemed to hide them. He is so genial we can hardly believe in his ruthlessness even when we are confronted with it. In Da 5 Bloods, he portrays a man who says he is broken but also loves his brokenness, somehow believing that it allows him to get the better of everything else. As he walks through the jungle towards the camera, he becomes his own movie audience, talking eagerly about his life and what it isn’t. We learn of a cancer we didn’t suspect; Paul’s idea is that this is just another argument he can win. ‘I ain’t dying from that shit,’ he says, his eyes gleaming with conviction. The delusion is more than a little manic, but the defiance is genuine. Still, accidents will happen.