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Is Da 5 Bloods Based On A True Story?

A new Spike Lee joint, Da 5 Bloods, is taking Netflix by storm with its exploration of the Vietnam experience through the eyes of a squad of Black ex-soldiers. Its assured storytelling and strong characterizations have left some viewers curious as to whether the flick had a real-life inspiration, as many of Lee's films have.

In case you haven't caught it yet, here's a little (relatively) spoiler-free synopsis. The flick opens in the heat of the Vietnam War, as squad leader "Stormin'" Norm Holloway (Chadwick Boseman) leads his unit, who have christened themselves Da 5 Bloods, in securing the site of a CIA plane crash. Amidst the wreckage, they make a startling discovery: a cache of gold bullion, intended as payment to local rebel groups for their assistance in fighting the Viet Cong. Citing the U.S. government's poor treatment of African Americans in general (and soldiers in particular), the men decide to bury the gold for later retrieval — but their plan goes awry when Holloway is killed in an ambush, and the burial site is razed of identifying landmarks during a napalm strike.

In the present, a landslide uncovers the tail portion of the plane, leading the surviving members of the squad (along with the estranged son of one of the men) to meet up in Vietnam to try to bring the treasure home, along with Holloway's remains. They're able to find the gold — but mistrust and infighting among the men and their local guides, along with the specter of their past experiences during the war, combine to endanger their expedition.

With its prescient themes and strong ties to American history, inquiring viewers are wondering: is Da 5 Bloods based on a true story? Well, we won't keep you in suspense: no, it is not. Lee has struck plenty of gold (so to speak) with audiences in the past with historical dramas like Malcolm X and BlacKkKlansman, but Da 5 Bloods is a work of pure fiction.

Da 5 Bloods was originally a more conventional action film

According to VultureDa 5 Bloods began as a spec script entitled The Last Tour, which was written by scribes Paul De Meo and Danny Bilson (whose best-known work is the 1991 proto-superhero film The Rocketeer). This version would have been a more familiar take on the "vets return to Vietnam years later" tale, with a predominantly white cast. Oliver Stone was attached to direct, and developed the project for two years before stepping away.

Veteran producer Lloyd Levin — who has worked on everything from the original Die Hard to HBO's Watchmen series — then brought the project to Lee, who was finishing up pre-production on BlacKkKlansman. Lee had collaborated on that film's screenplay with Kevin Wilmott, who had also helped the filmmaker write his critically acclaimed 2015 dramedy Chi-Raq, and the two quickly conceived of a tweak to the material that would add considerable thematic resonance. "Danny and Paul did a great job, but their script was about white vets going back," Lee explained to Vulture. "So Kevin and I flipped it."

Wilmott pointed to a dearth of Vietnam pictures that "really dealt with black soldiers' feelings," and explained that the script's original draft, had it been shot, would have resulted in "more of an adventure film." During his serve-and-volley writing process with Lee, the scribe explained that he was able to use the director's encyclopedic film knowledge to create more of a genre-bending exercise, one which still retains its focus on the experiences of black soldiers, particularly those in positions of authority. 

"We based [Boseman's character] on the black squad leaders that were very rare in Vietnam," Willmott said. "We wanted to show the pressure they were under, the responsibility they felt toward their men, and the love and reverence their men had for them."

What are the critics saying about Da 5 Bloods?

Lee and WIlmott's reworking of the script resulted in a picture that can, at times, feel loose and off-the-cuff, which is typical of Lee's style (and we love him for it). However, Da 5 Bloods is also a film with a strong vein of actual, sometimes shameful history running through it — and critics have near-unanimously praised the picture for its emotional depth and strong grounding in the real world, past and present.

This was described eloquently by ScreenHub's Mel Campbell, whose glowing review pointed out the ties between the film's themes and current events. "As the United States — and the world — erupts with Black Lives Matter protests, Spike Lee's new film Da 5 Bloods arrives on Netflix to remind us that historical injustice remains buried in living memory, like illicit gold... or a land mine waiting to explode," she wrote. "Da 5 Bloods is engaging because it's animated by complex, emotionally charged politics. It's a provocation, shot through with genuine pathos: a movie about the past that will always speak about what's going on."

Aramide Tinubu of NBC News THINK also pointed to the direct line the film draws between the issues facing Black Americans in the past, and those facing them today. "Spike Lee takes his audience on a journey across the decades, putting a spotlight on the Black veteran experience in a way few filmmakers ever have," she wrote. "In doing so, he successfully links a film nominally about the Vietnam War to today's cultural battles."

Perhaps the most succinct analysis, though, was offered by critic Jeremy Jahns on his YouTube channel. "It's a timely message for today," he said, "but also a timeless message for people in general."

Da 5 Bloods is currently available for streaming on Netflix.