Spike Lee has been confronting American society and speaking truth to power his whole career. From the up-close depiction of police brutality in “Do the Right Thing” (which preceded the existence of amateur footage) to the Charlottesville riots that brought the ending of “BlacKkKlansman” into the real world, Lee’s filmmaking is steeped in drawing attention to the injustices facing black Americans, while fixing historical misperceptions they have endured for ages. His latest, “Da 5 Bloods,” epitomizes that trend — the film is a breakthrough in the depiction of black Vietnam vets as the central characters of the plot — which is one of the key factors making it a genuine Spike Lee joint.
“A black Vietnam vet who saw the film, said, ‘Spike, what the fuck took you so long?” Lee said in an interview with IndieWire, recalling a set of New York test screenings attended by veterans in recent months. “Black and brown Vietnam vets, they loved the film, and that’s my validation. They put their lives on the line, for the red, white, and blue, while also knowing that their brothers and sisters were fighting another war in the United States of America.”
As usual, Lee brings a significant real-world context to the story from the start. “Da 5 Bloods” opens with a blistering montage of archival footage, appropriately set to Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” putting the black soldier’s experience in the Vietnam War into sociopolitical context. Among the more potent soundbites is a 1968 clip of a fiery Bobby Seale recalling how black soldiers served in the Civil War and World War II, with freedom still elusive, unconvinced that anything would fundamentally change for black people after they serve in the Vietnam War.
Seale may as well have been talking about the present-day, a depressing indication of how incremental relief has been for black people, when it comes to the war that is being fought at home. Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” a lamentation on the bleak economic situation and the generational psychological effects this has on black America, provides the exclamation point.
And so, with “Da 5 Bloods,” Lee’s timing is, as ever, opportune. His film arrives at a moment of historic protests decrying systemic racism, even as black men and women continue to serve and die for this country. It now comes stamped with a searing sense of urgency, as a contemplation on black inequality through the prism of the Vietnam War. There couldn’t be a better time for a film that questions the definition of “real Americans.”
“Da 5 Bloods” tells the story of four African-American Vets — Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) — who return to Vietnam. Searching for the remains of their fallen Squad Leader (Chadwick Boseman) and the promise of buried treasure, these heroes, joined by Paul’s concerned son (Jonathan Majors), battle man and nature, while being confronted by the lasting devastation of the immorality of the Vietnam War.
It’s damning that more than 40 years after America pulled troops out of Vietnam, “Da 5 Bloods” can lay claim to being the first film that makes the experience of African-American soldiers in that war its subject. For decades, they have been kept on the periphery of films depicting the conflict, even though, in 1967, black soldiers represented 23 percent of all combat troops in Vietnam, and in 1965, a quarter of all US combat deaths, while they only represented approximately 11 percent of the population. Still, they have not traditionally been centered in classic Vietnam war movies like “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Casualties of War.” And yet African Americans have served in the U.S. military in every war the country has fought, from the Revolutionary War to today’s overseas battles. Additionally, the nation is currently the largest operator of military bases abroad, many of which are staffed, at least in part, by black personnel.
Meanwhile, high profile white athletes like Drew Brees use the American flag to virtue signal, overlooking black contributions to the military during WWII. Brees was asked on Wednesday, June 3, in an interview with Yahoo, to revisit former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem before games, to call attention of police brutality and racial injustice.
Brees’ asserted that he would “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag” due to the military service of his two grandfathers who fought in WWII, “both risking their lives to protect our country and to try to make our country and this world a better place.”
He was immediately and widely rebuked by his African American teammates on the New Orleans Saints, and superstars like LeBron James, as well as celebrities of all nationalities. The consensus: It’s not about the flag or the military. It never has been.
Additionally, black athletes, actors, anchors and other media personnel, reminded Brees that their grandfathers also fought in WWII, risking their lives to protect the country, and yet their experiences, both abroad and when they came home, greatly differed from those of his grandfathers.
Actor and New Orleans native, Wendell Pierce’s heartfelt open letter to Brees, in which he speaks of his 95-year-old father, who fought in WWII, is most noteworthy:
“My father, who fought for your freedom Drew Brees had to navigate racial violence in New Orleans as civil rights protesters were beaten by many who stand for our flag as they sat at the Woolworth lunch counter… blocks from the Superdome. My father fought for the flag you respect, when that flag flew over New Orleans City Hall when a Christian preacher by the name of Rev. Avery Alexander was dragged down the steps of City Hall because n—— were not allowed in its segregated cafeteria. … A Christian like you. My father is a patriot that stood up and risked his life for the American flag so Americans can kneel down in protest when its raised. Are you saying he disrespects it? He loves this country that seldom loved him in his 95 years. That’s living the life of Christian forgiveness.”
“I know Drew, as he was cool enough to be in one of my documentaries about Katrina, and he’s apologized,” Lee said. “But this is a crucial moment, not just for Drew, but for a lot of people who think like him. So, the way I’m looking at it is, let’s turn it into a positive.”
Lee’s optimism aside, the persistent erasure of the historical contributions of blacks in the military nurtures a kind of collective amnesia that has consequences. When Americans celebrate the country’s victory in WWII, but forget that the US military was segregated, or that many black WWII veterans returned to the country only to be denied jobs and/or housing, it becomes all the more difficult to talk honestly about racism today.
In Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” Ronsel Jackson (played by Jason Mitchell), a black WWII army sergeant, recently returned from the war in Europe, to his home in Jim Crow-era Mississippi, encapsulates this sentiment: “Over there I was a liberator. People lined up in the streets waiting for us, throwing flowers and cheering. And here, I’m just another nigger pushing a plough.”
Likewise, when Americans discuss or depict the Vietnam war that ended 30 years later, but neglect to recognize that black soldiers grappled with many of the same racial conflicts that were tearing apart their homeland thousands of miles away, only to return to fight against racism and oppression, it becomes all the more difficult to talk honestly about race and racism today.
In Lee’s epic, during a flashback sequence to the Vietnam War, Da 5 Bloods discover a cache of gold owned by the US government, intended to pay off the Vietnamese. Their commander “Stormin’ Norman” (Boseman) decides to “repossess” the gold, despite some ambivalence from his squad. But he makes a case for why the gold is theirs to take: “We been dying for this country from the very get, hoping one day they’d give us our rightful place. All they give us was a foot up our black asses. Well fuck that. I say the USA owe us. We built this bitch!”
It’s a defiant statement that gets to the core of what Ronsel Jackson in “Mudbound,” and Seale in the opening credits of “Da 5 Bloods,” are ultimately trying to say. Lee was a kid during the Vietnam War, but he has vivid memories of it all. In “Da 5 Bloods,” he draws parallels between the political and social turmoil of the late 1960s and today.
“The Vietnam War was the first war that was televised in American homes, and I remember watching it all, so, I was young enough to know what was going on, but, young enough not to get drafted,” he said. “All these movements were happening at the same time, and what’s happening today reminds me of what happened back then. Black, brown, white all together, marching, taking to the streets. It reminds me of my younger years, watching as they were cracking heads left and right during the Democratic National Convention, in 1968. And they were screaming, yelling, ‘The whole world’s watching. The whole world’s watching’.”
And as America remains in crisis — amid a deadly pandemic, nationwide protests, a violent police response, and a president who appears entirely detached from it all, even as members of his own party shift with public opinion on racism in America — the whole world is definitely watching.
“It seems like the United States of America is teetering on the brink,” Lee said. “But the thing that gives me hope is to see all across America, my white brothers and sisters who are out in the streets, joining their black and brown brothers and sisters. And in many cases, these demonstrations are in places where there are no black and brown people. Look at Salt Lake City, Utah. Des Moines, Iowa, and all those that around. That is giving me hope.”
“Da 5 Bloods” is now streaming on Netflix.