Legendary playwright and film director David Mamet’s 2001 genre film Heist opens in media res, finding a crackerjack group of thieves in the middle of executing their latest job. In the tense moments before the jewel robbery is to take place, two members of the gang, their association as yet unrevealed to the audience, meet on the street, sharing a seemingly innocuous quotidian moment at a newsstand. Propelled by Mamet’s signature voice, the dialogue between Joe (Gene Hackman) and Bobby (Delroy Lindo) neatly summarizes the worldview that has shaped the film’s characters. Taking his change with him after he buys a coffee, Joe, in a bit of phony folksiness designed to make him another unmemorable customer, smiles and says, “Makes the world go round.” Walking just behind him, Bobby asks for clarification: “What’s that?” Joe, his voice brimming with confidence, supplies an answer: “Gold.” Bobby offers a more romantic suggestion: “Some people say love.” Joe acknowledges Bobby’s point, but quickly pivots: “They’re right, too. It is love. Love of gold.” The gang will soon contract to do a job that will bring them some gold of their own — if they can keep it. As Bobby in Mamet’s Heist, Lindo imbues the character with an intense professionalism in keeping with many of the writer/director’s other thieves and con men; as the deeply wounded Vietnam veteran Paul in Spike Lee’s 2020 feature Da 5 Bloods, Lindo masks his character’s guilt, shame and pain with masculinist bravado. Landing back in the country where he fought an unjust war 40 years later to recover lost gold alongside other Black members of his unit and his son, Paul is driven by an unquenchable thirst to get what he believes is rightfully his — that which has been stolen from him by historical conspiracy and systemic oppression. Lee and his screenwriters including regular collaborator Kevin Willmott, co-writer on both Chiraq (2015) and BlacKkKlansman (2018), deliberately model Da 5 Bloods on John Huston’s classic film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), the ultimate American morality play about the dangerous desire for gold that lurks deep in the human heart. However, Da 5 Bloods is hardly the only riff on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to foreground race and wealth, contested territory throughout American history. Director Walter Hill, working from a screenplay by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, retold Huston’s story in 1992 with Trespass, pitting a pair of white Arkansas firefighters hunting for lost gold in an abandoned East St. Louis warehouse against a gang of Black gangsters who have come to the deindustrialized neighborhood to bump off a rival. Taken together, these various iterations of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre illustrate the importance of that film to American mythology, but also how the search for gold animates Black characters seeking reparations for centuries of institutionalized oppression.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is undoubtedly one of the most important American films ever made, not only for its compelling narrative and outstanding performances, but because of its willingness to confront its society’s sickness — that lust for gold can poison the soul. Humphrey Bogart stars as Fred C. Dobbs, an itinerant down-and-outer living in Mexico; his past is never made fully clear by the narrative, but it isn’t hard to imagine that Dobbs is on the run from something, a sense encouraged by Bogart’s history of playing crooks and thieves in the 1930s. Though that image had been supplanted greatly by his leading man turn, most especially in the grand romantic gestures of Michael Curtiz’s wartime drama Casablanca (1942), Bogart ably recovers the darkness he once expressed so effortlessly on screen, unlocking an even more menacing madness festering in Dobbs’s suspicious mind. He is introduced begging passersby for money so he can eat: “Stake a fellow American to a meal?” he pleads, filling his voice with shame, downcast eyes afraid to look his mark in the face. One obliges (a man in a white suit played by the director, John Huston), and Dobbs fills his gut at a local cantina. His good fortune has not made him grateful, however; he snaps at a young boy trying to sell him a lottery ticket, venomously dismissing the child as a beggar without a hint of self-awareness or irony. The idea is clear — Dobbs is a man who will only grow more twisted, more vituperative, more hideous with more money. Huston’s Man in the White Suit is just as crucial to the film’s attitude towards wealth. He appears throughout the first act, gliding through the busy Tampico streets as though the air doesn’t even touch him; he thoughtlessly hands Dobbs a coin during their first encounter, and then does so from behind a newspaper when Dobbs hits him up again later in the day, not initially realizing the familiarity of his mark. This is a man for whom wealth is no concern; he thinks nothing of a single coin, handed off to a beggar. It is a tax he pays for silence, for peace, to be left alone while he walks or reads his paper. The Man in the White Suit’s very presence seems to mock Dobbs, so that when he pushes his luck and asks a third time, the Man in the White Suit viciously upbraids him, giving him two pesos and demanding that he “Go occasionally to somebody else — it’s beginning to get tiresome.” The Man in the White Suit has so much, and Dobbs has so little; time spent in destitution has corroded his soul, made him embittered and envious to such a degree that no amount of wealth, begged, borrowed, or stolen, will heal him.
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The eventual plan to hoof it out to the wilderness to prospect for gold, then, is ill-fated before it has even begun. Partnered in poverty with fellow American Curtin (Tim Holt), Dobbs gets the idea to dig for gold after overhearing an old man, Howard (Walter Huston), bragging about his previous finds during a night in a sweaty flophouse. Together, the three men gather supplies and burros, and make the long journey out to the mountains where Howard will point them to the gold, the fortune-seekers intending to split whatever they find. As the experienced party, Howard offers wisdom and warnings, but is clear when Dobbs and Curtin approach him to lead them to the mountains that the desire for wealth lives within him, as well: “Will I go? What a question. Of course I’ll go. Any time, any day.” Howard has seen what gold does to men, but makes no pretense about his passion for the thrill of finding it; he doesn’t downplay his desire, he doesn’t appeal to some imaginary highbrow morality. His age and forthrightness make him, as the film intends him to be seen, the group’s conscience, the Freudian superego that will try heartily to keep its nasty id, Dobbs, in check. He strikes an ominous note, warning “I know what gold does to men’s souls,” which turns out to be quite prophetic. After the trio strikes it rich in the mountains, Dobbs becomes increasingly manic, convinced that his compatriots are conspiring against him to rob him and leave him for dead. When a fellow fortune seeker, Cody (Bruce Bennett) trails Curtin back to their camp after a supply run, Dobbs wants to kill him in cold blood. The film’s final third separates the members of the group as they carry their gold back to town. Howard is persuaded by a group of indigenous people to join their tribe as a guest after he saves a young boy’s life, a request that he must grant because they are in his debt and must repay it in kind or face violence. Without Howard’s moral counterweight, Dobbs’s fear and greed get the best of him; he shoots Curtin and leaves him for dead, taking all three shares for himself. It is this final act that allows Bogart to give one of his finest performances, full of madness and terror. He talks to himself, soliloquizing like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, wondering if her hands will ever be clean of the blood she has encouraged her husband to spill. By the time he is killed by a coterie of Mexican bandits, hacked to death with a machete, Dobbs is a raving lunatic, a cornered wild animal gone feral.
In Da 5 Bloods, Lee directly references The Treasure of the Sierra Madre throughout, creating an intertextual dialogue between the two films. Lindo’s Paul is joined by fellow veterans and gold hunters Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), and Eddie (Norm Lewis), and his son David (Jonathan Majors) tags along for the ride over the objections of his father. The fifth member of their unit, “Stormin'” Norman (Chadwick Boseman) was killed in action and is with them in spirit and in flashback. Norman is the film’s martyr; Otis tells David that he was “our Malcolm and our Martin,” overtly aligning him with assassinated Black activists. Together, the four veterans and David make their way through the jungle, heading back to the plane crash site where they found a shipment of gold, after which Norman died during a firefight. The political content of Lee’s films, most often foregrounding the perspective of Black Americans, is delivered so stridently that his ardent cinephilia is sometimes overlooked. His films are always replete with references to films he admires or wants to engage in conversation; consider BlacKkKlansman, which begins with a famous shot from Gone with the Wind (1939) of the Confederate flag flying over a field of wounded Confederate soldiers. In Lee’s repurposing of this iconic shot, he critiques the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War, parodying the sense of white victimhood that perpetuates it in the Klan and other white nationalist organizations. In Da 5 Bloods, Lee overtly references classics of the Vietnam combat genre — most directly Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) and especially Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Contemporary filmmakers have no compunctions about referencing Coppola’s war masterpiece, which features so many iconic images, few more memorable than its helicopter assault set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s Kong: Skull Island (2017) borrows the helicopter action and general aesthetic of Coppola’s film, and even J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) reimagines the approaching helicopters as a group of TIE Fighters speeding towards a beachhead. Lee is bolder still, of course — he includes “Ride of the Valkyries,” using the music to accompany the fortune-seekers’ boat ride in country, deliberately referencing the preceding film’s most famous cinematic moment without the slightest bit of coyness. There is something deeper here than a reference, however, which speaks to Lee’s frequent habit of such direct cinephilic engagement in his own work. During a flashback to the discovery of the gold shipment in the ruins of the plane crash, Norman argues that they ought to take the gold and distribute it to Black people at home: “We’re repossessing this gold,” he says. It’s more than a rationalization — it’s a statement of purpose. Lee’s own cinema repossesses the work of previous filmmakers and deploys those iconic moments in new circumstances. He borrows Coppola’s “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence and makes it mean something new in the service of a Black filmmaker’s point of view; in Lee’s vision, the operatic wailing of Wagner’s Valkyries and the grandiosity of musical scale is strikingly bereft of Apocalypse Now’s violence. While Coppola used “Ride of the Valkyries” to capture the oscillation between exhilaration and horror that images of war inspire, Lee’s repossession marks the triumphant return of five Black men to a place where they were sent against their will, a choice now freely made to reclaim the wealth they secured for themselves in the form of gold.
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“We’re just lookin’ to get ahead like everybody else,” says white firefighter Vince (Bill Paxton) in Trespass, a neat encapsulation of the zero-sum philosophy that governs wealth distribution in America. Vince is the film’s Curtin, and his partner Don (William Sadler) is its Dobbs, driven by bitter resentments and insecurities, with an ex-wife he wants to keep from knowing about his share of the gold that he and Vince have traveled to East St. Louis to find. While trying to extinguish a raging apartment fire, Vince and Don hear the frantic confession of a thief who says he stole a collection of valuable religious artifacts from a Catholic church some 50 years earlier and stashed the golden loot in a building in East St. Louis, from which it was never recovered. The man promptly burns to death, leaving Vince and Don wondering whether there is a fortune hidden in the floor of an abandoned warehouse a few hours to the north, just waiting to be dug up. They make the trip up from Arkansas, a couple of good old boys traveling well out of their element to the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. East St. Louis has long had a reputation for its dilapidated buildings and general state of malaise — it’s where John Carpenter shot Escape from New York (1981), the location selected for its plausibility as a metropolis driven into hopeless, anarchic decline. The film’s locations in Atlanta, Georgia and Memphis, Tennessee, feature devastated factories and warehouses that chronicle the early stages of American deindustrialization, a process that has continued apace in the nearly 30 years since Trespass’s release. East St. Louis was a canary in the country’s economic coalmine, and its Black residents, personified in the film by the gangsters who rule the territory where the warehouse still stands, were left to choke on the gas. King James (Ice-T), the leader, eschews the gangster label, repeatedly insisting that he is “a businessman.” For much of Trespass, King James and fellow “businessmen” don’t even know that they’re fighting for hidden gold; they’re simply trying to eliminate a potential threat, as Vince and Don have witnessed their murder of a rival gang leader. The disparity in knowledge that propels the film’s standoff, with Vince and Don trapped in a single room on the fifth floor with James’s brother Lucky (De’voreaux White) as a hostage, reveals how its Black gangsters see their environment. It has been so totally stripped of worth, so utterly left to ruin, that they do not consider that it could hold anything of value; James knows that building wealth requires violence in America, and he and his gang are starting from nothing. They have inherited nothing, have no generational wealth to pass down. His lieutenant Savon (Ice Cube) knows it, too — he sees James as weak and is eager to take over himself, yet another manifestation of the zero-sum idea that Vince uses to motivate his search for the gold.
Though the abandoned factory initially does not yield the hidden gold, Don and Vince eventually discover it stashed in the ceiling. Trapped inside the building and surrounded by King James’s men, they have no choice but to desperately search for a way out that will allow them to escape with both their lives and their newfound loot. Don’s increasing paranoia and greed deliberately parallel Dobbs’ in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but Hill’s film adds a dimension of racial resentment to Don’s anger and terror. When Vince discovers a fanny pack full of heroin on Lucky’s belt, Don bitterly says, “That figures.” Don is equally offended by the presence of Bradley (Art Evans), an old Black man who is squatting in the factory; it is his space, because he has claimed it, where Vince and Don trespass. In an echo of Dobbs’s pleas of poverty south of the border, Don complains about his own disadvantaged economic position — a mortgage on a house now occupied solely by his ex-wife, an apartment he now inhabits, and “taxes that get higher every fuckin’ year just so that guys like him can keep eatin’ without doin’ any work.” Bradley becomes the familiar object of derision for embittered white working class men, a version of President Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen.” Bradley, however, is the film’s Howard — its conscience, its street-wise sage and ultimately its victor. Trespass neatly maps the fates of its major characters onto their equivalents in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with Don killed by King James in a shootout, and Vince and Bradley both allowed to escape with their lives. However, the fate of the gold is quite different: in Huston’s film, irony and wind send the gold dust, which looks more or less like ordinary sand in its unrefined form, scattered back to the mountains whence it came. In Hill’s, Bradley makes off with the gold, a sudden injection of wealth made possible by his willingness to invoke the threat of racially motivated reprisal against Vince; while Vince has made it out of the warehouse, set ablaze by Savon and the other gangsters, Bradley warns him that he’d better get out of there “before them n****s catch you.” Vince, though certainly more noble than the racist greedhead Don, turns tail and flees back to Arkansas and presumably, the safety afforded to him by whiteness. Vince has left without the wealth he sought, but keeps his life. Bradley, who lived in the same room with the gold for years without knowing it was just above his head, laughs and carries the bag off into the night.
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Though Hill’s film envisions the attainment of Black wealth as a personal windfall for its Howard analogue, Da 5 Bloods has a more noble purpose in mind. Paul is Lee’s Dobbs, committed entirely to the discovery of the gold to burgeon his personal financial situation. More than greed, however, Paul wants the gold because he wants to own something; Dobbs is a bottomless pit of financial need, a hole that no amount of wealth will fill. Paul really believes that the gold represents justice, reparations which he is duly owed for a lifetime of suffering and oppression, punishment meted out to him for the unfortunate sin of being born Black in America. As a filmmaker and political thinker, Lee is definitely sympathetic to this argument; his production company is 40 Acres and Mule Filmworks, a direct invocation of the promised, but never-delivered reparations intended for every freed slave in America during the Reconstruction period following the conclusion of the Civil War. Each of Lee’s films begins with the production company logo, announcing their status as political acts; with each successive film, Lee himself is working towards making the promise real by offering a confrontational reminder of the failures of American society and government to do right by its Black citizens. And yet, Paul is still an echo of the avaricious Dobbs, reduced by the film’s final movement to isolated ranting and raving, culminating in a captivating direct-to-camera address about the legacy of pain that Paul carries with him every day: “They ain’t snatching my gold bars. No. Nuh-uh. Not Paul. I ain’t gettin’ fucked again.” Paul is a personification of the accumulated resentment built up over years of promises broken or unfulfilled, the vague hope that better days are just around the corner that goes unrealized, the dream that stays a dream instead of becoming a reality. His anger is a close cousin to the fury expressed by Trespass’ Don; it is no less honestly held, but Paul’s is obviously more supported by historical legacy of institutional failure in the United States to address the denial of wealth to Black people. For him, the gold is a way of balancing the scales; his suffering will mean something if he can build wealth of his own. The gold, heavy burden as it is as he carries it through the jungle on his back, is much lighter than a life of endless pain brought down upon him for something as seemingly innocuous as his race, an accident of birth that he did not ask for.
Da 5 Bloods has no obvious referent to the aged Howard, probably owing to the senior-citizens-on-a-mission narrative conceit, but it gives his most iconic on-screen moment, the foot-tapping, hopping, skipping, “we found the gold” dance, to Paul’s 20-something son David, who finds the first wayward bar by accident. This is telling — there is no generational wealth to pass down. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, old Howard is the keeper of the keys, the holder of secrets, the purveyor of wisdom. Above all, of course, he knows gold; in Da 5 Bloods, there is no such figure, which makes a powerful but subtle comment on the inability of Black Americans to pass something on to their children — they have no wealth to give. Though several of the bloods lose their lives in trying to hold onto the gold — the film’s white-suited villain Desroche (Jean Reno), another hat tip to Huston, makes sure of that — the survivors do put it to good use. Far from the selfish, if politically justifiable, motivations of Paul, Otis makes sure that the gold is divided among those who remain and passed along in charitable donations to a fallen comrade’s children, an organization dedicated to disarming unexploded ordinance in Vietnam, and a New York chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is not just gold, however, that the film intends to distribute, infusing wealth into Black communities throughout the United States; it is cultural wealth. Da 5 Bloods pays tribute to Black war heroes who haven’t received film biopics, with one of the bloods selflessly throwing his body on a grenade to protect his friend in an echo of Milton L. Olive, who did the same and is memorialized on screen both in dialogue and in a still photograph insert. Lee also acknowledges throughout the film the contributions of Marvin Gaye, whose voice guides the soundtrack for the duration, most powerfully in an acapella rendition of “What’s Goin’ On?” before its final act. In this way, Da 5 Bloods demands that actual material wealth must be distributed to Black people as a matter of economic justice, and insists that the cultural contributions of Black Americans are a form of existing wealth that ought to be celebrated.
Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.