There is no uniform experience to how anyone experienced the Vietnam War. Yes, that is perhaps true of all conflicts, big and small, and events not related necessarily to war, but Nam’ was a nefariously special case.
Whether you were American, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian or some other national demographic tied into the affair, some things overtime were made consistently clear as takeaways, others not so much.
Whether or not you view America’s involvement as having any discernible justification, it is hard not to also agree that it was a tragedy. Even the ultimate victors, North Vietnam, suffered millions of losses and much ruin in driving away the United States through a campaign of outlasting rather than outdoing.
To make matters worse, Vietnam would suffer another brutal conflict following unification, in what Ken Burns’ acclaimed The Vietnam War documentary considered Vietnam’s Vietnam.
Much has been documented about the bitter histories of many American veteran. Their experiences have become cliches. The PTSD flashback, the paranoia from patrolling out in the jungle, having a child with a Vietnamese woman, the loss of confidence in the country they serve, taking drugs to offset the despair of their situation. All true yet never the full picture.
There are some veterans, more retroactive than not, who have come to find pride in what they did. These soldiers consider that they did the best they could’ve in a scenario where their commanding officers failed them and as well as get through it with some sense of prevailing honor.
Does that justify the conflict for me? No. America committed war crimes, some that literally blew up in their own soldier’s faces like napalm and Agent Orange. Even more sickeningly, my country has not truly learned the lessons of all that led to and happened half a century ago in Indochina as the War on Terror and its endless theaters in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond can attest.
There is one demographic of American veteran that has had a even less rosier view of the war and perhaps less positive reevaluation: The African American soldier. Despite the intolerance and bigotry the black serviceman faced in World War II, at least some comfort came in that war ultimately being something that did need to be fought. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy: either they go or we do.
It’s bad enough that direct military involvement in Vietnam was predicated on a lie through the Gulf of Tonkin incident. It is worse that the freedom and democratic institutions that many American GI was drafted or volunteered to presumably protect was not something that the African-Americans had.
Yes, The Civil Rights act passed by LBJ was in effect before direct military action began in 1965. Enforcing it while bypassing centuries of bigoted thought on the matter meant that for the black GIs, it was a real question of what exactly they were potentially laying their lives down for.
Spike Lee’s latest movie, in his blunt manner, is about that and what legacy came from that sacrifice. What reward, however late, should be given to the African-American GI for serving a country that was not willing for so long to return the favor, let alone back in the day.
Consider surviving and returning home with the horrors and pain of the war lingering and realizing your country was not much better off than you left it and just as willing to hate you as the enemy combatants back in the fight.
Spike Lee ties in the psychological trauma of PTSD with the underlying pain of being a second class citizen in a society that supposedly strives to have no such thing on paper. The titular five “Bloods” are a group of aging black veterans who have reunited and initially gone back to Vietnam to both cope with the past and enjoy the country in a far more peaceful manner.
In the sprawling, quite beautiful metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City,formerly Saigon and renamed after the face of their wartime enemy, the Bloods are back and happy to see each other. The camaraderie between the Bloods, consisting of Paul (Delroy Lindo),Otis (Clarke Peters),Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is a special glue that holds up the film and their interplay is infectious in raising spirits. When they’re not arguing.
There is a deeply personal and not exactly lawful reason for their return. I listed four bloods when there is supposed to be five. The fifth, the group’s squad leader from back in the war: Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), didn’t return home.
On an assignment to recon a downed cargo plane deep in the jungle, they discover a container filled with up to $20 million dollars in gold bar in today’s currency. Normally, they would call the Huey helicopter and take the gold back to base. But why should they? For all that they and their race has suffered, their ideological leader Norman says, at the hand of the white authority, why should they?
Instead, why not hide the gold where they found it, claim to their superiors that nothing could be salvaged from the wreck and then once the war passes, go back and take the gold back home discreetly? Finally, distribute the wealth to the African-American community. Why wait for the rewards the American system promises when they can take it for themselves?
Sadly, Norman never gets to see the Bloods reunite following the war and it takes roughly half a century for that reunion. There is still a fifth blood, however tenuous the four might consider it, that joins them on their treasure hunt. Paul’s estranged son, David.
Once their journey back into the country begins, so does Spike Lee rather divisively start bringing attention to the influences of this movie. The two films that Lee openly admitted to use as inspiration was Apocalypse Now and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
For starters, the night club that the Bloods visit to celebrate their reunion is literally called Apocalypse Now, with the exact same font as the original movie’s title. Once they head down the Mekong river on their quest, not unlike how Martin Sheen’s character began his nightmarish search for Col. Kurtz, what should play but Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”
As for Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the group’s overall demeanor and actions upon acquiring the gold is clearly meant to echo the 1949 classic’s commentary on how riches like gold corrupts the mind and can make friend an enemy.
However, there is one moment later in the film where Da Five Bloods basically copies, word for word, the most famous line of dialogue from the original film. I won’t say what it is, in case you haven’t yet seen Sierra Madre. But if you’ve heard of that movie, then you almost certainly know what scene I am referring to.
Are these moments cheap on Lee’s part? Are they cute callbacks or the director being overly honest about where he’s drawing from? To be fair, the use of “Ride of the Valkyries”, based on how it’s framed with what is happening onscreen could be seen as a joke rather than serious callback or copying. It didn’t bother me, but I can feel why others may not be so kind to Lee about that.
However, some of the overall themes of those two works are expressed quite beautifully and with some measure of subtlety, especially from the likes of Spike Lee. The madness of what war does to people and how it may inflame what is already burning in a person’s soul, like Apocalypse Now.
How an initial desire for populist justice, in the case of the Blood’s racial demographic through acquiring the gold, can devolve into personal thirst for avenging individual slight, as is the case with Paul.
Paul is more or less the main Blood and the one who has the most severe ghosts from the war. He was closest to Norman than the other three, clearly has taken in what the war showed him and perhaps had him do the hardest and an awful concoction of trauma, loss and utterly bitter resentment towards his poor station in life due to racist treatment makes him an at times frightening figure.
Paul is the one for which the allure of the gold bars has the starkest reaction on and he is the one who makes the Bloods journey back a bloodier, more morally uncertain affair than originally intended. The presence of a son who wants to help him and his conflicted emotions on whether he can truly love him back is the core of the suspense that Lee cultivates best in the last act.
Da Five Bloods, for all its intentional meaning, is wise to let some things be up to the observer rather than be painstakingly laid out, as Lee has been criticized for doing in the past.
Perhaps his most famous, beloved movie, Do the Right Thing, is the best example of Lee allowing moral and narrative ambiguity to take over for the best effect. The famous conclusion, where Radio Raheem is notoriously killed, if not murdered, by the police, sets off a riot which destroys the pizzeria that is the nexus for the film’s events.
Main character Mookie, played by Lee himself, is the spark that leads to the restaurant’s destruction. He throws a trashcan through a window which leads the rioters to focus their wrath on the building rather than Sal and the family that owns and runs it.
While Lee later clarified that Mookie threw the trash-can as a deliberate act of vengeance rather than to save his boss and fellow employees, the framing of the moment is executed just so that both audiences and critics have come up with divergent theories on why Mookie did what he did and of course, if it was the right thing.
Are what the Bloods doing, by superseding both American and Vietnamese law through their gold heist, the right thing? Even if they have genuinely good purpose for the gold, perhaps even being outright owed it, is it still the right thing?
As Paul’s own story arc proves, our human nature and our depth-less capacity for violent resentment can upset not just the best laid plans but the intentions behind them.
Lee, whether it be in Da Five Bloods or in other works, manages to make his work ultimately matter and feel real in terms of getting his message across. The Bloods are likable yet flawed individuals with time and its various trials and regrets weighing heavier on them than even the gold in their backpacks.
It may take some time for you to piece together all that Lee has to say in Da Five Bloods, in how it incidentally relates to the pressing matters occurring as of this writing or in the grand scheme of things.
It’s ultimately more meaningful to watch, if to understand and appreciate that someone with talent has something to say and it is better said now more than ever than risk letting it never be said at all.