In the wake of the unlawful killing of 46-year-old black American George Floyd by white police officer Derek Chauvin… after President Trump has tweeted ‘Get tough police!’ from his bunker… and after peaceful protesters in front of the White House and across America have been dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets, Spike Lee’s new film, Da 5 Bloods, arrives.
Lee, of course, has been reminding us that Black Lives Matter since the mid-’80s, but his cries have unsurprisingly taken on a renewed urgency in recent years: Chi-Raq and BlacKkKlansman are among his most potent works. Da 5 Bloods matches those films for righteous anger if not quite for quality, telling the story of four US veterans (played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Norm Lewis) returning to Vietnam to locate and repatriate the remains of their squad leader (played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman).
There’s also the little matter of finding a trunk of gold bullion they buried during the war – it was intended to pay locals for their help against the Viet Cong, but when it went down with a CIA plane, our heroes took it for themselves.
“The USA owes us,” says Stormin’ Norman (Boseman), fighting a war in which 32 percent of troops were black compared with just 11 percent of the US population. Norman offers his men not just leadership but lessons in black history – about Jamestown, say, or how George Washington owned 123 slaves – to stop them from “drinking the Kool-Aid”.
Lee has, in the past, been accused of hammering his points home, but here and now, his approach feels especially warranted. There’s little room for subtlety in these turbulent times, with hateful rhetoric shouted from the highest platforms. And so he opens his film explosively, with archive footage of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, the Kent State shootings and more. Lindo, meanwhile, plays a xenophobe sporting a MAGA cap – a potentially contentious gesture, and one that leaves no doubt that this is a film as much about the present as the past. Likewise, the lead actors appear in the Vietnam flashbacks without any makeup or de-ageing tech, a device that speaks volumes to how PTSD has haunted their whole adult lives.
OK, so the ‘Nam firefights are more routine than we’d expect from Lee and the treasure hunt element almost feels it belongs to a different film, but this is a frequently fierce, fascinating picture. The world needs it right now.