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10 June 2020updated 14 Sep 2021 2:14pm

Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods sets the record straight about the exploitation of black soldiers

In Lee’s latest film, four black Vietnam veterans return to Saigon in the present day.

By Ryan Gilbey

Spike Lee was only scheduled to release one new film this month: Da 5 Bloods, his first feature since the Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman. But on 1 June he also put out 3 Brothers, a 95-second short in which ­footage of the murders of George Floyd and Eric Garner is intercut with the fatal ­choking of Radio Raheem (Bill Duke) by cops in Do the Right Thing.

Lee’s work will never want for topicality so long as racism thrives in the US, and so it is with Da 5 Bloods, which begins with archive footage from the 1960s and 1970s during which Kwame Ture, aka Stokely Carmichael, announces: “America has declared war on black people.” Some films dealing with historic injustices require an effort on the part of the viewer to imagine the far-off struggles of a distant age. Not this one.

The bloods of the title are four Vietnam veterans and their fallen captain, Stormin’ Norman, played by Chadwick Boseman in flashbacks during which the widescreen image shrinks to a sticky square. The surviving quartet – Otis (Clarke Peters), Paul (Delroy Lindo), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) – are reunited in Saigon in the present day, where they boogie merrily at an Apocalypse Now-themed nightclub and complain about “those fugazi Rambo movies” from the 1980s. They mock the plot device whereby soldiers revisit ­Vietnam years later to rescue POWs, and they correctly accuse “Hollyweird” of “trying to go back and win the war”.

Of course, the scene is also sending itself up, since Da 5 Bloods corresponds superficially to that same narrative template. The buddies are in Vietnam to bring back the remains of their beloved Norm. While they’re at it, they also plan to collect the stash of gold bars they stole from a crashed chopper and buried for safekeeping on their final tour of duty in the early 1970s. But how will they carry them back to the US with baggage allowances being what they are? It’s such a drag when you’re asked to dump some of your gold bars before being permitted to board the plane.

Luckily, Otis’s old flame Tiên Luu (Lê Y Lan) introduces them to Desroche (Jean Reno), who promises to buy the bounty and take a cut for himself. Meanwhile, Tiên Luu slips Otis a gun before he sets off on his mission. “Gold does strange things to people,” she warns him. “Even old friends.” Now there’s a woman with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on her DVD shelf.

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Despite being sent to fight in disproportionately high numbers, African Americans have rarely been the main focus of movies about the Vietnam War; the Hughes brothers’ 1995 thriller Dead Presidents being an obvious exception. Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo’s screenplay for Da 5 Bloods, originally titled The Last Tour, was about white soldiers; only when Lee and his co-writer Kevin Wilmott joined the project did the film acquire its racial component and its motivating anger. The director sets the record straight about the sacrifice and exploitation of black soldiers, much as he did in Miracle at St Anna, set during the Second World War, though he is well-practised at balancing sweeping history lessons with granular detail. Each man here has his secrets. Otis pops OxyContin, while Eddie is not the big shot he appears to be; Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) comes along to shed light on his father’s PTSD and add a dash of generational conflict to boot.

The discovery of the gold is dispensed with early and briskly, as though Lee knows he has more pressing matters to deal with than mere plausibility. David stumbles upon the treasure by chance while ­taking a dump in the undergrowth, providing ­cinema with its first example of a deus ­excrement machina.

It is Paul, a belligerent Trump supporter whose red MAGA cap stands out amid the foliage, who receives the most ­thorough psychological scrutiny here. Lee sees the president himself as beyond hope – one character describes him as “the Klansman in the Oval Office”– but the film expresses curiosity about the process by which a traumatised African-American man might find solace in the bilious Trumpian rhetoric. Lashing out at the US is too destabilising an idea for Paul to contemplate; far easier to sanction the building of a wall than to confront issues in his own past.

While it seems jarring at first that the middle-aged actors play their younger selves unchanged in flashback (the budget didn’t stretch to any Irishman-style de-ageing technology), the disparity between them and Boseman evokes the idealisation of the youthful dead. Norm has remained in his blemishless twenties while the gang has grown ragged and weary, which perhaps explains their worshipful tones: Norm never got a chance to age or compromise.

For all the seriousness of the endeavour, Lee still enjoys poking fun at these bickering codgers. “Ride of the Valkyries” booms out triumphantly during the men’s approach to the jungle, though the journey is made not by air, as it was in Apocalypse Now, but in a slow-moving boat inching through ­winding waterways, each one as narrow as a middle-aged American artery.

“Da 5 Bloods” is streaming on Netflix

Da 5 Bloods (15)
dir: Spike Lee

This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt