The Shadows of History Are in the Spotlight of Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods”

The Shadows of History Are in the Spotlight of Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods”

Director Spike Lee continues to press buttons and pull the right strings, begging America to wake up in his new film, Da 5 Bloods.

Da 5 Bloods draws comparisons between the era of the Vietnam War and today, showing that America has merely crawled forwards, not leaped, in the pursuit of equity and equality. The story follows four African-American Vietnam War veterans (Paul, Otis, Eddie and Melvin), who refer to themselves as “bloods.” They meet up in modern day Ho Chi Minh City to revisit their pasts and to attempt to recover gold they had previously found in a helicopter crash, and were unable to bring home due to its weight and the nature of military transportation. They also hope to find the body of their fallen fifth blood, Stormin’ Norman (Norm).

Director Spike Lee is known for doing things his own unique way which lends both to his hit-and-miss filmography and to his strong individual voice. Whether it’s at the top of his game or middling, you know when you’re watching a Spike Lee film. In Da 5 Bloods, Lee changes aspect ratio between 1.33:1 (square television ratio) for scenes set in the past; traditional 2.39:1 (rectangular wide ratio) for present-day scenes; and 1.85:1 (full screen) in the third act, when the bloods come face-to-face with a group of gunmen, who also want the gold. The color changes as well to replicate the look of old films for the scenes in the past. While breaking rules of traditional filmmaking, Lee actually serves the story better, distinguishing the two time periods and their tones. The modern-day sequences are more playful: in one scene, the friend group travels down a river while “Ride of the Valkyries” plays, overtly referencing Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now. In contrast, most of the scenes during war are focused on Stormin’ Norman as he discusses with his fellow bloods racial injustices and the power of peace in fighting against the violence of racism in America and in Vietnam.

The film explores the shadows of history that hang over our modern society. Today, there remains a tension among some of the Vietnamese about war and toward Americans. One merchant tries to sell a live chicken to a highly reluctant Paul. His negative responses become aggressive prompting the Vietnamese merchant to yell “You killed my mother and father,” which triggers Paul’s PTSD, giving him a panic attack. This story is very much about the past informing the present, especially for Paul, whose soldier mentality and military training impedes his ability to think clearly and act peacefully. When the group of bloods meet up in Vietnam, they are also met by Paul’s son, David, who wants not only a share of the gold but more importantly to spend time with his father, who for the majority of his life has been cold and distant. Paul’s neglect for his son was incited and shaped by war and exacerbated by his extreme guilt for losing Norm, despite it not being his fault. Losing a brother in arms, losing a friend, is difficult and he wasn’t able to move past it like his fellow bloods. His path is always toward a fight, toward more war.

To these bloods, the journey for the gold is meant to give them a way to be together and recapture their camaraderie. However, money and endeavors of personal wealth can get in the way of all relationships, even strong friendships. Money causes more violence and division than it does togetherness or a way toward financial freedom. As the group returns to their wartime roots, the past catches up to them, sparking a second war for them, both internally as well as literally with the group of gunmen. Beyond being about America and Vietnam, this film specifically focuses on being Black in Vietnam. In World War I, there was an African-American infantry unit who saw more action than any other Army unit, Black or white. This unit, the Harlem Hellfighters, was finally recognized in 2015 by President Barack Obama. Private Henry Johnson posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his bravery in driving back a surprise attack by the German Army. Soldier segregation continued through World War II. However, the Vietnam War was happened at the same time that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed. Vietnam was the first conflict which fully integrated Black and white soldiers.

In 1987, Wallace Terry, an African-American journalist for Time magazine, said that Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that, “…sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Terry observed how, “that dream came true in only one place, the front lines of Vietnam.”

Frank McGee, a journalist for NBC concluded, through interviews and observations for an NBC television documentary on Blacks in the Vietnam War Same Mud, Same Blood (1967), that “Nowhere in America have I seen Negroes and whites as free, open and uninhibited with their associations.” And Lewis B. Larry, the African-American Platoon Sergeant who commanded forty men, Black and white, in the 101st Airborne Division said of Vietnam, “There’s no racial barrier of any sort here.” Da 5 Bloods is not about racial divisions in the place where the bloods fought, but about the racial divisions in the place they fought for. Regardless of the brotherhood experienced with their fellow soldiers, they still returned to a divided and violent country.

Da 5 Bloods could not have come at a more opportune moment. It feels as though the movie was made last week in terms of its messaging and themes. It even ends partially in a Black Lives Matters activist meeting with impassioned voices begging to be heard and listened to. It’s always important to look to the past in order to see or plan for the future. Being able to go to war is not the same as being equal at home. In war it’s brotherhood or bust. The only enemy is the enemy you face on the frontlines. In America, the enemy could be living next door. Norm elaborates, while the five bloods sit and discuss war and America, “War is about money. Money is about war. Every time I walk out my front door, I see cops patrolling my neighborhood like it’s some kind of police state. I can feel just how much I ain’t worth.” And as the four remaining bloods return to claim their gold, they incite only more violence, coming head-to-head with the gunmen in a firefight, echoing Norman’s words as a theme. When Eddie sees that some of his fellow bloods want the gold for themselves and not for a greater cause, he screams out “Money is the root of all evil,” and they descend further into what will become for them a second Vietnam War.

At two hours and thirty-five minutes and with a budget of around $45 million, Da 5 Bloods, is Spike Lee’s most ambitious film to date and one of his most impressive. There are elements of blaxploitation film and hilariously absurd references to Apocalypse Now throughout, yet it maintains sincerity and an earnest nature, making the characters sympathetic and relatable. It is often difficult to balance such an epic scope with an intimate character driven story, but Lee achieves this balance while also exploring themes on race, violence and American hypocrisy. Da 5 Bloods is well worth the watch and the discussion that will inevitably follow afterwards.

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