Spike Lee Brings Radical Awareness of the Black Soldiers Who Fought in Vietnam With ‘Da 5 Bloods’
“Da 5 Bloods” is about hidden histories both personal and national. It is a new and grandiose Netflix movie by Spike Lee, who again directs with the urgency of a filmmaker wanting to make the audience aware of important facts about their society usually ignored in official narratives. We know the U.S. went to war in Vietnam, we have seen all the movies about protesters and hippies, but how often do we stop to consider the wider implications? Lee does by subverting the classic style of an American war movie.
Four black veterans return to present-day Vietnam. They are Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Otis (Clarke Peters) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). Along with Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) they have travelled to the country they first encountered as soldiers decades ago at the height of the U.S. war. Their official reason is to try and recover the body of their friend and fellow grunt Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who was not only one of them, a “blood,” but a source of guidance. As they trekked the jungle and faced off with the Vietcong, Norman would also preach black liberation and help the others tap into the radical spirit of the era. However the four remaining bloods have another goal in mind: They also hope to recover a cache of gold they discovered with Norman soon before he was killed in combat, and left buried in the Vietnamese jungle. But the aged vets will soon face not only the elements but their own demons, as well as fellow treasure hunters.
This is Lee’s first feature film for Netflix after producing the TV adaptation of his early movie “She’s Gotta Have It,” and his first movie since winning the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman.” From its opening sequence the political spirit of the film is never compromised. In an energetic burst of editing, Lee combines footage of the Black Power movement and the Vietnam War, including Muhammad Ali’s legendary refusal to be drafted, to contrast the violence of the war abroad with the racist violence black Americans confronted at home. It is then almost startling to cut to the present as the remaining “bloods” explore a new Vietnam, now more of a tourist spot than a hotbed of anti-colonial socialist revolution. The journey the bloods embark on into the jungle to find both Norman’s bones and the gold becomes a symbolic reckoning. Every blood is individually defined as both authentic individuals and commentaries in themselves. Lee is one of those directors like Oliver Stone who is never timid about making statements. The toughest of the bloods, Paul, shocks everyone at dinner by wearing a MAGA hat and supporting Trump’s border wall, while Otis slips away to meet with a former Vietnamese lover and the daughter he left behind. These veterans carry with them the ghosts of history. They were black Americans sent to fight a war with few clear aims, against a country they knew little about while back home their community had to fight tooth and nail for basic rights. Lee likes to cut back and forth to radio transmissions by Hanoi Hannah (Van Veronica Ngo), a North Vietnamese radio personality who would broadcast messages aimed at black American soldiers, asking why they were fighting for a government that didn’t even bother to see them as equals.
The calmest and cheeriest of the group is Melvin, played by Isiah Whitlock Jr. who here repeats his trademark “shiiiit,” first heard on film in Lee’s own 2005 “25th Hour.” Whitlock Jr. shared with Entertainment Voice about trekking into the jungle and underexplored history for “Da 5 Bloods.” “Spike called me up, he told me he was doing this film…he was explaining it to me over the phone…I took a look at it and I told him, ‘this is fantastic.’ I didn’t at the time know, or anyone at the time knew, Spike’s vision and what he wanted to do with it. But I felt we were on to something big,” said Whitlock Jr. “Compared to all the other stuff it’s different. It was an adventure. It was a big film we all signed for and embraced it.”
The scope of Lee’s approach is indeed grand in every sense of the word. Aesthetically this movie is like a cross between “Apocalypse Now” and “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Lee and his cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, even transition between aspect ratios, using a tighter, intimate format for the scenes in urban spots, full, nearly 70mm formats for the trek into the jungle and a grainier film stock with yet a third ratio change for flashbacks involving the bloods’ combat memories. “When it came to the elements, you had no choice but to embrace it,” said Whitlock Jr., “You can’t go home. It was 104 degrees out, there were flies and mosquitos. It felt like ‘we need to shoot this thing and get the hell out of here (laughs). We were in Chiang Mai, Thailand, about an hour outside of it. But you had to drive from 45 minutes to an hour into the jungle, or jungle-type area. We would take off at four or five o’clock in the morning. You’re trying to beat the heat and the sun coming up. We would shoot all morning and even at that hour it’s blazing hot. It was like the mosquitos were just waiting for us. Then we went to Vietnam and got a lot of the early stuff, the exteriors.”
The environment adds to what then becomes the film’s growing sense of tension and unease as the bloods’ search for the gold and for Norman turns into a journey tainted by both greed and self-reflection. Once they find the treasure what happens? Paul, with his repressed rage, wants to keep his share, Eddie, who everyone is under the impression is wealthy thanks to his car rental business, reminds them that Norman used to preach the necessity of expropriating such wealth for the black cause. The situation becomes more complicated when an encounter with leftover mines from the war pulls into the plot a group of French mine deactivators (played by Mélanie Thierry, Jasper Pääkkönen and Paul Walter Hauser). Lee boldly subverts classic genres. The flashback scenes have the energetic style of an old-school war movie, complete with a heroic score by regular Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard, but instead of being a macho, patriotic celebration these scenes are about Norman teaching the bloods to question the war itself, and to embrace black power terms and ideas. In the present the movie on the surface may seem like a familiar adventure saga about men in search of treasure, slowly going insane in the wilderness. But the screenplay by Lee, Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo and Kevin Wilmott feels like a metaphor for how minorities are placed in the frontlines of a country’s wars, and then they must face the lingering consequences. The bloods are facing not just their own personal histories, but that of the war itself. Paul is startled when a Vietnamese market seller yells, “you killed my father!”
“We had to do a lot of research, even when you thought you knew you realized you didn’t know,” said Whitlock Jr. “I don’t blame anybody for that other than the fact that it hasn’t been represented in movies and documentaries. I’ve watched about three different documentaries and box sets and things like that, and no one talked about the African American soldier. They only mention that Richard Nixon sent Sammy Davis Jr. over to kind of quell some of the protests that were going on in the army. But you didn’t know that much about it. At the time black Americans made up 10% of the U.S. population but 38% was the fighting force in Vietnam. Black Americans were also dying disproportionately on the front lines. And you never heard about that. This takes the veil off, it lets everybody know that you had quite a lot of black American soldiers there fighting and dying. And there was a certain kind of brotherhood that you see in the movie. We talked to a lot of veterans, including a lot who were still over there and never came back. That was a little intense, I gotta say.”
Lee’s cinema, from powerful fiction like “Do the Right Thing” to works of biography like the tremendous “Malcolm X,” is always potent in the powerful ideas contained in mere images. Here Otis’s half-Vietnamese daughter is almost a personification of how we are all connected, even by the more violent stories of war and conflict that mark human history. “The veterans who stayed behind would let you know that there was some damage that had been done. That really honed everything for all of us. It made us stand up straight and take notice. We weren’t just over there making a movie. We were there to tell a major story.”
By the third act when the bloods have to face growing threats to their unity and to their treasure, particularly from a shady French connection played by Jean Reno, a real sense of camaraderie is established. Because the bloods are cast by such great actors they truly create this sense of men connected for half a century by a shared experience and trauma. “I had already known these guys for a while. Delroy Lindo and I had gone to the same acting school in San Francisco at the American Conservatory theater,” said Whitlock Jr., “so I’d known Delroy for well over 40 years, always admired his work. Clark Peters and I go back maybe 20 years. We’d done a few projects before this film. We’d also worked on ‘The Wire.’ Norm Lewis, I knew of him from his amazing Broadway work. But in Chiang Mai we were the only ones we knew. We ate together, we spent a lot of time together. We took that familiarity into the film. A lot of what you see in the film is what would also go on behind the film. Poking fun at each other, but really loving that person as a brother, you see that in the film. And it really paid off. We would jump on a grenade for each other if we had to.”
“Da 5 Bloods” crescendos with an action scene as only Lee would pull it off. It has the tension of a typical entertainment, but infused with a sense of pathos. The bloods are called into combat one last time, but not only with their new enemies but with their own inner struggles as well. Lee does not go for cheap, sentimental or even romantic notions of history. The final shot is of Martin Luther King, Jr., denouncing the Vietnam War. A final title card reminds us that the icon of peace and nonviolence was also anti-war, and died by an assassin’s bullet.
Whitlock Jr. agrees “Da 5 Bloods” has a powerful resonance in the presence, with protests against racism now enveloping the streets of the United States and movements like Black Lives Matter bringing to the fore the history some choose to forget but cannot banish. “Spike begins the film with Muhammad Ali and a lot of the protests going on in the ‘60s. I hope people look at it and say, you know, what we’re doing now has been going on for the past 50 years. Then we put a Band-Aid on it and we go another 30 or 40 years then the Band-Aid comes off and we start to bleed again. I hope people see it and say, we really haven’t gone that far. We have an opportunity to make some serious, meaningful change and reform. We need to create a dialogue or otherwise we’ll be doing this for a very long time.”
“Da 5 Bloods” begins streaming June 12 on Netflix.