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Fool’s Gold

In Spike Lee’s latest, black vets return to Vietnam

Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee’s all-out, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sortie into the legacy of the Vietnam War, dropped into Netflix’s rotation at roughly the same time that Gone With The Wind, (almost) everybody’s favorite antebellum epic, was pulled from HBO Max’s queue until a post-George Floyd America knows what to do with it. Such a coincidence is where cheap ironies were born to congregate. But the one thing prompted to me by this convergence was a long-ago conversation I had with a fellow film critic to whom I expressed my own misgivings about GWTW; misgivings that had less to do with its pre-civil-rights-era racial attitudes that, as the Time Warner corporate qualifiers are now prepared to say “were wrong then and are wrong now” than for its relentless, overpowering surges of in-your-face magnolia-scented romance. (I got no kick against romance, but I’m a romantic about different things.) All that, he insisted, was precisely what has kept GWTW in the masses’ hearts for more than eighty years. “You can object to a lot of things about it, especially the racial anachronisms” he said. “But the main thing about Gone With The Wind is that no matter what you find wrong with it, it keeps coming at you and coming at you, piling on as much as it can until you just, I guess . . . submit to it in the end. You know?”

I do know. And I’ve always believed the same thing could be said of just about every movie Spike Lee has made, especially this one. Da 5 Bloods is grandiloquent, raw-nerved, overstuffed, and oblivious to any subtleties or nuances in emotional content or historical context. The movie is out to get you and, as with Gone With The Wind, it keeps pounding and thrashing at your resistance to its excesses. I’m not as ready as others have been to deem it Spike Lee’s best movie. But it is, quite likely, the one that most resolutely assembles all his aesthetic motifs: his engagement—and grievances—with history, his rapturous visual digressions, his impassioned advocacy for all things African American, and, more blatantly here than ever before, his pop-culture nerdiness.

There always comes a point in weighing the merits of a Spike Lee movie when keeping track of its storyline becomes pointless.

Somewhere in the pre-production phase, Lee’s inner movie geek must have gone stratospheric upon finding out that Ho Chi Minh City really does have nightclub named after Apocalypse Now, complete with the logo from Francis Ford Coppola’s similarly ambitious, high-strung Vietnam War epic. It’s beneath that logo, early in the movie, where you see four of the five “bloods”—Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.)—swaying and rolling to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.”

As with the star-crossed swift-boat travelers in Coppola’s star-crossed movie, these four sprightly greybeards are preparing to go on their own journey into the heart of darkness. They are what’s left of an all-black squadron that, about a half-century before, was dispatched on what seemed a suicide mission during what today’s Vietnam now refers to as “The American War.” With their charismatic leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman), they secured the crash site of a CIA plane delivering a cache of gold bars as payment to the Lahu people, an ethnic subculture in Southeast Asia, for helping the U.S. battle the Viet Cong. Having subdued a heavy VC charge upon the wreckage site, Norman and the rest agree to bury the gold and retrieve it later; not for themselves, but to give back to their besieged communities back home (or so they insist). Norman is soon killed and then buried along with the gold. The “bloods” have come back to retrieve both Norman’s remains and what he’d referred to as “reparations” just before he died.

Paul, Otis, Melvin, Eddie . . . it may take a while even for Boomers to put it together, but those were the first names of Motown Records’ legendary song-and-dance quintet, the Temptations, whose longtime producer was, as those of a certain age and temperament recall, Norman Whitfield. Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors), a Morehouse grad (like Spike) and teacher, meets up with his nonplussed dad and joins the mission with the other four. Shortly before heading up-river, David, in a barroom conversation with Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), leader of an organization dedicated to clearing land mines from vacated battlefield (some foreshadowing to go with your vintage pop?), says that he was named for the Temps’ sandpaper-voiced David Ruffin, who took lead vocals on “My Girl” and other tunes in the Motown sacrament. It’s likely we could have closed that circle on our own, but when you’re in Spike Lee’s house, you have to expect to have these things pointed out—and hammered home. 

Then again, it may not be necessary to have seen 1948’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre, another portent-filled quest for buried treasure, to figure out from 5 Bloods’ jump that of this quintet, Lindo’s volatile Paul is going to be the gold-crazed Fred C. Dobbs of this odyssey; even before we see violent flashes of his post-traumatic stress disorder, there’s the MAGA hat he’s wearing, and it’s no joke. (“Brothers got to wake up,” he tells his squad-mates about his president’s warnings of threats to America’s borders. They pretty much laugh it off.) Much later, after recovering the gold and Norman’s remains (and in the process, losing one “blood” and almost losing David), there’s a Lahu villager leading an armed-and-dangerous band demanding what they believe to be rightfully their people’s. During his spiel, this guy actually has the balls to tell them that he has no badge of authority and doesn’t need any such badge—just like the banditos in Sierra Madre several lifetimes ago.

You could spend most of the movie tabulating such “meta” moments without having any of them get in the way of all the other stuff going on—and, as noted earlier, there’s a lot of “stuff,” maybe too much. In one subplot, Otis, who’s also David’s godfather and, on the surface, more self-possessed than the other vets, reunites with a Vietnamese lover from wartime who reveals to him that he’s the father of her grown daughter. Before Otis and the rest leave Ho Chi Minh City, she slips a concealed weapon in his hands saying something about gold making people crazy. Guess she knew who Fred C. Dobbs was, too. 

There are (and you figure at the outset that there just had to be) decades of unresolved tension between David and Paul, complete with the latter’s suspicions that the son isn’t somehow “man enough” for living an adult African American’s life. But then, since his three tours of duty in Nam, nobody in this world is good enough, strong enough, or trustworthy enough for Paul, who comes across the pistol Otis received in secret and then makes his onetime platoon partner a suspect in . . . well, whatever grand and unspeakable treachery Paul has been anticipating since leaving Ho Chi Minh. It turns out he’s not entirely wrong. But before Paul’s suspicions are confirmed, he scatters them in several directions, even David’s, before Hedy’s team of compassionate minesweepers show up in the same badlands and become Paul’s hostages for fear they will report him and his fellow vets to the authorities. As suggested above, Otis, Hedy, David and the rest eventually become the least of his worries as it turns out that the one person Paul trust and loves least of all is his own self.

We submit to Lee’s chaos so we can begin clearing away our own.

Even if I wanted to spoil the rest of the movie’s plot, I probably couldn’t because there always comes a point in weighing the merits of a Spike Lee movie when keeping track of its storyline becomes pointless. As with so much of Lee’s mercurial output, Da 5 Bloods sprawls, sags, and spurts, before diverting every so often to archival news clips of, say, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., the twin poles of Do the Right Thing’s spiritual iconography whose personalities, we’re told, came to ideal alignment in Boseman’s Norman. Lee loves to preach through his characters, but he catches himself at such moments to remind us that he’s also putting on a show here. At such times, the movie takes a knee, so to speak, and steps back to take in the scenery in deep, rich gulps. Lee is never more the cinematic poet than when he loses himself in pure mise-en-scene or montage. As with his idol and mentor Martin Scorsese, there’s a part of Lee that will never stop being a film student—and it remains, as with Scorsese, his most beguiling self.

He also knows how to coax the best out of his actors, and Lindo, who first galvanized on the big screen as the Harlem crime boss in Malcolm X, comes through for Lee with a portrayal that manages to be both explosive and poignant. As with the movie, Lindo’s performance threatens to go way over the top, especially in Paul’s penultimate deranged march into oblivion. But Lindo, even at this late point, never fails to let you see the sadness and pain beneath the rage, and that’s the crucial difference between a character and a concept.

Paul is the locus for the movie’s willful meshing of the Vietnam War and the African American struggle for political and social equality, both of which wars have never ended. Some of us may prefer for such themes to be suggested or implied within a narrative weave instead of brought down like a sledgehammer on a rail. Spike Lee does both. And at this point in a career that’s lasted longer than thirty years, it may be time to cut him some slack for bringing noise to his movies that’s loud enough to wake the next several hundred towns and villages. Subtlety never worked for him, and that may be less his fault than that of an America starting to stir from a long, deep slumber, when it comes to centuries of ingrained racism. We submit to Lee’s chaos so we can begin clearing away our own.