Black troops accounted for 32% of the American military force in Vietnam, but only 11% of the country’s population at the time. Spike Lee has dedicated his career to identifying socio-political issues, venerating and participating in film history, and restoring Black history. In Da 5 Bloods, Lee sets his sights on the Black soldier’s rightful place in the war film genre. Generations of Hollywood whitewashing and historical erasure have minimized Black military history. Lee’s uneven, affecting film, which debuted on Netflix in June, engages Donald Trump and war’s long-term impact on its participants.
Decades after the Vietnam War, four Black veterans arrive in Ho Chi Minh City to unearth millions of dollars in gold and recover the body of their former squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). During their service, the self-proclaimed Five Bloods discovered a downed plane containing a crate of gold during a mission. Stormin’ Norman, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Eddie (Norm Lewis) vowed to return to collect the precious metal after the war. Stormin’ Norman, dubbed “our Malcolm and our Martin” by fellow squadmates, suggested they take the gold and redistribute it as reparations. When the four arrive, accompanied by Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), Vietnam’s “American War” legacy complicates the retrieval of the gold and their friend’s remains.
Lee opens Da 5 Bloods with real footage from Black leaders condemning inequitable treatment by the state, specifically referencing police brutality. This creates the sensation of whiplash coming off of what could only be described as copaganda in 2018’s BlacKkKlansman. Lee’s political commentary, for the most part, is a welcome addition to the current discourse, but denouncing police less than two years after adulating them is world-class backpedaling.
Lee uses Paul—and the red MAGA hat he dons for the majority of Da 5 Blood’s—as the genesis for the film’s political observations. Upon discovering his friend’s proclivity for the president, Otis calls Trump “President Fake Bone Spurs,” pointing to 45’s own experience (or lack thereof) with Vietnam. Black soldiers assuming the burden of their white peers is a recurring theme in Da 5 Bloods; white youth were excused from military service because they were college-bound, or, like Trump, too rich and too well-connected.
Lee regards the Vietnamese suffering with similar deference. When the four Bloods arrive in Ho Chi Minh City, they’re met by a one-legged beggar. The beggar is the first of several allusions to unexploded ordnance from a war fought 45 years ago. Mélanie Thierry plays Hedy Bouvier, a French heiress, David’s love interest, and the founder of a charity which disables live mines. Landmines play a key role in Da 5 Bloods, but they’re also emblematic of Lee’s vision of Vietnamese victimhood.
Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyen) guides the Bloods through the jungle and Lam Nguyen portrays Quân, a gangster after the gold, but they are associates and faceless villains. Lee acknowledges the country’s hardship, but never allows any one Vietnamese character room to grow. Lee wants to rewrite the history books, but does so from the tired American perspective.
Combat flashbacks, interestingly filmed with the four older Bloods alongside the Adonis-like Boseman, fail to construe the fruitless, tragic, and avoidable slog of war. Two members of the Blood’s squad are gunned down, but when they stumble upon the gold just frames later, the five Bloods show no anguish at the thought of their fallen comrades. On the other side of the conflict, a Viet Cong unit is killed. Da 5 Bloods sees the South Vietnamese as victims, but like even the best Vietnam War movies before it, it cannot envision the North Vietnamese as casualties of the same American aggression.
Netflix’s Triple Frontier, a Ben Affleck action vehicle about aging male friendship and greed, is as apt a comparison as Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s monolithic Vietnam War film. Lee bends genre and tone frequently, sometimes to dizzying effect. Because of this, the triumphant score from jazz musician and frequent Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard is often discordant with the action on screen. No issue on the American consciousness is too small; PTSD, the opioid crisis, capitalism, racism, reparations, representation, and many more all earn a line of dialogue or two. As many problems as Lee attempts to solve, he exacerbates others: Paul casually and routinely repeats an Asian slur and Otis replaces the familiar white savior with a Black one.
Simon (Paul Walter Hauser), Hedy’s colleague at Love Against Mines and Bombs, has no narrative purpose and is a waste of a talented actor. Boseman, an American icon after his portrayal of T’Challa in Black Panther, is brilliant casting. Stormin’ Norman has ascended to sainthood since his death, and the impeccable Boseman is Hollywood’s closest analog.
Despite the best of intentions, the latest Spike Lee joint addresses more than can fit in a single overstuffed movie. Lee’s scattershot approach to a litany of American problems makes a solid statement about representation but a mess of the rest.