By Adam Schendel
Spike Lee’s newly released film Da 5 Bloods opens with archival footage of the social unrest of the late 1960s that feels uneasily familiar today.
With Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues as the soundtrack, we watch African American soldiers fighting in Vietnam, while back home protesters are being beaten by police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, as Neil Armstrong lands on the moon. The montage includes Malcolm X’s warning to a nation in turmoil: “When you take 20 million black people and make them fight all your wars and pick all your cotton and you never give them any real recompense, sooner or later their allegiance toward you is going to wear thin.”
The film debuted on Netflix on Friday, missing out on a movie theater launch due to COVID-19. Lee has always been one of Hollywood’s most politically incisive filmmakers, but surely he could not have anticipated how Da 5 Bloods release would coincide with a moment of near-unprecedented mass uprisings against police violence and racism.
The film tells the story of four elderly African American vets, collectively self-proclaimed as the “Bloods”, who return to Vietnam to recover the remains of their fallen squad leader and radical political mentor, dubbed Stormin’ Norman (electrically portrayed by Chadwick Boseman of Black Panther stardom), as well as a trove of millions of dollars in buried gold left behind in the war.
On the surface, the story is a retelling of John Huston’s classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with a touch of Francis Ford Coppola’s immortal Apocalypse Now, but the true heart of the film that makes it so vital to understand today is its theme of black Americans betrayed by the country they live in and excluded from its full set of rights, benefits, and acceptance, as they return home after war.
“War is about money. Money is about war. Every time I walk out my front door, I see cops patrolling my neighborhood like it’s some kind of police state. I can just feel how much I ain’t worth,” Boseman’s Norman sermonizes to his fellow Bloods in Vietnam.
Soon after, the soldiers are listening to a radio broadcast by Vietnamese propagandist “Hanoi Hannah” when she informs them of the assassination of Martin Luther King, who opposed the imperialist war they’re fighting in. “Black GI, your government sent 600,000 troops to crush the rebellion [after King’s murder].Your soul sisters and brothers are enraged in over 122 cities. They kill them while you fight against us, so far away from where you are needed,” she calmly explains as more historical footage of burning U.S. cities in 1968 are overlaid across the screen.
The psychological effects of the suffering and ill treatment of African Americans during and after the war is embodied by the tormented, PTSD-wracked Paul, brilliantly played by actor Delroy Lindo. Paul is a disillusioned fighter in life determined to forge his own destiny, though his feelings of abandonment by society and personal xenophobia have led him to become an enthusiastic Donald Trump supporter, to the point of wearing a red MAGA hat throughout his return trip to Vietnam, which invites jokes and eventually empathetic acceptance from his friends. This is a rare touch for a movie industry that seldom depicts conservative people of color, and often presents Trump supporters as motivated solely by ignorance or racism, or both.
There’s a lot going on in Da 5 Bloods, from romance to high-octane shootouts to a reckoning with the war crimes of the United States during its invasion of Vietnam, such as the My Lai massacre, the use of Agent Orange and napalm on Vietnamese civilians, and in the hostility shown toward the five Americans as they return to Vietnam by some of the country’s younger generation.
But ultimately the movie, one of the best to come out this year, succeeds in contextualizing the failures of the U.S. to address the racism that inevitably leads to eruptions of mass social unrest and rebellions, the same in 2020, as in 1968.