Da 5 Bloods (dir. Spike Lee, 2020) – Four veterans return to Vietnam to recover the remains of their fallen friend and the gold he helped them hide.
Most of us would be hard-pressed to name a single war movie that plays out through the eyes of black soldiers. When present at all, they are often relegated to the roles of minor characters. Yet in reality, they formed more than a quarter of American troops who fought in the Vietnam war, despite being just 11% of the US population.
The disproportionate casting is an issue that goes beyond the lack of minority representation in Hollywood. It is also the erasure of their experiences and perspectives, leaving behind an incomplete and hence inaccurate reflection of history.
Originally written to feature white veterans, The Last Tour could have been yet another war movie that commits the same sin. But as fate would have it, the spec script landed on Spike Lee’s lap instead. This became the perfect platform for him to call Hollywood out on its many years of racial erasure.
Renamed Da 5 Bloods, Lee’s movie now features four black veterans Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr). Decades after the war, they plan a return to Vietnam to recover the remains of their fallen leader Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and the gold they hid. Things complicate when Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) shows up unexpectedly, while dangers beyond minefields soon surface.
Greed for gold draws out mistrust that threatens the tight bond between the bloods. Flashbacks also reveal the troop’s complex states of mind. The Vietnam war had been an especially difficult time for black soldiers, with it happening concurrently with the civil rights movement in America.
As Paul puts it, “We fought in an immoral war that wasn’t ours for rights we didn’t have.” On the battlefield, the blacks were fighting for their country. But back home, they had to fight for themselves. Their sacrifices meant little as they continue to receive aggressive violence and unequal treatment back home post-war and even today. They defended their country that never did the same for them.
News clips of real street violence and protests find its way into the fictional plot. We see Malcolm X denouncing the move to send black soldiers to the battlefield to die. We see Muhammad Ali expound his reasons for objecting to joining the war. We see people continuing to fight the same war, past and present.
The disjointed clips are chaotic and riotous. But as messy as it appears, that is perhaps the point. Through the montage, we watch and feel the emotional turmoil of the soldiers, trying to reconcile their burning patriotism with their reasoned impassioned anger, to keep on loving their own country that chose not to love them back.
Even sans the social commentary, Da 5 Bloods is in itself an entertaining war adventure. But with it, the film becomes a less conventional one that has been long overdue. By putting his truth forth in fiction, Spike Lee pays essential homage to the forgotten contingents in history, giving them back their voices that we all need to hear.
Chaotic imagery never dulls the impact of Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, an impactful film that reclaims a part of neglected war history.