Earlier today we got our first look at Spike Lee’s latest “joint”, the Vietnam war epic Da 5 Bloods. The fantastic-looking film follows four US veterans (played by Delroy Lindo, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, and Clarke Peters) who return to Vietnam five decades after they lost their faith in their home country. That crippling moment of realisation happens in the film’s early moments, set in 1968, as these young black soldiers hear the breaking news from the US that the Civil Rights movement leader Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated.
This was a historic moment for US armed forces that is never really tackled in pop media. As Lee explained to Vanity Fair, even the characters in his movie remark on how few movies ever truly capture the experience of black US soldiers in Vietnam.
The United States Armed Forces came close to being torn apart when black soldiers heard that Dr. King was assassinated. They also heard that their brothers and sisters were tearing shit up in over 100 cities across America. The tipping point came very close; the black soldiers were getting ready to set it off in Vietnam—and not against the Vietcong either.
None of this was originally supposed to be in the movie though. In fact, this wasn’t even supposed to be a “Spike Lee joint” as it was originally optioned by another acclaimed filmmaker.
In the Year of Our Lord 2013, two filmmakers, their names are Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, who is no longer with us, wrote a spec script called The Last Tour, about a group of four Vietnam vets who were returning to Vietnam to find the remains of their squad leader… In 2014 my coproducer, Lloyd Levin, optioned the script and brought it to Oliver Stone, who had it for two years, and in 2016 he walked away. I’ve not spoken to Oliver, so I don’t know what happened.
We wanted to do it, but we wanted to make changes. We wanted to make the story about African American Vietnam vets.
Those changes even extends to the music, which Lee wanted to reflect his new narrative.
We wanted to include the music from one of the greatest albums of all time, in my opinion: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Marvin Gaye’s brother, Frankie, did three tours in Vietnam. He was a radio operator. And he would write Marvin all the time, so Marvin was getting a firsthand account from his brother about the horrors of the war. Those letters were really the impetus of one of the greatest albums of all time, so I wanted to include Marvin’s songs.
As Da 5 Bloods plays out over two time periods, both in 1968 and in 2020 times, Lee is able to juxtapose a lot of historical drama with current drama. And that includes tackling “Agent Orange” – that’s Lee’s nickname for US President Donald Trump. In his previous film, BlacKkKlansman, Lee had pulled no punches when tackling the controversial president and his alleged racist political leanings. This is why it’s so surprising that Da 5 Bloods includes a Trump supporter in Delroy Lindo’s character Paul.
It’s something that my mother taught me very early on. She’d say, ‘Spike, all black people ain’t the same. All black people don’t look alike, or think alike.’ So we’ve got this group, and I had to show some type of diversity amongst these African American men. They can’t be all alike—that’s not only stupid, it’s not dramatic. […] And there are a small minority of black folks who drank the orange Kool-Aid. To make him more dramatic, Paul is a MAGA-hat-wearing motherfucker.
It’s not all politics though, as Lee brings his trademark mix of tonal juggling act to the mix here as well. Ostensibly, the older four veterans – Paul, Otis (Peters), Eddie (Lewis), and Melvin (Whitlock, Jr.) are accompanied by Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors), returning to the Southeast Asian country to retrieve the body of their squad leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman) who was slain in their last firefight together five decades earlier and buried in the jungle by his compatriots. But it’s not just Norman’s remains in that grave.
Before that fateful shootout, the unit had stumbled across a whole stash of gold bars lost by the CIA during the war, which they planned to retrieve and use to combat the injustices against black Americans. Now though, after so much time, the allure of all that gold could see the camaraderie shared between these veterans make way for some plain old greed. The result is a movie that’s Apocalypse Now spliced with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, movies which Lee acknowledges in his production. Unlike some others.
I’ve always given homages to films I love in my films. I want to go on record on this. I’m not being disrespectful to any Vietnam film that’s been made, except maybe The Green Berets with John Wayne, who is not a hero of mine.
Wayne was a very outspoken conservative and supporter of the Vietnam War who in 1971 made some heavily inflammatory and racist comments during an interview about race relations in the US at the time. He stated that he believed in “white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility” and also that white European settlers were not wrong to violently take North America from Native Americans as “the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves”.
And it’s because of prejudiced rhetoric like this from a public figure that many looked up to, that Lee feels it’s imperative to not only depict the story of black Americans but also celebrate the black heroes that defended the US over the centuries, vignettes of whom Lee peppers throughout his film
We’ve always believed in this country. That is why we fought for this country, even knowing we were slaves, in the Civil War. That is the reason why I show Milton Olive III, 18 years old, the first African American to be awarded the Purple Heart in Vietnam. That’s why I show Crispus Attucks, the first American, not just a black person, the first American to die for the United States in the American Revolutionary War at The Boston Massacre.
Those are some major points to tackle. If anybody can do it though, it’s Lee. And I can’t wait to see just how he pulls it off then Da 5 Bloods debuts on Netflix on 12 June.
Last Updated: May 19, 2020