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Spike Lee’s take on The American War: Da 5 Bloods

Faline Bobier

June 25, 2020

Spike Lee’s new movie streaming on Netflix, “Da 5 Bloods,” couldn’t come at a better, or a more appropriate time in the life of the United States and the world. Briefly told, it’s the story of four Black American Vietnam vets who return to Vietnam some 50+ years later to recover the bones of their fallen comrade – hence the 5 Bloods of the title.

The movie opens with the well-known words of Mohammad Ali, explaining why he refused to fight in Vietnam after he was drafted, even at the cost of going to jail and putting his career as a fighter at risk:
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother or some darker people or some poor hungry people in the mud for big, powerful America. And for what? They never called me ‘n___’. They never lynched me. They didn’t rob me of my nationality.”

Lee has made a roiling mess of a movie, which includes so many different strands that it may seem unfocused, but it’s really the messiness of life that he captures in his new movie. And the complexity of the shared history that our four survivors confront when they return to Ho Chi Minh City in the present day.

Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Otis (Clarke Peters) and Paul (Delroy Lindo) gather in the hotel bar before heading out to try and find the remains of their squad leader, Stormin’ Norman, who perished in a fire-fight all those years ago. They also want to retrieve, along with Norman’s bones, a strongbox full of gold bars, the property of the U.S. government until Norman and his squad claimed them. They believe the bones and the gold will be found buried at the same spot.

There are many touches that let the viewer know, from the get-go, that this is not just another white American movie about Vietnam, wherein the whole focus is the suffering and angst of white soldiers and the Vietnamese are simply the colourful backdrop.

In addition to the opening words of Mohammad Ali, calling into question the whole purpose of the war, there is the consistent use in Lee’s movie of the term ‘American War’ to refer to the conflict, which is the way it was seen by the Vietnamese themselves, who died and suffered in the hundreds of thousands because of American aggression.

The interactions of the Bloods with the people of Vietnam also underscore the poisoned legacy of American intervention. As their tour guide Vinh tells them “The American war turned Vietnamese family against Vietnamese family.” When the four men are sitting at the bar before they set out on their quest a young Vietnamese boy missing a leg comes into the bar begging for money, which is a terrible reminder of the land mines left behind and the destruction that keeps on giving so many years later. But he’s not humble in his begging. The contempt with which the Vietnamese hurl the GI epithet at the American soldiers, underscores Vinh’s claim that “after you’ve been in a war you understand it never really ends.”

But of course, the same racism that permeated the US intervention in Vietnam also affected the treatment and participation of Black Americans in that war. As Lee points out Blacks make up about 11% of the population but formed 32% of the troops sent to Vietnam.

Da 5 Bloods is also a buddy-movie with a difference. The bonds between the 4 men (and the missing but ever present fifth Blood, Stormin’ Norman) come from a shared history of the continuing racism which is the backdrop and determinant factor in their lives: “We fought in an immoral war for rights we didn’t have. They’re my brothers.”

This is said by Paul, played by the incomparable Delroy Lindo. Paul is clearly the one among them who has been the most damaged by their past and by the continued reality of racism in the US. His son David, who comes with them on their journey because he’s worried about this father, talks about his father’s PTSD and worrying signs that Paul’s condition is getting worse.

The scene as the Bloods travel down river to their destination can’t help but bring back images of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now when Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) journeyed to find the mysterious ‘heart of darkness’ personified by Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Lee highlights the similarity by using Richard Wagner’s "Ride of The Valkyries" (also used in Coppola’s movie) to accompany the Bloods on their boat trip. The difference being that Coppola’s film uses the tired and racist trope of a white soldier’s journey into ‘darkness’, which seems to be personified by the ‘primitive’ figures of the Vietnamese themselves.

Music is used to great effect in Da 5 Bloods, particularly songs from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going on, a 1971 concept album told from the point of view of a Vietnam vet returning home to realize there is no justice and no peace for Black GIs.

The cinematography is used skillfully by Lee to separate past and present. When we are watching scenes from their past in Vietnam the screen narrows and becomes more square and boxy (Lee said he had to argue with Netflix to be able to use 16mm film for these scenes). There is also genius in the way he doesn’t use de-aging effects on his four main actors, so that in the past & present they remain the same. It underscores their fragility and also separates them from Stormin’ Norman, played by the young Chadwick Boseman, who remains by his death forever young and heroic.

As Otis, who is the one who tries to hold the group together in spite of the infighting, says about their dead comrade “He was our Malcolm and our Martin.” In the scenes from the past Norman is the one who argues with the other men that the gold bullion they happen upon is their due and they should keep it: “I say the US owe us. We built this bitch!” He calls it reparations, which reverberates with present-day struggles.

Da 5 Bloods is rich with the history of Black struggle, which Lee refers to directly at several places in the movie, but also very relevant to today’s fight against racism and recent Black Lives Matter protests, both in the US and around the globe.

There are various references to the current political situation. Paul wears a MAGA hat and admits he voted for Trump. He says he was tired of being shit on and wanted to get his own; it’s clear his life since Vietnam has been marked by the ongoing racism and class inequalities in America. His anger has been turned against some of the very same people who suffer at the hands of politicians like Trump, variously referred to in the movie as President Bone Spurs and the Klansman in the Oval Office.

Lindo and Lee create in the character of Paul a deeply conflicted soul and an amazing portrayal of Shakespearean dimensions, showcasing both his magnificent and towering anger and his very real vulnerability in the face of forces over which he has little control.

This is a jewel of a movie, to be savoured and learned from. In spite of the violence and racism of the American War and the ongoing struggles against racism in America, Lee clearly sees hope in the present moment and in the ability to make a different world from the ashes of the old.

He fittingly closes his film with a quote from a Martin Luther King speech, who in turn is quoting Black American poet Langston Hughes: “America never was America to me, And yet I swear by this oath—America will be!”

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