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'Da 5 Bloods' Review: A Vital Message Lost in a Deeply Flawed Film

This article contains major spoilers for Da 5 Bloods.

When Spike Lee's newest movie was announced last year, I had high hopes. Knowing that it was filmed here in Saigon with some portions in Thailand, I looked forward to seeing contemporary Vietnam depicted in a major Hollywood movie — and not just as a stand-in for a fictional place as in Kong: Skull Island.

I'll admit that I haven't seen a lot of Lee's filmography, but Inside Man and 25th Hour are masterpieces, as is his 2006 Hurricane Katrina documentary series When the Levees Broke. 2018's BlacKkKlansman was flawed but hugely entertaining, and especially in this time period when there are so few movies being released, a new "joint" from an iconic director was an exciting prospect. This is arguably the biggest movie to be released so far this year, given how many major projects have been delayed.

Starring Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Norm Lewis, the lengthy movie tells the tale of four African-American war veterans who return to Vietnam to find the remains of their fallen squad leader, played by Chadwick Boseman (of The Avengers franchise), and recover a trunk of gold they left buried in the jungle while deployed in the early 1970s.

From left to right: Whitlock Jr., Lewis, Peters, Lindo and Jonathan Majors. Photo by David Lee/Netflix.

I'll start with the good: the chemistry between the leads is evident from the opening scene; Lindo gives a particularly strong performance as a Trump-supporting vet struggling with PTSD that will likely put him in the conversation for an Oscar nomination; and Boseman is electrifying in his brief appearances during war-era flashback scenes. 

Lee's aim of portraying the role of Black soldiers in the war, the injustice of them fighting for freedoms in Southeast Asia that they couldn't even enjoy in America, and its impact on them, is extremely important. The history laced through the movie, including clips of Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr. and Angela Davis, along with references to 1619, Crispus Attucks, police brutality, reparations and Black Lives Matter, could not be more timely given the current global conversation on race, history and inequality.

The first few minutes, sadly, ruin any potential depiction of racial equality or nuanced character portrayal.

An early scene set inside Apocalypse Now features a young beggar with one leg calling the lead characters "G.I.," while the group eyes two elderly Vietnamese men referred to as "VC." When they exit the nightclub, the same beggar throws firecrackers on the ground at them and again taunts them with shouts of "G.I!" "G.I.!"

This would simply never happen; besides the fact that fireworks are illegal here (pedantic, I know), I can't envision a Vietnamese person of any age calling older Americans "G.I."

A similarly baffling encounter occurs later on when the group, joined by Jonathan Majors, one of the stars of 2019's superb The Last Black Man in San Francisco (he's great here too), as Lindo's son; and Johnny Tri Nguyen as their local fixer, sails through a floating market. (The six men depart Saigon on a boat going upriver before ending up in scenes filmed in Thailand — the film never establishes any named locations other than Saigon.)

A vendor on a boat attempts to sell a chicken to Lindo, and the scene escalates into the vendor screaming "You killed my father and mother!" while Lindo explodes and calls him the four-letter "G" word so commonly used in older American war movies.

Lindo's acting here is intense, and his trauma is evident, but I was completely taken out of it by the script's insistence that many Vietnamese are simply waiting for the chance to verbally abuse Americans for their complicity in the conflict. It bears no resemblance to the Vietnam that I've called home for nearly a decade.

This gets to the deepest flaw of the movie: its characterization, or lack thereof, of Vietnamese people. Nguyen gets a very brief bit of background development, as well as the chance to explain that the war pitted Vietnamese families against each other. The other main Vietnamese role is Tien, played by Le Y Lan, the former lover of Peters' character. She plays a murky part in the whole plot to recover the gold, and isn't given much to do beyond explaining how difficult it was for her, a prostitute during the war, to raise her mixed-race daughter (Peters is the father). 

A fixer named Vinh, played by Johnny Tri Nguyen, is one of the very few Vietnamese characters to get more than a few lines. Photo via Firstpost.

Ngo Thanh Van appears a few times as Hanoi Hannah, broadcasting monologues to the squad during the war, but every other Vietnamese person on screen is a trope: the amputee beggar, two young women in a bar that are the butt of a bad fellatio joke, the gangsters in the jungle (???) armed with AK-47s who have lots of opinions on Lindo's "Make America Great Again" hat, etc.

If you've watched Apocalypse Now, or almost any other American movie about the war, you've seen these stereotypes.

Ngo Thanh Van, as Hanoi Hannah, with Spike Lee during filming of Da 5 Bloods. Photo via Lee's Instagram page.

The Vietnamese experience of the conflict is also largely erased, or perhaps overlooked would be the better word. My Lai is mentioned (oddly, by the jungle gangsters), but in the flashback scenes, Vietnamese are just faceless apparitions in the tree line, only on-screen to be machine-gunned by Boseman or one of the other leads with their M16.

Other horrors of the war are discussed — napalm, Agent Orange, landmines and unexploded ordnance — but almost entirely in terms of how they impacted the main characters. Of course, it is important to learn about how these awful weapons of death hurt Black soldiers, but the millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who died (and are still dying) because of them are glossed over.

Granted, Lee is American, and his movie is about African-Americans, but I was struck by how, while depicting the injustices visited upon an American minority by the white American majority, he sidelined the people of the country the film is actually set in.

Boseman is powerful in his limited screen time. Photo via Townsville Bulletin.

The land mine storyline is particularly problematic, as it comes to involve three white characters, led by a young French woman, working to clear UXO from the countryside. Lee explores plenty of French guilt, as the woman's family became wealthy through plantations in the colony. However, he goes too far with Jean Reno's sinister Frenchman in a white linen suit who, it turns out, is somehow allied to the random jungle gangsters.

The legacy of France's brutal rule of colonial Vietnam is, like the African-American experience of the war, a story well worth examining, but it is also bungled. There are foreigners doing incredible work in UXO clearance, but there are also remarkable Vietnamese groups doing this as well, and the image of three white people wandering the forests of Vietnam saving local people from UXO moves into cringe-worthy white-savior territory.

You'll notice that I haven't touched on the plot very much, and that's because it largely doesn't work. The group finds the gold and Boseman's remains in a shockingly easy way, and Lewis' character then steps on a land mine and dies in a frankly comical scene (that was not the intention).

Lindo takes the UXO-clearing trio prisoner, and then there is a ridiculous gun and knife fight against said jungle gangsters (look, Spike, I know you're trying to inject drama here, but there aren't groups of assault rifle-wielding Vietnamese mobsters who speak English and are well-versed in domestic American politics roaming the country). After an argument, Lindo splits off on his own and has a genuinely powerful redemption scene with Boseman before being killed by the gangsters in a confusingly edited sequence.

Another silly gun battle, this time at an abandoned temple complex in the jungle, follows, and the movie ends with an excerpt from MLK's stunning "Beyond Vietnam" speech, which he gave a year to the day before being assassinated.

Artwork for the film. Image via Newsjok.

I've been thinking about Da 5 Bloods a lot since watching it, and I've only grown more disappointed and frustrated. Given Lee's history of speaking on racial injustice and portraying it, sometimes brilliantly, in his movies, I started to wonder if perhaps his frankly offensive depictions of Vietnamese were a send-up of the Full Metal Jacket tropes. (After all, he borrows Wagner's Flight of the Valkyries from the helicopter gunship assault sequence in Apocalypse Now for a leisurely putter up the river on a slow boat, a faintly funny jab at the 1979 film.) 

However, I don't think that is the case. The scenes with the beggar and the chicken vendor are played straight, and if there is any satire or subversion, it went straight over my head. I'm not surprised by how America-centric the movie is, but I'm still upset at how Vietnamese were shown — and I say that as a white guy. Perhaps that shouldn't be shocking when no Vietnamese are credited among the writers or other top-line production roles.

Ultimately, the movie loses its power because of this. Black lives absolutely matter, and Lee couldn't have timed the release of a movie proclaiming that any better, but if Vietnamese lives aren't shown to matter very much too, how is this any better than the likes of We Were Soldiers or Platoon, with their orgies of violence visited upon faceless, nameless "VC" in the jungles of Vietnam?

I really wanted to like Da 5 Bloods, but I simply can't recommend it. I'm struck by the divide in opinions on it, as reviews in the US are glowing (it's at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes), while nobody I've spoken to who lives in Vietnam or has a connection to it likes it. (For a great perspective from a non-white guy, read Viet Thanh Nguyen's live-tweet review.)

I suppose this shows the importance of perspective, and I can't forgive the movie's perspective on Vietnam and its people. What a shame.

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