Spike Lee’s ‘Da 5 Bloods’: Black Lives Matter meets ‘Rambo’ [spoilers]
Bloods on the battlefield | Netflix

Spike Lee’s new film for Netflix, Da 5 Bloods, about the aftereffects on African-American soldiers of the Vietnam War, opens spectacularly.

A documentary sequence begins with Muhammad Ali detailing why he chooses not to fight: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother or some darker people…for big powerful America..for what?..They never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me. They never robbed me of my nationality.”

Malcolm X explains the war as a continuation of a history of Black exploitation in a country where “20 million Black people…fight all your wars and pick all your cotton and [you] never give them any recompense.” Over contrasting shots of the war and ’60s protests against it, come the strains of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” where the singer plaintively pleads for an end to a system where while “Bills pile up sky high” the response of a supremacist government is to “send that boy off to die.”

The film also ends strongly in the present summoning the Black Lives Matter protests, which echo again Marvin Gaye’s still prescient words about “trigger happy policing.”

In between, unfortunately, things get a lot muddier.

In the fiction, the five soldiers return to Vietnam to recover a treasure trove of gold they had hidden during the war. Each, and especially Paul (Delroy Lindo), has been in some way damaged and traumatized by the war. Vietnam is now a prosperous country—a sex worker under the American regime is, in independent Vietnam, a financial broker—but to return to it for these ex-soldiers is to re-invoke painful memories.

The film, self-conscious about the idiocy of the Rambo myth where Sylvester Stallone returns to fight the war and this time to win, nevertheless falls into its own similar trap as it recycles classic Hollywood images with the racist and imperialist residue of those images still intact. Lee’s film summons Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now with the Wagnerian “Ride of the Valkyries” as the five travel upriver to find the gold.

This is the least offensive of the references because the original was cognizant of the lunacy of the war. Paul, wracked by guilt over what happened in battle, grows increasingly mad as they travel further upriver, suggesting that Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz and Coppola’s Brando character suffered from what would now be called PTSD, not innately mad but driven mad by war.

The bloods back patrolling the rice paddies of Vietnam. | Netflix

Elsewhere, though, the references are not so innocuous. Echoes of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the way the thirst for the gold divides the bloods give way to a direct quote in one scene which figures the Vietnamese as Sierra Madre’s scurrilous Mexicans, one of whom who intones in Vietnamese Hollywood Spanish, “We don’t need no stinking official badges.”

The film cannot acknowledge that the Vietnam war was won by the National Liberation Army and the Viet Cong, who were in fact freedom fighters and whose struggle against U.S. imperialism is the same struggle that African Americans are engaged in domestically today in the inner cities. Thus, one character, who can’t stop refighting the war, is executed in a scene that depicts the Vietnamese as bloodthirsty bandits. The only male Vietnamese character the bloods trust is a bounty hunter whose parents fought for the U.S. puppet government of South Vietnam.

A flashback to the 1960s battlefield continues the “othering” of the Vietnamese by showing them only in outline, in a way that was criticized as being a detriment in Oliver Stone’s far better Platoon. Finally, the film, since it positions itself within the tradition of the War Film and the Western, complete with the bloods in a campfire scene (surrounded by hostile Indians/Vietnamese?), must end in a battle. This one features the bloods and their European NGO allies against Jean Reno’s bloated Frenchman, with again the nearly faceless Vietnamese simply enlisted behind him in a way that suggests nothing has changed in Vietnam since the French were driven out in 1954.

With heavy casualties, the bloods win the battle and in a way, once again, the Vietnam War. We’ve come both a long way and not very far at all from Rambo.


Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe’s latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and the Rise of the Streaming Services. He has taught at the Sorbonne and is currently teaching in the Master’s Program at the École Supérieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the British daily Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an associate editor.