“The Vietnam War was the first war that was televised in American homes,” director Spike Lee said in an interview with IndieWire, “and I remember watching it all … and what’s happening today reminds me of what happened back then. Black, brown, white all together, marching, taking to the streets.”
Lee’s newest film Da 5 Bloods premiered June 12 on Netflix and stars Chadwick Boseman, Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. as a group of black Vietnam vets (Lindo, Peters, Lewis, Whitlock) that return to Vietnam in search of the remains of their Squad Leader, “Stormin’ Norman” (Boseman), as well as a trunk of gold bars.
The film cuts back and forth through time to give viewers the full narrative scope. One of the first flashback scenes shows the Bloods recovering the trunk of gold from a downed aircraft after fighting back Vietnamese soldiers. Immediately noticeable is the fact that, although taking place in the past, the Bloods are played by the same older actors who play them in the present. Rather than de-age the actors like in The Irishman, Lee chose to keep the older actors as they are, which is an artful deviation from the norm of either de-aging or casting younger actors for flashbacks. However, this does provide a central piece of war commentary; that parts of the characters, although they survived the war, never really left. Part of their psyche will always be that of a soldier. Keeping the older actors also provides an obvious, and painful message; that their Squad Leader Stormin’ Norman didn’t get to go home and grow up, and they are forced to relive that fact throughout the journey. The flashback scenes are also shot in a narrower, grainy, aspect ratio, which makes them visually similar to old combat footage.
As the group traverses the hostile terrain of Vietnam, they are joined by Paul’s (Lindo) son, David (Majors), who follows his dad because of his worry for him—and to get a cut of the gold. Although every member of the Bloods suffers from PTSD, Paul, who brings along his MAGA hat, appears to have it the worst as he suffers delusions, hallucinations, and becomes enraged at comparatively small things. “I see ghosts, y’all. I see ghosts. Dead come to you at night? Stormin’ Norm comes to me damn near every night,” he says after an encounter with a pushy Vietnamese vendor. As the film, and the group’s journey into the wilderness, progresses, Paul’s condition worsens. He claims that the group is being set up by the man they hired to fence the gold and Otis’ old lover Tiên. He disowns his son, and ultimately leaves the group to make his own way, where he rambles to himself in the jungle about the use of Agent Orange, how he is unkillable, and how he is stronger than the others. Eventually, he hallucinates Norman, who forgives him for his death, revealed to be an accident at the hands of Paul.
Although the film is mostly about the effects of war, it also contains a high level of racial commentary. The film starts with Muhammad Ali’s famous anti-war statements and continues with Malcolm X, Kwame Ture, Angela Davis, and is intercut with real war and protest footage, as well as images and footage of Agent Orange being spread, the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém, and the infamous images of napalm-bombed children. Straight out of the gate, Lee sets the antiwar tone from the point of view of black people in America and Vietnam. Later in the film, during a flashback, the Bloods hear over the radio that Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated. The broadcaster says, “Negroes are only 11% of the U.S. population, but among troops here in Vietnam, you are 32%. Black GI, is it fair to serve more than the white Americans that sent you here?” This is a central point in the film; that black soldiers were, and still are, being denied the basic rights they deserve, even though they disproportionately fought for them.
Stormin’ Norman, the almost mythical Squad Leader of the Bloods, can be seen as a Christ figure. When the Bloods initially hear of King’s assassination, all of them but Norman want to kill white American soldiers as an act of protest. The Bloods say “The Bible says an eye for an eye. And a tooth for a tooth.” Norm is the voice of reason, citing King’s nonviolent ways while wearing a golden cross. This is a summation of Matt. 5:38-40, in which Jesus says to turn the other cheek in the face of violence. Later in the film, during Paul’s hallucination, Norm forgives him. Forgiveness is one of the things Jesus talked about most in the Bible. Rom. 4:7-8, quoting Israel’s King David, says, “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.”
The film tells a powerful and unique story over its 2-hour-34-minute runtime, and tells a different sort of Vietnam story than those typically seen. It is tense, bloody, fascinating and provocative, especially for the times of racial unrest we find ourselves in. It is also worth noting that the five main characters, Paul, David, Otis, Eddie, and Melvin, bear the same names as the “Classic 5” members of the Temptations, and their producer Norman. (Rated R for heavy violence and profanity, some sexual content.) (Netflix)