“Da 5 Bloods” Warns of America’s Troubling Present
When Netflix decided to release Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods in mid-June last year, after it had missed its premiere at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, which was canceled due to Covid-19, it didn’t expect it to become the center of media attention and a source of political discourse. But neither did it expect the public’s eruptive reaction to the suffocating death of an African American, named George Floyd, at the hands of a White police officer.
Just like Floyd’s tragic killing, Da 5 Bloods ignites memories from America’s recent dark history and warns of its troubling present, indicating that little has changed over the years for African Americans. Hence, Not one to shrink from the racial dimension of America’s story, Lee parlayed the film’s release campaign into a platform to address the current racial discrimination and injustices in the US.
Da 5 Bloods tells the story of four African American aging vets, who return to Vietnam to seek the remains of their fallen commander and unearth a gold treasure they had buried in the jungle during the war.
Originally, the film’s characters were White, and the script was titled The Last Tour, with Oliver Stone directing. But when Stone dropped out, Lee snatched it, not out of interest to tell a story of vets seeking a gold fortune, but because he saw in it as an opportunity to explore the experience of Black soldiers in the Vietnam War. He changed the characters to African Americans and turned the gold into a metaphor for America’s wealth that hasn’t been shared with its Black people. When the soldiers find the stash onboard a CIA plane, which was downed while on its way to pay off Vietnamese allies, they feel that they have the right to keep it and distribute it among their own people, who have never been compensated for their sacrifices in America’s wars since the country’s founding.
To stress his point, Lee interlaces the scenes of the film’s fictional story with real documentary footage, as he bounces back and forth in time between America’s turbulent sixties and the most recent era of Trumpism, while comparing the experiences of his characters then and now.
The film’s message is clear. The condition of African Americans hasn’t changed. Just as in the 60s, they are still demonstrating in the streets, chanting for racial equality and justice. But is it true that African Americans haven’t made any progress since the 60s?
“There has been progress, but not enough,” Lee retorts. “It will not happen without appointing the right people in political positions to reform schools, kindergartens, prisons and other institutions.”
Indeed, some of the issues that Lee highlighted in his earlier movies still haunt the US, such as the rampant shooting of young Black men by police officers, which the director had previously tackled in his 1989 masterpiece, Do The Right Thing.
On the other hand, the making of Da 5 Bloods is a testament to tangible progress, at least in Hollywood. It’s the first film ever to shed light on the experience of African American soldiers in the Vietnam War, a topic which has been the subject of numerous movies over the last 5 decades – such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Born on The 4th of July – all of them, however, featuring White heroes, notwithstanding the fact that 23% of the American servicemen during the peak of the Vietnam War in 1965 were Black.
Thanks to Da 5 Bloods, we learn for the first time that the challenges that Black soldiers were facing, and the pressures they were under during the war, were different and more complex than those of White soldiers. They felt that they were sacrificing their lives for a system that discriminated against them in the army and suppressed their people’s aspiration for freedom and equality back home. They were also targeted by the North Vietnamese propaganda machine, which was inciting them against the US government through radio broadcasts, urging them to go back home and support their people in their fight against their government instead of supporting its racist war against other people of color.
But even when the soldiers’ anger boils and their frustration grows upon receiving the tragic news of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, they resist the Vietnamese propaganda and continue fighting in a war condemned by some of their leaders at home, like King and Malcolm X, and iconic figures like Mohamad Ali, who refused to serve.
‘It was a job they committed to do,” says the film’s star, Delroy Lindo, who plays one of the vets. “If you think about it, it’s a very schizophrenic position to be in. I assume that in their heart they knew that what the Hanoi radio was telling them was true. But they did their job for the love of their country. That’s why there was a lot of self-medication in Vietnam, to numb oneself in order to not think clearly about the reality they were in. And that self-medication continued when they came back to America.”
African American soldiers have had to live this conflicting reality in America’s other wars, beginning with the War of Independence when they were slaves, and followed by the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the Mexican War, World War I and II, and the Korean War. They faced racial discrimination, harassment and torture while serving, and upon their return, they were not allowed to participate in the celebrations of their victories. Instead, they were subjected to attacks and even mutilation and murder by the racist groups. Notwithstanding, they went back to serve.
“In the early days of this country, they fought in the hope of gaining their freedom,” explains Lee, who was four years old when the Vietnam War started. “Later, they did it in order to get their full rights as American citizens. Many felt that fighting for this country will prove that they are Americans and deserve full rights like others. But they didn’t get that.”
In spite of making more sacrifices than White soldiers in all America’s wars, Black soldiers were not promoted to higher ranks and served in racially segregated units under the command of White officers until after World War II, when President Harry Truman ended racial segregation in the US army.
On the ground, however, little changed. In the Vietnam War, only 5% of African American soldiers were made officers, in spite of the loss of lives of 25% of them in the fighting. Meanwhile, the survivors faced racial discrimination and systemic neglect upon their return home.
Nonetheless, there have been bright spots and even illustrious successes among African Americans. One of the Vietnam War vets, General Colin Powell, rose to the pinnacle of the US army in 1989, becoming the 12th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And in 2009, An African American, Barack Obama, became the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, when he was elected President of the United States.
Delroy attributed this dichotomy to the irrepressible, irrefutable evolution of life. “We, African-descended people, are part of that movement and we are going to progress even with the obstacles we are presented with. So these two cases of Powell and Obama reach the pinnacle of their field as a result of irrepressible human nature of African-descended people that propels them to live and mature and evolve even in the face of violations that we historically faced.”
But Lee is not satisfied with the progress that has been achieved by some members of his community. “We have had an African American president for eight years, and we’ve just buried brother Floyd. It’s an ebb and flow. One step forward and two steps backward.”