It was with me early on. Everyone from Captain Sisko on a starship to Steve James fighting ninjas had a hand in it. Indoctrination. My first pledge was in high school, going to boot camp as a reservist my junior year. I returned home to my parents’ divorce. Distraught and forlorn, I cut school. Rather than help, they kicked me out because they thought I was on drugs or in a gang. My contract was null and void. Then, 9/11. In all the death, what sticks in my head most is not the blood and ash, but the police with full kit and assault weapons. Even then, it was still with me. I signed on for full active duty. I put that fear upon others. Ain’t been the same since.
I was anticipating the release of Spike Lee’s new film Da 5 Bloods more than most. In my ongoing study of warfare on film past and present, I am often dismayed at the dearth of representation of the black experience at war, so an adventure featuring a squad of Black soldiers returning to Vietnam was a welcome event. Thankfully, Da 5 Bloods is a tremendous experience, though it is also clear that the copious amounts of Spike Lee’s famous idiosyncrasies hurt as often as help.
Da 5 Bloods shifts in and out of itself with cutaways and references to American and cinematic history, along with traditional flashbacks. Da 5 shed blood in the past hell of a mission gone awry and in the present day on their arduous quest to recover lost treasure and the remains of the fallen. This transience is emphasized through multiple aspect ratios and filters which orient us to the time, location, and head space as each twist of the plot screws tighter. I’ve spoken at length about the effectiveness of temporal and spatial distortion in war films to convey the sensation of vivid recollection. We’ve seen it in the high frame rate experiments of Ang Lee, the virtuoso prestidigitation of Christopher Nolan, and more recent experiments by Roger Deakins. I am glad to see that Spike Lee’s aspect shifts, coupled with his other cinematic flourishes, fit right alongside those other exhibitions of mastery.
I see past bloodshed in choppy blurs and high definition steady streams, in moments faded like old film and in instances that feel like they happened an hour ago. I see the smoke from the explosion outside the FOB on a clear and brisk autumn morning, I see the heat of cannon explosions in black hot on thermal imagery in the dead of a nighttime raid. I see it so many forms, but what I cannot do is unsee.
Then there are times when the movie feels stilted, adroit in pace or tone. There is no question that Lee can make streamlined thrillers or sweeping epics when he wants to, so Da 5 Bloods can feel clumsy in comparison. Still, I felt this awkwardness suited the characters more often than not. It comes through in calmer moments like when the OGs drunkenly shake their graying tail feathers in a nightclub, or in more intense moments of action where their old bones hinder them as much as the obstacles they face. The incredible cast makes it all work, to include the always charming Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Melvin, Norm Lewis as the affable and easy going Eddie, Clarke Peters as the cool and collected Otis, and Delroy Lindo in a career-high, stellar performance as Paul, a conservative hard case.
Paul’s old-man, MAGA-cap obstinance belies a fascinating psychology. His guilt about his past wrongdoing eats away at his soul as ferociously as the Agent Orange that has eaten away at the bodies of so many Vietnam veterans. His anger at himself is compounded and transposed upon his son David, played by Jonathan Majors, as life beats him down with further tragedy. His rage consumes him so fervently that it effects the bond of Da Bloods that was forged in fire. Again, this is expressed in moments subtle and overt. During a scene where the crew is greeted by riverboat merchants, Paul’s obvious discomfort with the situation immediately explodes into a severe verbal altercation which portends a much darker decent into madness as the journey wears on. It’s strange; even even after all these years, it was only seeing Paul in the midst of a violent panic attack that I realized my own outbursts were very likely the same expression of post-traumatic stress.
My Father and I reconnected over the years. We took a road trip to Atlanta a year after my honorable discharge. Took the most awkward photo together in front of the MLK memorial you ever seen. We hit tunnel traffic on the way back, stuck for an hour. My aggravation grew, ultimately giving way to a full-blown shouting meltdown. My father, whose hair trigger temper I feared as a child, looked at me aghast and muttered, “calm down.” Now, he was afraid of me.
Something else noteworthy in this confrontation is the other side of the argument, the merchant who shouts furiously, “You killed my father!” Earlier in the film, Paul nears the brink of another outburst as he is unsettled by what turns out to be two older Vietnamese war veterans, who offer Da Bloods a round of drinks in the name of solidarity. How sad is it that we practically never see films about Vietnam from the perspective of the Vietnamese people, or at the very least the legacy the war left within the country after the fact. This is one symptom of the much larger problem with war film canon, where stories of armed conflict are told almost entirely through a western/American/imperialist lens. Lee’s attempts to reckon with this failing are admirable, but they bring up other problems in their own right since we only are given these brief moments of introspection which are then brushed aside to focus on the adventure at hand.
The chances for introspection and self-assessment also occur in relation to the few women characters within the story, but these also fall short for the sake of moving the action along. (Straight) Black Male sexuality has always been a part of Spike Lee’s oeuvre, addressed with varying degrees of success. One subplot in which Otis reunites with his old flame Tien (Le Y Lan) comes with the early reveal of Michon (Sandy Huong Pham), the daughter he never knew he had. This moment is rife with potential for exploration about black fatherhood (and the lack thereof) and the long history of mixed-race children of host nation women and GIs stationed around the world. Unfortunately, it is all reduced to background filler.
There are also noteworthy moments during flashbacks where Da Bloods tune into propaganda broadcasts from “Hanoi Hannah”, a real-life figure played by the talented Veronica Ngo. Lee used a similar device in his 2008 war film Miracle at St. Anna, where Black soldiers are subjected to Nazi broadcasts that were also based on a real-life figure known as “Axis Sally.” There are elements of sexual manipulation at play in these broadcasts alongside the messaging about fighting for freedom they will never have. There is so much to be said for the process of mutual dehumanization and sexual exploitation that Black soldiers and women of host nations enact upon each other as a function and product of military imperialism, but again, these points are never more than surface level elements that stay out of the way of the band of brothers story in motion.
It is difficult to write/talk about this phenomenon. There is so much shame and embarrassment involved. They ask you why your skin is so dark, how big your genitalia is, sizing you up like livestock. And in return we engage in their dehumanization and exploitation, treating them like lesser beings, like trophies, like conquests. I’ll never forget the drunken American expat I encountered in Busan and his description of the red-light district window markets: “it’s like buying hamburger meat.”
Even though there are many moments where Da 5 Bloods falls short in its thematic examinations, there are still many layers of intriguing ideas to parse, an excellent piece that rewards repeat viewings. One can delve into how Paul’s trauma is the trauma of the African Americans who have had everything taken from us and every disadvantage levied against us, yet still we struggle towards prosperity. There is the powerful rumination on guilt, regret, and how they both manifest themselves, something that I and several other veterans were keen to pick up on. There is also the fascinating meta text of casting Chadwick Boseman as Stormin Norman, the leader of Da Bloods. The narrative makes explicit comparisons between the rugged soldier and civil rights revolutionaries like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Huey Newton, which coalesce with the actor’s history as a superhero as well as his previous roles as famous Black heroes such as Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall.
Just as well, one can sort through the cues about real world history such as the name drop of Milton Lee Olive III, the first African American medal of Honor recipient in the Vietnam War, to do research on other noteworthy heroes. I would suggest looking up the heroic efforts of Army Sergeant First Class Alwyn Cashe, who gave his life while pulling his wounded soldiers from a vehicle hit by an IED in Iraq in 2005, suffering 2nd and 3rd degree burns on 72% of his body in the process. You can also look up the tragic history of African American WWII veterans who were systematically denied the rights and privileges owed to them via the G.I. Bill.
However, this further exploration must come with some uncomfortable reckoning about the role of black people in the subjugation of ourselves and others. It is good to have a combat adventure in the vein of Hollywood classics like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre comprised of black leads, but we must also not shy away from being critical of the military cinematic complex, no matter the strides they make in minority representation. It’s something I have been trying to come to terms with for years. It’s the reason I write about war films. It’s the reason why these past misdeeds continue to haunt me, and why I chose to share them with you in this piece. My hope is that these articles can provoke discussion that will in turn lead to action. I am still uncertain what form that action will take, though our present situation of worldwide protests may have an answer. On the other hand, the calls for revolution are being met with even greater acts of savage violence, so I remain wary of how much change we can affect. A film like Da 5 Bloods might at least be one step in the direction forward, a film with much on its mind though lacking the full capacity to expound on it. I can only hope this will all not be in vain.
Before you go, I’d like to share this short film created by a Black Vietnam veteran alongside a fellow veteran of the Global War on Terror. This was made as part of the Patton Veterans Project, an organization that teaches filmmaking fundamentals to active duty and separated service members as a form of therapy. We must make sure everyone is remembered, and ensure everyone has a chance to let their story be heard. Peace.