Spike Lee’s latest film, “Da 5 Bloods,” has been one of the biggest movie premieres of the COVID-19 pandemic. The movie, which tells the story of five Black Vietnam War veterans as they revisit the Southeast Asian country, was released on June 12. It is Lee’s first film since his widely acclaimed “BlacKKKlansman,” which came out in 2018. It currently holds a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Lee is masterful in how he reframes the Vietnam War around the experiences of Black veterans.
Like most of Lee’s movies, “Da 5 Bloods” is inextricably linked to the historical context in which it is set. The movie begins with historical images that set the scene for America in the late 1960s and early 1970s; Malcolm X, the Kent State shootings, images from Vietnam and President Nixon resigning are all included. These turbulent images and their histories come in rapid succession; each one could be a Spike Lee film in and of itself. Then, the movie cuts to present day Ho Chi Minh City. The four veterans around whom the film focuses are in Vietnam for a sort of reunion, and their goal is to recover the remains of their fallen squad leader – known as “Stormin’ Norman” – and buried treasure they left behind. Paul, Otis, Eddie and Melvin are the “Bloods” and the fallen Norman is the fifth. These characters share names with the core members of the classic Motown group The Temptations. This is just one example of the many cultural gold nuggets in the film.
The film tactfully oscillates between the Vietnam War and the group’s present-day trip to Vietnam. But the way Lee plays with time is much more complex. Post-traumatic stress disorder, guilt and other vestiges of wartime are apparent in the lives of the veterans. Towards the beginning of the movie, for instance, a surprise attack of street fireworks sends the veterans diving to the ground outside a bar in Ho Chi Minh City. A central theme of the film is how veterans deal with their combat experiences, and “Da 5 Bloods” faces this issue of trauma head-on.
“Da 5 Bloods” stands out against classic Vietnam War movies like“Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Platoon.” In “Da 5 Bloods,” Black soldiers are in focus, as opposed to the stereotype of a Vietnam veteran: a white male patriot. This reframing of the history of Vietnam alone is enough to make the movie remarkable. The Blackness of the main characters leads viewers to rethink the images of the Vietnam era that are far too whitewashed.
In one especially striking scene, Paul, Otis, Eddie, Melvin and Norman, while on tour in 1968, hear of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio. The scene is layered in historical references. The soldiers listen to Hanoi Hannah – a radio personality whose target audience was American soldiers in Vietnam during the war –tell of M.L.K.’s death two days after the fact. Lee layers shots of Hanoi Hannah and the shocked Black soldiers with archival footage from the days following the murder of Dr. King. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, the uprisings that followed Dr. King’s death are especially poignant to our country’s current climactic moment regarding Civil Rights. As usual, Spike Lee has created an incredibly relevant cultural source.
While the portrayal of Black veterans takes center stage, the portrayal of the Vietnamese people is lacking. These characters, such as the veterans’ tour guide, are always tangential to the plot. This is an especially sensitive topic due to Hollywood’s history of glorifying the Vietnam War while creating problematic portrayals of the Vietnamese people themselves. A recent New York Times article explored this topic thoroughly and eloquently.
Spike Lee’s latest is not perfect, but it’s pretty darn good, not to mention timely. In a time when the ideas of American history and how it is commemorated are taking center stage, “Da 5 Bloods” provides an excellent case study – that of Black veterans in the Vietnam War. While this may seem like a specific or isolated incident, the historical whitening of the remembrance of this war is, unfortunately, relevant across American history. Spike Lee reminds viewers to think critically on this topic while providing them with a beautiful film by which to do so.