- Spike Lee
- Run Time
- 2 hours and 34 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.
For I am ready to fall,
and my pain is ever with me.
I confess my iniquity;
I am sorry for my sin.
Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
With the release of this film on Netflix, Spike Lee and his co-writers Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, and Kevin Wilmott, have surpassed what many critics regard as his masterpiece, Do the Right Thing. This film powerfully tells a story of five men who fought for a country that persecuted them because of their skin color. The new film’s title refers to four African American Vietnam War veterans and their fallen squad leader. The four want to find and bring home the body of the leader who had inspired and made them aware and proud of their black history. There is one other reason also for their trip, and as we shall see, it is the apple that will spoil the Eden of their reunion. Although referencing events of over fifty years ago, the film, book-ended by excerpts of speeches by two black leaders of the Vietnam War era—Mohamed Ali and Martin Luther King, Jr.—could not be more relevant to what is unfolding on our television screens today.
In front of the check-in desk of a posh hotel in Ho Chi Minh City the four African American Vets warmly hug and go through the intricate fist and arm maneuvers that constitute their greetings. They are the emotionally troubled Paul (Delroy Lindo), the even-tempered medic Otis (Clarke Peters), the joker Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Eddie (Norm Lewis), the most prosperous of the group. The 5th Blood of the film title, unable to join them, but ever present in their hearts and minds, is their fallen Squad Leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman). They are soon joined, much to the displeasure of Paul, by his estranged son David (Jonathan Majors), who is concerned about his PTSD afflicted father. Assisting them is a tour guide named Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen), whose family fought on both sides of the war.
During their deployment the young soldiers had come across in a crashed transport plane a shipment of US gold intended for paying those Vietnamese cooperating with US forces. Before they can remove the gold from the jungle, the Americans had come under attack by the VC. Norman was killed, and the plane buried by the rubble left by the explosions. Recently a landslide had uncovered part of the plane, and so the group had decided to return to the place and use a GPS device to find and retrieve the treasure. Knowing they need help in selling and getting the money out of the country, Otis reconnects with Tien (Le Y Lan), his former lover during his tours of duty. The resourceful woman is now a well-off financial broker with the international financial contacts the group needs. She introduces Otis to her grown daughter, who is unaware that he might be her father. This tangential story will be developed later on.
Tien arranges a meeting with the unscrupulous French businessman named Desroche (Jean Reno). “He’s expensive,” she tells Otis. She also gives voice to her “bad feelings” about the treasure they seek, “Gold does strange things to people.” This is the first of many references to John Huston’s great film about the greed that gold arouses in its seekers. Indeed, as in Mexico, a gang of Vietnamese bandits will attack the men for the gold. One gang member will even repeat the words from the classic, “We don’t need no stinking badges!”
The meeting with the Frenchman is tense and hostile, especially when he demands 20% of the proceeds as his fee. The issue of trust also arises, but eventually the group comes to an agreement, and the Bloods, accompanied by David, set off with Vinh as their guide, in a river boat. The second film evoked is thus Apocalypse Now. Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” is played as we see their boat heading up a snaking river. In one of many flashbacks we see a helicopter silhouetted against the huge disc of the sun, just as in the earlier movie. Replacing Col. Kurtz as the object of their river journey is that longed-for stash of gold bars. Interestingly, to emphasize that we are seeing the past through the eyes of present day Da Bloods, there are no youthful actors playing their counterparts in the flashbacks. In heir recollections the old guys see their past selves as they are now.
Just how wracked with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is Paul we see in scenes with him arguing with his son and in the boat. Psalm 38 describes well the pain and alienation the black former soldier is experiencing. While the men are passing through a river market, a Vietnamese man tries to sell Paul a chicken. Paul refuses him several times. The man will not take “No” for an answer. The vendor’s persistence so troubles Paul that they shout angrily at each other, the would-be seller accusing Paul of killing his family. The others have to constrain the American from responding violently to this son of a former enemy.
In the bar of a hotel where the group stops David is attracted to Hedy Bouvier (Mélanie Thierry), whose family had grown wealthy exploiting the Vietnamese over the decades of French occupation. She is paying back by dedicating her life to a volunteer organization called LAMB, its mission being to find and deactivate the millions of landmines left by the Americans and the Viet Cong who planted them during the war. She is accompanied by fellow worker Simon Paul (Walter Hauser).
Da Bloods head off into the bush, the plan being to meet up with Vinh later at a specified place. Of course, matters do not go as planned, with disruptions occurring—both from within when mistrust over the gold divides the group and bandits connected to Desroche show up. There is much blood shed, some as a result of the bandits, and some that can be traced decades back to the war when so many of those deadly mines were planted, heedless of whom they might maim or kill.
In the flashbacks we come to see why Norman, “Stormin Norman” as they have affectionately dubbed him, means so much to Da Bloods. Though not much older than they, he had had the benefit of a college education and had inducted them into the pride-inducing history of black and brown people. Norman had taken his role of squadron leader to mean he was the shepherd of these naïve greenhorns. He informs them of the long history of African Americans dying for a country that refused to love them, despite their sacrifices. That the first to die for America was African American Crispus Atticks, and the first of their race to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam was Milton Olive III, who threw himself onto a grenade to save his platoon buddies. (Lee shows us pictures of each of these heroes.)
The group learns of Martin Luther King’s assassination as they listen to a radio broadcast by “Hanoi Hannah” (Van Veronica Ngo). Norman staunchly orders the angry men to ignore her recommendation to mutiny, telling him that though they owe their racist commanders nothing, they must do their job—but it is for themselves. When they find the gold and discuss what to do with it, it is Norman who puts their discussion into the context of their long history of being robbed by whites. “We repossess this gold,” he says. As he sees it, the gold can be used for the good of a people who deserve reparations for centuries of exploitation by whites.
What transpires in the ensuing, often violent, scenes that follow brings the film to a satisfying conclusion. We learn the full reason why Paul is so disturbed. It is not just because of the terrible violence of the war, but due to the terrible burden of guilt he has been carrying around since the death of his beloved role model. In a sad but satisfying way he arrives at the moment of healing, both within and without (the latter in his relationship with his son). In a vision in which he sees Norman, Paul hears what he needs to hear the most, “I forgive you.” In a state of grace, his faith revived, he even utters that short verse from the First Letter of John, “God is love” as well as the reversal, “Love is God.” Though such a verse might seem out of place amidst so much hatred and violence, it now seems appropriate for a man experiencing amazing grace. This monologue alone should insure Delroy Lindo at least a nomination for a Best Actor Oscar, if not the golden statuette itself. In a long, distinguished career in film and television, dating back to 1974, this actor belongs in the company of James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington! And this by means diminishes the strong performances of the other cast members as well!
Book ending the film with speeches by the two legendary black leaders mentioned earlier is a stroke of genius, setting the action within the context of the white racism that is systemic in America, and which too often kills those who resist it. Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight a people who were as oppressed as his begins the film, and it concludes with Dr. King’s famous speech at Riverside Church in NYC on April 4, 1967 in which he came out against the war. Each courageous man paid a high price for going against the mainstream. Ali was banned from boxing and pilloried at first in the press. Dr. King lost the support of other famous civil rights leaders and white financial backers. President Johnson broke off their relationship. Some believe that this speech insured that some radical super patriot and/or racist would murder him, as one did exactly a year later on April 4, 1968.
In his anti-war speech Dr. King quotes part of Langston Hughes’ long poem “Let America be America again”
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free. (America never was America to me.)
Several stanzas into this poem you will read words applying to these young black soldiers:
I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that ancient endless chain Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I wonder if Lee and his three co-writers had this in mind when they came up with film’s conclusion in which the men’s initial greed is dissolved by what the group does with the proceeds from the gold—a widow is cared for, a portion is donated to Black Lives Matter, and a sizable amount is given to Hedy’s landmine-clearing organization in Vietnam. We cannot call the outcome a happy ending in light of the fate of several of the men, but certainly a satisfactory one. I am pleased that Spike Lee has enabled us to look back at Vietnam and see that conflict through eyes very similar to the eyes of those against which we fought. I wish that everyone who loves movies will get to see this, another “movie that matters.”
This review will be in the July issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.