Directed by #SpikeLee
“America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath, America will be”. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods concludes with a clip of Martin Luther King quoting “black bard of Harlem” Langston Hughes. It’s the perfect summary for Lee’s narrative, where four African-Americans struggle with the dilemma of taking back from America yet find themselves still, and always, fighting as Americans.
Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) are four veterans who return to Vietnam to recover the remains of their legendary squad leader (Chadwick Boseman) and a stash of gold which they buried in secret. However, the group find their self-assigned mission sabotaged by the complications of age, personal conflicts and others hot on their trail.
At the beginning of the film, Lee’s quartet find themselves back in a Vietnam that has become almost unrecognisable. American globalisation is all around them. “They didn’t need us”, remarks Eddie. “They should’ve just sent Mickey D’s, Pizza Hut and the Colonel and we would have defeated the VCs in one week!”. They are not back in the Vietnam they knew but a country that now looks like a branch of America itself. However, as its four protagonists wander into hostile terrain, old nightmares unexpectedly return. "We ain't home, son. We ain't home", warns Paul. Lee’s film is certainly reminiscent of John Boorman's Deliverance (1972). Burt Reynolds’ machoistic yet wary Lewis is mirrored in Delroy Lindo’s hardened but unstable Paul. Like in Deliverance, a horrific moment spirals everything into permanent chaos and the men soon find themselves out of their depth and, again, fighting for survival.
The other parallels, of course, are with Apocalypse Now (1979), which Lee directly references early on. Famously, Coppola’s film had Martin Sheen coming face to face with Marlon Brando's demented renegade Colonel Kurtz. Here, the hearts of darkness lie within and between Lee’s characters. “I hoped we could be Bloods one last time” laments Eddie, when it hits home that sharing the gold is going to cause more problems than its meant to solve. Like Kurtz, the increasingly self-destructive Paul slips away from reality; taking hostages, rejecting his son and wandering maniacally through the jungle, until Lee has him delivering confused soliloquies direct to the camera. It’s a verifiable tour-de-force from Lindo (his fourth collaboration with Lee). He’s simply marvellous.
Equally impressive is the sublime ease with which Lee intertwines genre, style and approach throughout the movie. The film is a mythic adventure as much it is a Vietnam War drama, with the director effortlessly gliding between brutality, sentimentality and humour. When we flashback to the men as soldiers, at various points during the film, Lee does not use younger actors but the same cast. In less-skilled hands, this could easily be confusing, distracting or, at worse, laughable. Here, it works perfectly and we never feel unsettled by the choice.
Da 5 Bloods sees Spike Lee at his best again, offering a timely African-American perspective of Vietnam, which is richly entertaining as it is assuredly political.