There have been so many American movies about the Vietnam War, or what this film pointedly calls the American War, that most Americans can probably list a few off the top of their heads. I don’t recall watching a big-budget Hollywood picture that features the experience of African American soldiers, who as Da 5 Bloods points out were disproportionately drafted and used to shield white soldiers from the worst campaigns—a historical precedent any time soldiers of color were deployed in an American war. This focus on the Black experience in itself makes the movie notable, but its true power lies in the sprawling journey it takes the viewer on, through past and present, fictional and real-world footage, photographs and illustrations, and iconic musical cues and images that are indelibly tied up with the American imagination of Vietnam. Spike Lee stitches all of these elements together to make a fascinating patchwork that echoes the fragmented nature of narrative and memory regarding this war.
Da 5 Bloods is the story of four veterans who return to Vietnam to retrieve the remains of their squad leader and friend, who was killed in action—and, secretly, the stash of buried gold they’ve been waiting decades to recover. It becomes a journey instead into the land of the past, as the four of them face not only the living ghosts that they’ve carried with them since the war traumatized them, but the reality that in many senses, the war never really ended. Not for them, and not for the Vietnamese.
Paul (Delroy Lindo) was the worst hit by PTSD and his friends and son David (Jonathan Majors) watch him with concern as he slowly unravels; it’s no coincidence that his bitterness and paranoia seem to have found an outlet in his support for Trump. Otis (Clarke Peters), the tacit leader of the group, reconnects with Tiên (Lê Y Lan), whom he knew as a soldier and clearly has never forgotten, and is forced to recognize that their encounter had consequences for her that he’d never given thought to. Eddie and Melvin (Norm Lewis and Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) round out the group and have their own small arcs, but it’s Paul and Otis, and the long-dead, almost Christ-like figure of Norm (Chadwick Boseman) that the story really centers around.
Norm was the glue that bound this group of friends together and provided them with both a moral conscience and a sense of purpose, and they’ve never been the same since they lost him. As they say, he was “our Malcolm and our Martin.” The choice to use the same, older actors even in the flashback scenes serves as a silent commentary on the way they’ve aged while he’s remained his young and perfect self in their memories. Their grief for Norm in many ways runs parallel to the larger loss and trauma they experienced during and after the war which stole so much from them, and from so many others—it’s perhaps a way to focus all that destruction and suffering that is too large for the mind to take in.
This is emblemized by the images that open the film, a powerful montage of brutality, injustice and resistance that flies by so quickly that the viewer is left dazed and battered. It’s a smart way of both acknowledging how very much there is to talk about, and how little can be tackled meaningfully in the space of two and a half hours, even by the extremely capable Spike Lee. The plot of the movie is also unwieldy, a little too sprawling, and rife with coincidence and cliché, which unfortunately aren’t used with Lee’s typical brilliant touch on familiar tropes. The first half of the movie is gripping; the second half has some great moments, but it unravels much the same way that Paul eventually does.
That’s the crux of this movie for me: Spike Lee brings up so many vital, vast, and urgent topics, but doesn’t give them the exploration needed for any nuanced reading of what happened during the American War in Vietnam. Not least of which is the central premise that racial injustice at home is inextricably tied up with American imperialism abroad. (A sentence that I could repeat a hundred times and it would still not feel like enough.) As the movie opens, Mohammed Ali asks why he should fight Vietnamese people when his oppressors are at home; Norm’s initial idea to steal the gold is framed as reparations. Lee does a virtuosic job weaving everything together, as in David’s first conversation with Hedy, which brings together the legacy of French colonialism in Vietnam, the endless violence of active landmines, European exploitation of black and brown people with plantation slavery, gun violence in America, even clichéd bourgeoisie white guilt—all in the space of a minute and a half.
Ultimately, however, this is still an American story told from a Black soldier’s perspective, and although it’s a valuable and revolutionary perspective, it’s also one that, again, gives very little space to Vietnamese people. Paul’s position as a Trump supporter means that the anti-Vietnamese racism he spews at the turn of a dime is allowed to exist without much pushback; there aren’t, after all, many Vietnamese characters who exist in enough dimensions to meaningfully challenge him.
Tiên does bring up her experience of raising a Black Vietnamese daughter, but she’s only given a single humanizing conversation. Otherwise she’s on the margins, as women often are in Lee’s movies, but here especially I’m struck by the same old tropes of Asian women who exist either as sex objects or threats (often both) for the American men who encounter them. There is acknowledgment but no true engagement with the way that occupying American soldiers, of every color, have always exploited local women for their bodies while simultaneously espousing disgust for them, and the legacy of what these encounters have meant for these women and their children. As Viet Thanh Nguyen points out, again and always, the Vietnamese are either victims or a backdrop for American stories, and the fact that this a story centers Black Americans doesn’t excuse that.
It’s a glaring misstep in a movie that does acknowledge the international aspect of racial inequality, the inescapable connections of racism at home to imperialism abroad. Da 5 Bloods gestures toward that truth, even says it out loud in typical, on-the-nose Spike Lee fashion, but fails to embody the politics it espouses. That’s a lost opportunity for a film that could have been truly radical, and not just important.