Spike Lee’s highly acclaimed new Netflix drama that centers on five Black American Servicemen (four of whom return to Vietnam) hits hard with impeccable timing. The release of this film suitably coincides with the recent heightened awareness of the Black Lives Matter Movement that is now gripping the globe. More importantly this movie, much like BLM, reverberates the mantra of bringing justice, healing, and freedom to black people. Though like many of Spike Lee’s masterpieces (e.g. BlacKkKlansman – 2019 Oscar Winner Best Adapted Screenplay – superb and my favorite), this complex film is multi-layered with so many emblematic nuances to unpack.
To begin, viewers should be warned! This film opens with extremely powerful and very disturbing violent historical footage (Kent State & Jackson State massacres, execution of the Viet Cong officer Nguyễn Văn Lém…), that will leave many humanitarians shaking their heads in horror at the awful things human beings do to each other. Not to divulge too many spoilers but Lee also cleverly commences and closes with vintage recordings of two prominent black Vietnam War opposers (Muhammad Ali & Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). All this initial priming really sets the tone of what’s to come and it’s not pretty.
The movie transitions from the graphic intro to four former American black soldiers Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) and Eddie (Norm Lewis), reuniting in a Vietnam bar to discuss their two-tiered plan of recovering top-secret US gold bullion worth millions (an American war-effort payment intended for South Vietnam), along with the remains of their inspiring revered forward-thinking troop leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman) who died in combat in front of his squad while trying to recover this government treasure. This jungle journey takes these four aging Vietnam Vets on a treacherous soul-searching trek of greed, materialism, longing, clarity, sorrow, forgiveness, and redemption. Without giving too much away veteran Paul (a deeply troubled PTSD sufferer and recent Trump supporter who dons a MAGA cap), is joined on the trip by his loving yet oddly estranged son David (Jonathan Majors) who aims to use the excursion as a means to bond with his dad. While Vihn (Johnny Tri Nguyen) serves as the group’s trusted Vietnamese guide. All that to say, summing the plot of this movie is a cinch compared with fleshing out its main message.
Similar to other stories of war this movie dispatches the significance of camaraderie, unity, loyalty, and above all service and love of country. However, the stark difference in this tale is two-fold. First, this film chronicles the experiences of black American servicemen in Vietnam, whose descriptions in real life were habitually under-reported, despite the large role they played in the annals. Second, this narrative takes direct aim at the conundrum faced by young black soldiers who realize that the same nation they are willing to sacrifice and die for, do not value them or their lives. This rings true in this movie loud and clear when the five main screen warriors, while in the fierce throes of battle, learn of the assignation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1968). Factually speaking it is no secret that African Americans were disproportionately summoned to the most dangerous duty on the front-lines during the Vietnam War and as a result had excessively higher rates of casualties. African Americans were also much less likely to have the contacts/means to avoid being drafted or sidestepping hazardous missions like their white counterparts. An issue civil-rights leaders protested, with some gains in reform that (later) slightly reduced such disparity in conflict. Though, regardless of the progress made, it cannot be overlooked that ironically the most oppressed American comrades were sent in full force to fight a war against equally oppressed people. That said, no matter how you slice it war is awful but there are lessons to gain from it too. As writings on the Duality of War underscore; “War is the most destructive and pitiless of all human activities. And yet the experience of war has a profound and strangely compelling effect on those who fight. Combat kills, maims, and terrifies, but it can also reveal the power of brotherhood and a selfless sense of purpose. It’s an experience that changes soldiers, and those changes last a lifetime.” So true.
Lee incorporates many of these elements of war into this film while using a great deal of political and personal allegory. Even the vernacular in the movie’s title Da 5 Bloods is loaded with significance. For example, the word Da in Vietnamese means Skin. The number 5 denotes humanity, and is fraught with endless substance. To elaborate, humans have five fingers, five toes, five senses, five major body systems (digestive, circulatory, nervous, respiratory, and muscular) and five appendages (two arms, two legs, one head) with the brain in control. Mystically speaking, the number 5 is associated with positive change, balance, health, independence, and adventure; taking a journey (mental/physical/spiritual) that includes expressing gratitude for the world and people around you while needing to pay attention to what you see, hear, touch, smell and feel. Lastly, the word Bloods is a well-known acronym for “Brotherly Love Overcomes Overrides and Destruction” a.k.a. blood-brothers. Also, Lee’s flashback method with the servicemen appearing as aged (not youthful as they were when the combative events actually happened), signifies that memories stick for life (good or bad) and are seared into the brain for eternity. It’s true that no matter how many years pass people carry their recollections (pleasant and painful) forever. NOTE: Distressing traumas can be resolved by learning new coping skills to help overcome symptoms, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). On this point, as so prominently echoed in this film’s fabulous soundtrack, we don’t always know ‘What’s Going On’ (Marvin Gaye) and we don’t always have power over life’s events. But how we view our experiences belongs to us, and us alone, which reminds me of a famous quote by Viktor Frankl, “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.“
With so much intended meaning and symbolism embedded in this flick what is the main take-away message you ask? Some might say self-forgiveness. After all, internal wars will continue to rage until we accept ourselves, transgressions and all; only then will inner peace be attained. Others might say the moral of this story fixates on the deadly game of greed and chasing imperialist beliefs; the desire for the all mighty dollar and dirty money that can only be washed clean by using it for good (e.g. donations to blacklivesmatter.com) as highlighted at the movie’s end. Then of course there is also the blatant implications of selflessness, and racism plainly laid out and strewn throughout this film.
Any of these paradigms would be a good guess, but in my opinion the calculated lesson this movie imparts is about reverence and respect and honoring people for what matters – who they are on the inside. This movie exemplifies how American culture has historically devalued and wrongfully categorized certain citizens into ill-conceived groups of a lesser ilk. These past stains of subjugation and persecution have long been drenched into the fabric of the country and sadly still remain today. Watching the daily news is evidence enough of how said principled battles continue via the perilous quest for fairness and equilibrium through the Black Lives Matter Movement, which the OHF proudly supports. Consecration vs. Contempt – It’s difficult to comprehend the origins of discrimination, especially since our world is enhanced so much by individual differences, not diminished. As the exceptional book Man’s Search for Meaning states, you don’t have to look far to witness that “human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn” – Viktor Frankl. It’s sad that we need to remind people that none of us have control over our skin color (or our birth parents for that matter) – it’s all predetermined before we are born. Therefore, judging anyone based on this premise is absolutely futile and senseless. Anything less than showing and feeling true appreciation for all human life is beyond unacceptable. It’s just mind-boggling how such repressing tyranny is/was ever allowed or tolerated in the first place. But no more.
P.S. A few things to share with this movie in mind. First, on a recent humanitarian trip to Cambodia I stayed very close to the Vietnam border and all I could think of the entire time was – how could any country send their soldiers to war in such a place. The heat and humidity alone are brutally punishing – let alone fighting for your life in full gear! Second, I have traveled to Washington DC several times, and although I sincerely appreciate their many war memorials that rightfully honor all those who bravely fought for their country; it’s so heartbreaking to see the incredible loss of life. Especially that of Vietnam as so many US soldiers (black, white, brown…) who survived the atrocities of this war were so dishonorably disregarded. Lastly, my lifelong minister the late Reverend Risby who conducted my wedding ceremony, baptized both my children, performed my husband’s funeral, and basically played a major role in all the most important events in my life was black. He was very special to me and I saw him for exactly what he was – an amazing person who was very kind to me. I hope he saw me the same way. People are people. Period. Discrimination against blacks (or anyone) is appalling and something I will never understand. A final word. Since the Black Lives Matter Movement is currently such a relevant topic, in order to do this highly influential film and worthy cause the justice both deserve this movie-blog post is of a more extended variety than my usual posts. I apology if this write-up seems a bit too detailed in some parts but given the gravity of the current situation I felt it was required and necessary.