Da 5 Bloods (2020) is Spike Lee’s latest release after his critically acclaimed BlacKkKlansman (2018), which won him his first Academy award. Lee’s constant stream of provocative and profound pieces has proven time and time again that he has “his finger on the pulse of modern America” (Mark Kermode). The plot follows four ex-GIs who return to Vietnam to recover the remains of their fallen comrade, the almost mythical, Black Panther-esque Stormin’ Norman. At least that’s their cover. In reality, they return to retrieve bars of gold that the American army stole from the North Vietnamese all those years ago.
Despite the protagonists being ‘Nam vets, Da 5 Bloods is not a war movie. Instead, it is an investigation of American history, specifically an unravelling of America’s Black history. To truly appreciate and understand the layers of Lee’s film, contextual knowledge about these events and experiences must be pursued.
To me, the Vietnam War is one of the most revolting conflicts that has ever been fought (not that war is ever not sickening). It was a war built on pure American neoliberal imperialism; the political elite enduring the Second Red Scare and sending out the poorest Americans to do their dirty work.
Vietnam was also so vicious and stomach-churning because it employed a new, heightened form of combat, different from what had come before. The terrain of Vietnam lent itself to guerrilla warfare, causing soldiers to live in constant fear. Lee recreates this perpetual fear by highlighting the risk of active landmines left over from the conflict, introduced by a group of volunteers who deactivate them throughout the countryside. The threatening presence of unseen landmines had me so tense, knowing Lee’s style, I expected an unforeseen death at any moment, which he of course obliged. Rather than placating my paranoia, this rather set me even more on edge, expecting the same fate for others. This aptly set the mood and helped represent the same lingering dread that both American and Vietnamese soldiers would have felt. The soldiers’ resulting sleep deprivation and paranoia meant that drug use in the American army was abundant. This messy war became a cocktail of drug-induced rampages, massacres (see the My Lai Massacre) and use of chemical agents (see Agent Orange), all with devastating consequences for the local environment and its people.
Developing technology meant that these atrocious acts were often caught on film and distributed across the world. Lee expertly takes advantage of this by interweaving relevant footage throughout the movie. The opening consists of a montage of archival footage relevant to the contemporary political landscape. We see footage of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, Kwame Ture, Operation Ranch Hand, Angela Davis, the Kent State Shootings and Jackson State Killings, Thích Quảng Đức’s flaming martyrdom, 1968’s DNC and consequent police riot, “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”, Nguyễn Văn Lém’s execution, and Napalm Girl. To understand Da 5 Bloods, you must firstly know enough to recognise what is it is representing and its relevance. From the get-go, Lee is insisting that the audience are aware of the need to educate themselves on Black American history.
Clips like this meant that public favour was lost. Soldiers who made it back were not heralded as heroes as they had been after the Second World War but were instead despised and called ‘baby-killers’. Delroy Lindo gives an astounding performance playing Paul, a resentful vet who complains “when we got back from ’Nam we didn’t get nothing but a hard time”. This bitterness manifests in his support of Trump, arguing “I’m tired of not getting mine, man”, and insisting that it’s “time we got these freeloading immigrants off our backs and build that wall!” Lee immediately cuts to a Florida rally in 2016, showcasing the “Blacks for Trump” banners. Lee is making a commentary on the lack of hegemony in the Black community, stating this was the intention behind Paul’s support of Trump, despite Lindo’s protests.
The film powerfully exhibits the long-lasting, deep effect the war had on the four GIs. Flashbacks to the conflict feel jarring because the surviving four of the five ‘bloods’ lack CGI de-aging. Instead, their age seems in direct conflict with the youthful Chadwick Boseman. This disconnect provided the sense that, as Vinh (local guide) points out, they never really left. All of them are haunted by the war, Paul especially, stating “I see ghosts”.
Lee intermixes his characters personal trauma with their racial history. He explores the effect of how the American army was disproportionately made up of Black soldiers. Although the Black community made up 11% of the US population, 32% of its troops were Black. The draft depended on poorer, Black and brown communities who were unlikely to be able to afford college or bribe a doctor to get them out of the draft. Muhammad Ali served as an example of someone who refused the draft, he was sentenced to five years in prison with a $10,000 fine. Most Black men couldn’t afford a legal battle or derailing their career. One of the characters even references Trump as “President Fake Bone Spurs”, the ‘medical condition’ that got him out of serving.
Their need for reparations provides the motivation behind their treasure hunt, believing they’re simply reclaiming what they deserve. However, this provokes a debate between them about whether the gold should go to serving their community, acting as true reparations, as Stormin Normin’ would have wanted. Again, Lee manages to interweave issues of yesterday with the current political climate, highlighting how pervasive they seem to be, and the lack of resolution still felt.
Da 5 Bloods presents a microcosm of “a familiar story of European colonialism, manipulations, and Black bodies being used in the grinder to enrich aristocratic interests” (David Crow). Scenes where Hanoi Hannah broadcasts the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination to the Black American soldiers, questioning why they would serve a government that actively oppresses them; Lee effectively draws a direct comparison between slavery and soldiery. References to Crispus Attucks and the Boston Massacre emphasise that American history and Black sacrifice are one and the same.
Da 5 Bloods is a powerful and gripping movie for all. Action-filled, history focused, and politically relevant, this film is a must see for everyone. It provides essential insight into the political climate of America today, and as the Black Lives Matter movement encourages education and actively anti-racist re-examinations of history, there has never been a more important time to showcase a film as important as Lee’s.
— Abigail Smuts
Featured Image Source: Still via Netflix // YouTube. Director: Spike Lee