This article contains Da 5 Bloods spoilers.
Delroy Lindo’s Paul is as flawed a protagonist as you could ask for in a Spike Lee joint. The man is practically advertising this in red neon by wearing a “Make America Great Again” ball cap. His son David (Jonathan Majors) says every Black American pleads innocent to voting for “the Klansman in the Oval Office,” yet his father does not. And that father’s last in-person words to his child were “my son is backstabber.”
This is how audiences are challenged by the bitter traumas and painful scars that are bleeding out of the film’s best character. Lindo is haunting as the wounded but fiercely proud Vietnam vet determined to go his own way—walking that path until it leaves him standing in a self-dug grave, with that cap still on his head. By the end, however, he’s singing Marvin Gaye’s “Jesus is Our Love” and standing by his loyalty to the other Bloods, a loyalty forged in real blood and forced immorality.
The contradictions of Paul, just like the contradictions of the war that ruined his life, are at the heart of Da 5 Bloods. Spike is exploring a universal African American experience in microcosm: how People of Color are asked to die so far from an American home that’s forsaken them for centuries.
The actual plot mechanics of the ending are fairly straightforward. Paul goes alone into the jungle, trying to walk 20 miles to a small village, and after a venomous snake bite, he’s slowed and discovered by Vietnamese mercenaries working for shady businessman Deroches (Jean Reno). The rest of the Bloods, plus two white activists in the wrong place at the wrong time, must hold off Deroches and his associates in a firefight. But why everyone is there, and what this gold they’re killing for means, is a lot more nuanced.
Lee is not coy about the big ideas he’s grappling with in the film. The picture’s opening sequence begins on Muhammad Ali recalling years later his refusal to obey the draft that would’ve dragged him into Southeastern Asian jungles.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother or some darker people or some poor hungry people in the mud,” Ali said. “And shoot them for what? They never called me n***er, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, never robbed me of my nationality.”
The opening sequence then dives deeply into the hypocrisies and unrest during the ‘60s and ‘70s in the U.S. and Vietnam, but Ali’s emphasis on nationality is vital to the movie. Ali was observing that he was labeled a traitor by some outraged white Americans and imperialists, who in turn saw him convicted of draft evasion (later overturned by the U.S. Supreme court) and denied a license to box for over three years. But if he had accepted the draft, he would’ve been asked to serve in a war that many Americans knew was unjust… and if he survived, he still would’ve been denied a sense of national acceptance or respect by others.
As Paul tells his Bloods on the first night they’re finally back in-country, “We got back from ‘Nam, we didn’t get nothing but a hard time. Folks called us baby killers. See I bought into all that bullshit.” Paul went to Vietnam like his government commanded and he left with a trauma he describes as “ghosts”—literal visions of a dead friend visiting him nightly. And what did he get for it? Disdain and proverbial spit from others who did not serve… it’s enough that after decades of white-knuckling the PTSD, it might skew your opinion on nationality, and maybe like Paul lead to grasping on actual nationalists who continue to separate babies from parents.
But it is also what took Paul and the others Bloods so far from their youthful ideals. Aye, in addition to retrieving millions in stolen gold buried in an unmarked grave, they’re also looking to dig up the remains of Stormin’ Norman. Played like a fountain of empathy and moral certitude by Chadwick Boseman, Norman is closer to a Woke Captain America than he is Black Panther. Spike also embraces a surreal artificiality to these memories of Norman where all the other Bloods are played by sexagenarian actors and Norm is as youthful as the day he died. This contrast, between their past ideals and their current realities, belies the rose tint they have of Norman, and also their own distance from that time in their lives.
Otis (Clarke Peters) fondly recalls of the lost fifth Blood, “He was our Malcolm and our Martin,” referring to Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was also the one who contextualized for them rage at the injustices of their situation, including when they learned from North Vietnam radio’s Hanoi Hannah (Veronica Ngo) that King was assassinated in Memphis. When the rest of the Bloods want to indiscriminately lash out at whites, Norman snaps, “We control our rage, and what y’all trying to do right now ain’t changing shit.”
Norman is more than just a fallen brother; he embodies to the Bloods the ideals of the ‘60s, which they reminisce about with longing, even as they tend to not even try to rekindle. Just as others struggle to see how we as a society have held onto the drive and movements of King, the other Bloods argue among themselves about how to live up to Norman’s memory.
The world hasn’t been sealed in a vacuum. Even as Da 5 Bloods fortuitously dropped on Netflix during what appears to be a genuine moment of change against police brutality and systemic racism, Black Lives Matter was years old during the film’s planning, and the good fight has lasted for decades. Centuries, even. Yet the Bloods have come to dispense the treasure among themselves. When Eddie (Norm Lewis) suggests actually using it like Stormin’ Norman imagined: for those brothers and sisters protesting back home, Paul and the others recoil.
This added layer of personal interest and the struggle of living up to the ideals of our Better Angels, and especially how they were mythologized during the ‘60s, is where the other major cinematic influence in Da 5 Bloods thrives. Because more than any Vietnam War movie, John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre from 1948 makes up this movie’s foundations. Like Da 5 Bloods, that classic featured an assortment of men, three instead of five, going up into the mountains to mine for gold. They literally took it from the earth, but finding the gold and keeping it became two vastly different matters.
In the best performance of his career, Humphrey Bogart subverted his new heroic image by playing a greedy, petulant, and ultimately weak man named Fred C. Dobbs. This predecessor to Delroy’s Paul was a much nastier piece of work, but Dobbs was just as paranoid and prone to talking to himself while drifting into his delusions. He also grew incredibly suspicious when a fourth man appeared, asking to join their party of prospecting. Rather than tie him up, like Paul at least temporarily agrees to do with the white do-gooders they meet in the jungle, Dobbs convinces his cohorts they should kill him. Mexican bandits beat him to it—with one famously snarling, “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges”—but the thirst was there. Dobbs also refuses to send any of his share to this deceased fourth man’s widow. In fact, he tries to steal from his two other colleagues and goes it alone before winding up hacked to death with a machete by one of those bandits. He also accidentally takes all the gold with him.
Da 5 Bloods plays with all these pulpy elements, right down to someone who might be described as a Vietnamese bandit shouting, “We don’t need no stinkin’ official badges.” They also give Paul an undignified death in that shallow grave. Still, despite major thematic and plotting similarities, there are profound differences between Bloods and Sierra Madre, and between Paul and Dobbs. For starters, rather than lost in paranoia, Paul reclaims an element of grace before the end—he remembers the hard truths Stormin’ Norman taught him. Yes, that includes how he accidentally killed Norm in friendly fire, but it’s bigger than that. Norm didn’t just speak of the injustice of the Vietnam War: he saw this gold as reparations for generations of injustice in an American society where Black men are asked to die in the meat grinder of war and are then denied most of the benefits of victory.
Norm recalls Crispus Attucks, an American of African and Native American descent who died in the Boston Massacre of 1770, five years before the Revolution. But Norm and Lee could point to almost any war, even the most just ones like the Union cause during the Civil War and World War II, and find Black bodies lost and an aftermath that still denied true nationality to segregated and oppressed People of Color. But Vietnam was not even the just war.
Prior to his death scene, Lindo gives a sweltering soliloquy directly into the camera, a classic Lee technique where he allows his characters to reveal their cruelest or ugliest thoughts. “God said, ‘Fuck them motherfuckers. Keep on keepin’ on,” Paul hisses. But after perhaps the first real visit of Norman’s ghost, he doesn’t die full of that venom—but full of love. “We Bloods got a bond,” Paul says only moments later to the man who is about to kill him. “We fought in an immoral war that wasn’t ours for rights that we didn’t have.”
This epiphany comes too late for Paul, but it comes much earlier for the other Bloods. Rather than lose the gold, like the treasure seekers in Huston’s movie, they’re going to save at least their shares. But who are they saving it from? Vietnamese mercenaries serving Deroaches. Almost 50 years after the end of the Vietnam War, Black men and Vietnamese soldiers are killing each other again in the ruins of ‘Nam, all for the enrichment of a white man. Indeed, Deroaches is the obvious embodiment of lingering colonialism, specifically the French kind that dominated Indochina for a century, which was preamble to the French Indochina War, which in turn was prologue to America’s Vietnam War.
Spike isn’t making a blanket statement about the evils of white men—but there needs to be the ability to learn from this past. We see it in Mélanie Thierry’s Hedy, who is of course named after an old school movie star. Her family were some of the biggest profiteers of French colonialism, cornering the rice market in Vietnam before building the mines that are still scarring the land. Indeed, it could be one of her family’s mines that took Eddie’s life earlier in the movie. Yet here she is, attempting to make reparations with a charity literally named after the Lamb of God, and alongside two friends (Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Pääkkönen) who are played by actors that audiences might initially typecast as villains since they played Klansman in Spike’s BlacKkKlansman.
Instead all three are actually trying to improve the world and atone for the sins of colonialism. So they’re here with the three remaining Bloods, and David, as ‘Nam is refought again. It’s a multigenerational moment that is blatantly demanding greater social reforms and social justice. This demand is why they get to keep the gold.
Fred C. Dobbs and his cohorts in ’48 went up in those hills to make themselves rich and at best considered giving some of the money to a woman they made a widow. Da Bloods go up in the hills to make themselves rich, and even consider sharing some of the wealth they find with Eddie’s family after his untimely demise. Instead they use it how Norm taught them to use it: for the social justice of their brothers and sisters back home. As the movie ends, we see millions of dollars being channeled to Black Lives Matter movements back home and to French colonialist descendent Hedy’s LAMB organization, which will in turn be used to memorialize a man who got killed in the initial thirst for gold and “getting mine.” And it goes to the Vietnamese economy that was so ravaged by American war. Because of this selflessness, Spike’s famous gliding shot of drifting actors is used as a happy ending bookend for Otis as he finally connects with his daughter.
The Bloods use the gold to live up to Langston Hughes’ musing (a quoted by King) that “America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath, America will be.” That is how they really put Norm’s ghost to rest and even find actual meaning in Paul’s ugly hat that still bedevils Otis after the fighting’s over. The one that claims we need to make America great.