Wars never really end. The blood spilled during them always keeps spreading. Think of our current American moment, and how often it feels like a purposeful renegotiation of the Civil War. During the last four years, bigoted agitators have been emboldened by a president pushing their agenda, hate crimes are on the rise, and racist systems of law enforcement and the judicial system operate as they always have. People take to the streets in protest, and people are dying. The blood spilled keeps on spreading. Think of the wars the U.S. started in Iraq and Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, wars started as revenge for a terrorist attack that had very little to do with those countries. Hundreds of thousands of citizens of those countries were murdered by U.S. and Coalition forces in wars built on lies. The entire Middle East has been destabilized as a result. The creation of the Islamic State was a direct result of that destabilization. The U.S. government found loopholes in the legal system to allow for torture, and spent millions of tax dollars training “experts” who weren’t experts at all. The Abu Ghraib pictures leaked. People were horrified, for a little while. But George W. Bush’s image has been rehabilitated. Nearly everyone involved in the torture effort that led to Abu Ghraib is still rich. And in the years since, Iraq and Afghanistan are still in chaos. The blood spilled keeps on spreading.
And then there’s the Vietnam War, a conflict which signifies so much about the dissonance of the American experience—about the difference between what we remember happening and between what actually happened. War makes heroes out of people, and it is the American way to honor our veterans, and still, the bare facts about Vietnam are staggering. The U.S. government reports more than 58,000 Americans died during the war, while the Vietnamese government estimated in 1995 that as many as 2 million Vietnamese civilians died on both sides of the conflict, and more than 1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters died, too.
Numbers on that level are decimating. They destroy generations. The blood spilled keeps on spreading. And it’s essential to have that context when viewing Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, a film that is propelled forward by the kind of anger and fury and grief that can infect you, overwhelm you, choke you. How to reckon with the millions dead as a result of the Vietnam War? How to reckon with a country destroyed and left behind, and with the American soldiers who returned home, traumatized and devastated? How to consider your own role within it? Your own responsibility? Lee attempts to take it all on, and the result is that Da 5 Bloods is extraordinarily focused in some regards, less so in others. French colonialism, American imperialism, universal racism. The civil rights movement, the legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Black Lives Matter. President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump. That f**king red hat.
Lee wants to show how all this is an interconnected tapestry, one in which the lives of Black Americans are central, but the approach is uneven, and the exploration of these ideas sometimes less deep than they need to be. Still, Da 5 Bloods has an undeniable power and an unshakable sense of pain. There are moments and scenes here I keep turning over in my mind, conversations that are weighted by history and trauma—and others that are infused with affection, camaraderie, and love. Lee bombards us with historical footage, opening with that famed interview from boxer and activist Muhammad Ali, in which he refused to serve in Vietnam and was arrested for draft evasion, stripped of his titles, denied a boxing license, and sidelined for years as a result (“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”), showing us activist and academic Angela Davis at the podium, “Fuck the draft” protest signs, the murders of antiwar students at Kent State University by the National Guard, the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức in Saigon in 1963, young Phan Thị Kim Phúc, naked and burning, in Trảng Bàng after a 1972 napalm attack, Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale speaking in Oakland, boats full of Vietnamese refugees. And then there are the allusions here to other films (unsurprisingly, a couple of homages to Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now), and those little flourishes that make Lee’s work undeniably his. Footage of the moon landing is captioned “Da Moon”; footage of President Trump speaking is captioned “President Fake Bone Spurs.”
It’s incredibly dense, which is also to say that sometimes Lee steps aside too much, positioning his film as solely a response to these events rather than an investigation of them. It helps, though, that this cast is so exquisite. To the plot! Da 5 Bloods focuses on a group of four Black veterans who served together in Vietnam and return to Ho Chi Minh City, what was once Saigon, in present day. “Ain’t this some shit,” they marvel at the experience, alongside each other again after all these years apart. The de facto leader of the group is Otis (Clarke Peters, breaking my heart), who was a medic during the war; there’s Eddie (Norm Lewis, very good), now rich after owning a collection of car dealerships; Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr., bringing all that nonchalantly wonderful Clay Davis energy), who jokes around about saving himself if anything bad happens to the group; and Paul (Delroy Lindo, absolutely unbelievable), who is, frankly, still pretty fucked up as a result of Vietnam. Everywhere they go in Vietnam, the Vietnamese identify them as “American GI,” and their return to the country isn’t particularly unique. Tons of Americans who served come back to the country, they’re informed, and that is the everyday trauma for the Vietnamese themselves: that the war that killed millions of them is now a tourist attraction.
Tourism isn’t precisely why Otis, Eddie, Melvin, and Paul have returned, although that is their cover story. Instead, their stated goal is to locate the body of their squad leader who was killed while they served, who they affectionately remember as Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). Norman, in their eyes, was the best of them: a soldier so good that he advanced up the ranks, an uncommon phenomena for Black servicemen (according to Time magazine, “the ratio of black combat troops to white ones was double that for the U.S. population as a whole … there were disproportionately fewer African-Americans serving as officers — they were 5% of the officers but 10% of all Army troops”). Encouraging. Committed. Inspirational and honest, but not reactionary. And he died there, in Vietnam, so that his men could live.
But even that is itself a cover story, because the group has another secret mission, too: to locate a suitcase full of gold bars that they were tasked with delivering to Vietnamese citizens who were helping the Americans. The gold is worth millions, and back then, Norman had decided that they would take the money for themselves. “We ain’t ripping off shit,” they remember him telling them. “Who feels like they’re ripping something off? We was the very first people that died for this red, white, and blue. We been dying for this country from the very get. I say the USA owes us. We built this bitch.” The gold is now buried somewhere near Norman’s body, and the group—now with an additional fifth member, Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors of Jungleland, truly a force to watch), who hacked into his father’s emails, read about the trip, and unexpectedly arrives to tag along—sets off.
Their journey back into the jungle is, of course, far different from when they were all teenagers back in 1968. Their bodies are softer. Their knees and backs are worse. There are a couple of Oxycontin bottles being passed around, and someone secretly packs a gun. And they’re carrying with them so much pain, anger, and mistrust, much of it emanating from Paul. A Trump voter who supports building the wall, Paul has never gotten over how serving in the military, doing multiple tours in Vietnam, and coming from a family of Black men who also fought for the U.S. in conflicts like World War II wasn’t met with praise by his fellow Americans. Instead, he bitterly remembers, Vietnam veterans were insulted and reviled. Black Americans fought for a country that was still abusing and oppressing them—that still to this day abuses and oppresses them—but Paul’s anger has turned outward. He still calls the Vietnamese “gooks.” He’s convinced their Vietnamese tour guide is secretly Viet Cong. And although he’s unraveling, his friends still love him. David still loves him. It just might not be enough.
Much like Apocalypse Now, the group’s journey deeper into the heart of the jungle spurs their unraveling, and this is where the cast Lee has assembled does truly astonishing, deeply emotive work. “5 Bloods don’t die, we just multiply” is their slogan, and that idea—of endurance at any cost—is seen in the physicality of these men, in how they continue forward no matter the effort, in the way they lean on each other and hold each other up. Peters, always so good at communicating wariness and morality, brings steadiness and calmness to Otis, but that doesn’t mean the character is flawless. Peters and Whitlock, reuniting here from The Wire, have an easy friendship that buoys their shared scenes; their vibe is a delight. Lewis doesn’t have as much to do, but one of his speeches—about what these men owe each other—is a galvanizing moment. Majors once again asserts himself as a star on the rise, and his performance here is as beautifully nuanced as in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. And there aren’t enough words to capture what Lindo does here, what dynamism he brings to a character who could have been flatly one-note, or just a caricature. He is a man so accustomed to death that he yearns for it, but so averse to surrender that he fights against whatever peace letting go of his anger might bring. His work in the latter half of the film, as Lee sets the camera on his face and Lindo speaks directly into it, is shattering in its defiance. “You made me malignant,” he says of the war. “My bloodstream, my cells, my DNA, and my motherfucking soul. But I ain’t dying from that shit.” It is seething, and it is theatrical, and it is unforgettable.
Where Da 5 Bloods feels incomplete, though, is in its overall consideration of American imperialism, and that murkiness is most obvious in the film’s central argument, which itself feels conflicted. “Yes, the Vietnam War was wrong,” Lee seems to be saying, “but also, we should honor the Black soldiers who fought in it, and the sacrifices they made.” That duality might work if the film was more willing to find fault with any character but Paul, or if the film’s entire third act wasn’t about making villains out of the Vietnamese. But in doing so, Da 5 Bloods makes the same sort of misstep as the TV miniseries version of Watchmen did, which is to once again play into an American narrative that presents the Vietnamese as unhinged, desperate terrorists. Film Twitter dunked on a person this week who called Da 5 Bloods Spike Lee’s version of Triple Frontier, and to be sure, a comment like that ignores the tradition of the war movie and Lee’s own filmography. Simultaneously, though, something about how both films address pilfered gains feels similarly constructed—this idea that stolen money, taken by people who really deserve it, can do some good. But what about the people that money was stolen from? Didn’t they deserve it, too?
The story of the Vietnamese themselves isn’t the story Lee wants to tell in Da 5 Bloods, and of course, it’s his prerogative to tell any story he wants. His interest is in the way American patriotism as a world-building exercise toxifies and intoxicates, in particular how it affects Black Americans, and Da 5 Bloods communicates that effectively thanks to a cast who rises to the occasion. Perhaps it’s purposeful that a movie like this might leave you with a sense of unease as to who it makes its heroes and who it makes its villains. If so, then Da 5 Bloods is a success in mirroring the American experience itself.
Da 5 Bloods premiered on Netflix on June 12, 2020, and is available for streaming on that service.
Image sources (in order of posting): Netflix Media Center, Netflix Media Center, Netflix Media Center