Spike Lee Tells a Different Vietnam War History

His new film depicts the struggle of black veterans who fought for a country that never treated them right.

Thirty-one years ago, Spike Lee made a tragically prescient film. In Do the Right Thing (1989), a white police officer kills a boom-box-wielding black man named Radio Raheem by choking him with a nightstick. Riots quickly erupt, and a neighborhood pizzeria owned by Italian Americans—where the confrontation started—is burned to the ground.

When the film came out, it was enormously controversial. Critics predicted that it would spark race riots across the country. (It didn’t.) Instead, the groundbreaking look at New York City race relations portrayed a pattern of police brutality that has been an all too common feature of American life. If anything, the rise of smart phones has only resulted in more of these instances getting caught on camera.

That has not been lost on Lee. On May 31, he released a short 95-second film interspersing real footage of the police murders of Eric Garner and George Floyd with fictional footage of Radio Raheem, played by Bill Nunn. It’s a searing illustration of life imitating art—and Lee’s way of telling us that he’s been vindicated.

But while Do the Right Thing seems to have predicted the future, Lee’s newest feature, Da 5 Bloods, tries to reckon with the past. Released June 12 on Netflix, the film follows four black veterans who return to Vietnam on a two-pronged mission. They want to find and bring home the remains of their idealized commander Stormin’ Norman, played by Chadwick Boseman, who died in combat. At the same time, they hope to find a hidden stash of gold that they once intended to deliver to the South Vietnamese but buried after an ambush.

The premise becomes the narrative engine for Lee to offer a history about the role of black Americans in the war. The four men—Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.)—grapple with what happened to them. “We fought in an immoral war that wasn’t ours, for rights we didn’t have,” says Paul. Many of their fellow black soldiers didn’t survive. At one point, Melvin reminds the group of an important stat: In 1965, nearly a quarter of all U.S. combat deaths in Vietnam were black, even though blacks made up only 11 percent of the U.S. population.

The center of the drama is Paul, their battle-scarred and emotionally erratic comrade who has since become a Trump supporter. He dons a red MAGA hat and talks of the need to build a southern border wall. To Lee’s credit, he doesn’t condescend to Paul. By giving him the space to act out his anguish, the filmmaker empathizes with the roots of his paranoia. Lee, of course, has made his deeply negative feelings about the current White House occupant no secret in real life, and in this movie, other characters refer to Trump as Agent Orange and President Fake Bone Spurs.

Accompanying the group is Paul’s estranged son David (Johnathan Majors), who surprises them in Ho Chi Minh City, where they all meet at the beginning. For good reason, David worries about his old man, who seems on the verge of a breakdown. The two appear to have always had an acrimonious relationship; in an unnecessary and artificial insertion to the script, Paul tells Otis that David’s mother died giving birth to him, implying the source of his long-held resentment. The father and son’s attempt to reconcile comes to a head in one of the film’s more riveting scenes, when they are wandering through the jungle and David realizes that he’s stepped on a land mine but has yet to set it off, and Paul scrambles to figure out how to get him away without him blowing to pieces. It’s one of the many reminders throughout Da 5 Bloods that wars never really end.

Movie lovers will quickly notice Lee’s many allusions to Apocalypse Now—from his replicating the famous shot of a helicopter flying across a sunset, to his playing “Ride of the Valkyries”—and the plot’s resemblances to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Lee also pays tribute to Samuel Fuller’s films about the Korean war, such as The Steel Helmet. In Bloods, as in Helmet, the gang sets up an observation post at a Buddhist temple.

More interesting, however, is where Lee diverges from one of his other cinematic heroes—and former NYU film professor—Martin Scorsese. Unlike Scorsese’s choice to use de-aging technology in his 2019 epic The Irishman, Lee deliberately eschews any prosthetic help or computer-generated imagery to make his characters look younger.

Da 5 Bloods cuts back and forth from the war to the present; the flashbacks are shot on 16mm film and in a narrower aspect ratio, whereas most of the rest of the film is shot wide on digital. But in both cases, the characters look the same then as they do now. They have the same gray hair, the same wrinkles in their face. Lee wants to show how the trauma of their experience in the war irreparably shaped the rest of their lives. Da 5 Bloods evokes Faulkner’s famous aphorism: “The past is never dead. It is not even past.”

It’s no accident that the film begins with a clip of Muhammad Ali. “Here we go with the damn Vietnam War,” he says, “and we still ain’t get nothin’ but police brutality, et cetera.” Lee then cuts to a montage of historical footage of the social unrest of the 1960s, of protests and riots much like the ones that have raged across America over the last month.

Lee began shooting the film in March 2019. Obviously, he did not have George Floyd’s murder and the widespread anti-racism demonstrations it would trigger in mind during the production. The events of the world just so happened to reinforce his point. The history books might say the Vietnam War is over, but we are still fighting the same old fights.

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Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa is digital editor at the Washington Monthly.