Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” takes five African American men to Vietnam–four are remembering the past and all five are hoping for a better future because there’s gold in them there hills. This treasure hunt is also a history lesson, with the action in the present stopped to remind us of the past or even provide contemporaneous background during flashbacks. Vietnam is still just an exotic background and the locals are, with the exception of a sidekick (interpreter/guide) and past romantic entanglement, background players.
It’s not as if the topic of Asians in Asia isn’t brought up. At the very beginning, we see archival video from 26 February 1978 Chicago, Illinois. Muhammad Ali is explaining his stance:
My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America and shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
The montage covers black leaders of that time: Malcolm X,Kwame Ture and Angela Davis. Scenes from Kent State (4 May 1970) and Jackson State (14 May 1970) shootings are also dropped with expository script identifying the people who died.
The famous film clips of the execution of Viet Song Nguyễn Văn Lém by Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan (1 February 1968) taken by NBC cameraman Võ Sửu (photographed by Eddie Adams for Associated Press) during the Tet Offensive and the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut showing a naked girl Phan Thị Kim Phúc running down a road after a South Vietnamese napalm attack are included before we come to a swank hotel where the five men are staying.
Ostensibly, the four vets are looking for the remains of their squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who was KIA Dec. 7, 1971. Can the date (Pearl Harbor Day) be symbolic?
Eddie (Norm Lewis), in a tall cowboy hat and leather cowboy boots, appears to the be most successful of the four veterans, offering to put all the hotel expenses on his credit card. Paul (Delroy Lindo) has come with some extra baggage–PTSD, a MAGA red baseball cap and his son David (Jonathan Majors). Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) provides some comic relief.
In reality, their mission is uncovering bars of gold meant as payment to the Lahu ( 拉祜族) that were lost when a C-47 CIA plane was downed.
The five men were sent to recover it yet Stormin’ Norman decided the change the mission. They will lie and say the Viet Cong got the gold. When asked if they are ripping off someone, Norman says, “We ain’t ripping off shit” because “we was the very first people to die for this red, white and blue,” reminding them about the “soul brother” (Crispus Attucks) and then, echoing Bobby Seales, he says, “We been dying for this country for the very get.” He explains, “I say the USA owe us. I’m saying we repossess this gold. We repossess this gold for every single black boot that never made it home, every brother and sister stolen from mother Africa to Jamestown way back.”
Otis (Clarke Peters), a former medic, has connections, with a former lady friend, Tiên (Lê Y Lan). The glamorous Tiên survived the war and now lives in an upscale apartment with her half-black adult daughter, Michon (Sandy Hương Phạm). As you can probably guess, Michon is Otis’ daughter. Tiên tells Otis that survival wasn’t easy with an illegitimate half-black daughter, but that pain is all expository and no deeper than an ant’s wading pool. No hard feelings and Tiên arranges a meeting with a suspiciously connected fence, Desroche (Jean Reno).
Desroche will convert the bars of gold into cash put into bank accounts in Macau. He requires a pretty steep cut and Tiên needs her cut as well. Will the Lahu ever get their cut? As of 2019 there are 12,113 Lahu in Vietnam and as of 2005, 10,000 in the US.
Guiding them to the general area is a local, Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyễn). After showing them to local bars and taking them via boat to the entry of a forest, he leaves them, agreeing on a rendez-vous point. At one of the bars, David has a mild flirtation with, Hedy Bouvier (Mélanie Thierry), a former rich kid whose family profited from exploiting the Vietnamese, but has, on her own, established an organization that finds land mines and bombs and detonates them before they can cause harm to innocent locals. With her are Seppo Havelin (Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen) and Simon (Paul Walter Hauser). This threesome will meet with the Bloods again along the trail.
The focus is on the struggle of Paul with his guilt over leaving Stormin’ Norman behind and how he failed at providing a loving home for his son David. Lindo is ferocious but sympathetic as his Paul wrestles with his demons and Spike Lee has him breaking the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience, both in the jungle and in a more civilized setting. Gold, of course, changes things; the men are divided on how to spend it.
Eddie reminds them, “Norman said that gold should go to our people…that gold should go to black liberation. I’m talking about black reparations.”
Not everyone will make it out of the jungle and back to the United States, but the highest body count will be among the nameless Vietnamese, led by Quân (Nguyễn Ngọc Lâm). Quân rightfully claims that the money is for the Vietnamese and notes that the American soldiers killed women and children and one of the black vets says, “There were atrocities on both sides.” No one remembers the money was meant as payment to the Lahu.
There is a happy ending of sorts. Hedy’s LAMB (Love Against Mines and Bombs) foundation will get a sizable donation and so will Black Lives Matter ($2 million from Eddie). Otis, David’s godfather, tells us “Five bloods don’t die; they multiply” and us the whole adventure was “madness” (echoing King’s assessment of the Vietnam War). Stormin’ Norman always commanded us to “love one another.”
Putting things in context, Spike Lee reminds us that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee (4 April 1968) while the Vietnam War was raging. Riots broke out in various US cities. Lee, Danny Bilson, Paul De Peo and Kevin Willmott’s script has Hanoi Hannah (Veronica Ngo as a real person) purring over the radio waves about King’s death, wondering if the black soldiers wouldn’t be better off serving their communities back in the US.
Lee ends the film with an excerpt from King’s 4 April 1967 speech at the Riverside Church meeting in New York.
When a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: To save the soul of America. We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear…
Lee ends King’s speech with as excerpt from the Langston Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again.”
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Lee doesn’t hit us with the hammer blow because he omits the two lines that follow:
Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam.
King also added:
They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation, and before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony.
Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not “ready” for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination, and a government that had been established not by China (for whom the Vietnamese have no great love) but by clearly indigenous forces that included some Communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.
Yet we don’t really get an understanding of communism in Vietnam in this film, but the film does provide two French people–one working for the good (Hedy Bouvier) and one taking advantage from a place of privilege (Desroche). Wouldn’t it be nice if a Vietnamese had a larger and more significant role?
Lee does give the last words to as Hanoi Hannah, “Be safe” during the credits.
You’ll end the movie knowing that African Americans George Washington owned 123 slaves and that African Americans were in all the United States wars (per Bobby Seale).
If you don’t know that, then you’ve failed basic US history. In his speech, Seale said:
In the Civil War, 186,000 black men fought in the Civil War and we were promised freedom and we didn’t get it. In World War I, 350,000 black men fought and we were promised freedom and we didn’t get it. In World War II, 850,000 black men fought and we were promised freedom and we didn’t get it.
What might be more surprising is that the first recorded presence of an Asian American in a US war is the War of 1812. During the US Civil War, ethnic Asians served on both sides. After World War I, foreign-born ethnic Asian vets fought for the citizenship they had been promised. That resulted in Supreme Court cases (the 1923 United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind and the 1925 Hidemitsu Toyota v. United States) and the 1935 Nye-Lea Act which granted 500 ethnic Asians citizenship. In the aftermath of World War II, Congress passed the Rescission Act that “retroactively annulled the benefits promised to [Filipino] veterans and their widows and children [by FDR] because of concerns over its projected price tag of upwards of $3 billion” and Europe was given a greater priority. Some Filipino vets saw relief in 2009, but others are still waiting.
Wars in Asia brought heightened anti-Asian incidents in the US, and saw service men and women subject to hate from both sides, but it also afforded some opportunities to be US spies.
As Spike Lee points out in the film, there hasn’t been a Vietnam War movie about real black war heroes. Lee’s already done a fictional treatment about black soldier during World War II. If we are to have new films about real wars, they should tell us something new because it is time to expand our understanding of war and its participants beyond the white protagonist. Yet in his ambitious effort, Spike failed both women and the Vietnamese in “Da 5 Bloods,” and “Da 5 Bloods” frames this as black versus white in a world where women and Asians are background players and it surely is a time to look beyond that binary.
“Da 5 Bloods” is a Netflix original and currently streaming on Netflix.