BY Ian Bourland in Opinion | 19 JUN 20

Spike Lee’s ‘Da 5 Bloods’ and the Racist History of the US Military

In the director’s sweeping new Vietnam War film, it is never clear ‘who is the colonizer and who is the colonized’ 

BY Ian Bourland in Opinion | 19 JUN 20

It’s no secret that the film industry has been scrambling in recent months: productions halted, multiplexes shuttered, summer releases postponed. But I didn’t actually miss the immersion of the cinema until this week, when Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (2020) debuted on Netflix. Lee has long been one of the most formally daring and socially committed filmmakers in the world, but not since 1992’s Malcolm X has he worked at this scale. Epic in both duration and reach, Da 5 Bloods is awash in vivid hues and persistent melodies. Ostensibly the saga of five friends bonded in combat during the Vietnam War (1955–75), Lee’s film tells the story of Black people in the US since 1619 – when the first enslaved Africans were brought to the colonies’ shores – and reminds us that, for those involved, all wars are ‘forever wars’. Da 5 Bloods should be a national event, watched intently in the company of others.

The war in Vietnam was a centrepiece of the US ‘containment’ strategy towards communism, one of many proxy wars fought amidst the anticolonial struggles of the second half of the 20th century. Nearly three million US soldiers served there over a period of some 20 years and, during a time of forced conscription in which the wealthy and white (including three of the four most recent US Presidents) often sought deferments, that force was disproportionately composed of people of colour and the working poor. As Da 5 Bloods shows, African-Americans have fought in the armed services in every conflict since its inception, when the Black-Indigenous stevedore Crispus Attucks was the first man killed in the American Revolution in 1770.

Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Netflix; photograph: David Lee 

Five of those servicemen, the titular Bloods, are dramatized as a microcosm of the civil rights movement transported to a conflict halfway around the world – one in which some battalions flew the flag of the Confederacy while others were galvanized by the words of activists including Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Seale and Malcolm X. At the core of the film is the story of Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), an elite infantryman who dons the tricolour beads of black internationalism and served as a moral and political compass to his four comrades, reminding them that: ‘War is about money…money is about war.’ Crucially, it is never clear, here, whether Black American GIs might be counted among the colonizers or the colonized. This dissonance is exploited by ‘Hanoi Hannah’, a North Vietnamese radio host who reports the news of the assassination of Black leaders in the US and dedicates spins of Marvin Gaye records to the ‘soul brothers’ of the 1st Infantry Division.

Accordingly, when the Bloods are sent in late 1971 to find a downed Douglas C-47 aircraft only to discover millions of dollars in US-stamped gold – CIA money used to buy off local populations – they wonder if it should be impounded as reparations and, if so, whether those reparations should go to themselves or the broader movement. They bury it near the wreckage, but not before Norman is killed in action. Da 5 Bloods is, in narrow terms, the story of the four survivors in the present day, reunited to bring home Norman’s remains. Of course, the recovery of the gold is on the agenda too, and the film is marbled with allusions to adventure films of yore, such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Delirious references to Apocalypse Now (1979), the post-Vietnam adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), are also layered throughout – from the ironically named Apocalypse Now nightclub in Ho Chi Minh City to the Bloods blasting Richard Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ (1856) as they wend their way into the jungle.  

Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Netflix; photograph: David Lee 

That, anyway, is the narrative armature, but Lee shifts seamlessly between both tone and medium. Multiple temporalities are cut with surreal reverie, still photographs and harrowing documentary footage. At times, the use of monologue and Steadicam invoke the tragic theatre, a sense driven home by a virtuosic ensemble anchored by  Delroy Lindo, Johnny Tri Nguyen, Clarke Peters and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. It is tempting to say that Da 5 Bloods is the finest war movie ever made, but Lee deftly confounds and transcends any single genre. As in life itself, moments of comfort are disrupted by visceral loss; gut-wrenching violence is salved with deep love. 

Most clearly, this is a film about ghosts: men who must recover the body of their fallen comrade in order to come to terms with his spirit, by physically returning to a place they revisit psychically every day through their trauma. Although now a trendy bastion of Western tourism, Vietnam is also still riven with the scars of a war that cleaved families and poisoned the landscape. While this is a tale about Black life in the US, it is also the story of the malignancy of colonialism itself: the French, who preceded the US military, are called to atone, and the lives of its Vietnamese characters are poignantly drawn. Many of those Vietnamese citizens – napalmed, immolated, shot in cold blood – are remembered here, through graphic news footage. Indeed, beyond its cinematic power, Da 5 Bloods is also a counter-archive of modern America that refuses to allow us to forget the heroism of the unsung and the violence that inscribes its history. These images are, by turns, inspiring and gutting – a veritable dissertation unto themselves.

Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Netflix; photograph: David Lee 

Amidst the remarkable and necessary protests against racial injustice taking place around the world, Da 5 Bloods is timely, essential viewing for all of us. Yet, as a synecdoche for the failures of the American project over some 400 years, it is also timeless. Lee’s film draws us back to the upheaval of the late 1960s but, by grounding it in the present, we are reminded just how little progress has been made, and that history will repeat itself until it is confronted. As Paul, most outwardly tormented of the group laments: ‘We fought in an immoral war that wasn’t ours, for rights we didn’t have.’ If only we were closer today to ensuring those rights for the people who built this country, and who died for it, but are still waiting.

Main image: Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Netflix; photograph: David Lee 

Ian Bourland is a critic and associate professor of art history at Georgetown University, USA. He writes widely on art, pop culture and aesthetics, and has published two books, Bloodflowers (Duke University Press, 2019) and Blue Lines (Bloomsbury, 2019).