'Da 5 Bloods' And The Strange Ghosts Of Imperialism, The Vietnam War, And 'Apocalypse Now'

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything.)Da 5 Bloods is a ghost story. It's about the ghosts that exist in the minds of Vietnam War veterans — played here with stunning ferocity and pain by Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. — haunted by the deeds they committed fighting a war that was not theirs. It's about the ghosts of racism and imperialism that continue to thrive in contemporary society. But the most terrifying ghost in Da 5 Bloods is the ghost of the Vietnam War itself, which continues to haunt the American conscience to this day. In American minds, and in the Hollywood movies through which they process their guilt, the Vietnam War still stands as the great American failure — the war that represented the downfall of the U.S. as the shining beacon of democracy.

But with Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee repurposes the typical Vietnam War movie narrative, which has long been an ode to the last gasps of traditional American masculinity, to instead examine Black trauma and reckon with the devastating consequences that American violence has wrought upon the world and its own citizens. Lee interweaves the familiar war narrative and iconography with the modern-day context of Black Lives Matter and America's inherited racism (given form by Donald Trump's "MAGA" movement), which in turn act in concert with the lingering effects of French imperialism in Vietnam. The oppression that Black people suffered at the hands of their own government, Lee suggests, is analogous to the oppression that the Vietnamese people suffered at the hands of American soldiers. The war is always being waged, Da 5 Bloods implies, whether it's a war against white supremacy or a war against racism.

This post contains spoilers for Da Five Bloods.

The intersection of white supremacy and America's imperial legacy is not an entirely new concept. Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh himself made the connection in a 1924 pamphlet "On Lynching and the Ku Klux Klan," and it was the sore spot that North Vietnamese propagandist Hanoi Hannah (a real-life Vietnamese radio personality played in the Da 5 Bloods with a cool fierceness by Veronica Ngo) dug into with English-language broadcasts to Black U.S. troops.

But Lee is mainly drawing from the great black leaders of the Civil Rights movement, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., who both protested the Vietnam War for those same reasons. In King's 1967 anti-war speech "Beyond Vietnam," the preacher noted the bitter irony of sending young black men overseas to fight alongside white soldiers — equals at last in the military, but still far from achieving that same equality back home — in "brutal solidarity" against the Vietnamese. King criticized the U.S. government for pouring money that could be used to reform inequality back home into wars of suppression, and "if we ignore this sobering reality," Americans would be doomed to march for years to come. It was a powerful speech that Lee inserts into the final scene of Da 5 Bloods, a prophetic punctuation mark to Lee's grand thesis.

But despite his valiant efforts, Lee's conflating of the legacy of imperialism in Vietnam and "MAGA" America doesn't quite work.

In the brutal opening sequence of Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee cycles through a montage of anti-war protests and historical footage of the Vietnam War to contextualize the film's weighty themes and make the long-ago war feel even more current. But in those horrifying iconic images from the Vietnam War — crying children whose clothes have been burned off by napalm, self-immolating monks, a brutal shooting of a Viet Cong soldier in the street, piles and piles of bodies — Da 5 Bloods maintains that very specific American perspective of the Vietnam War: of guilt.

There has been long-held a view of the Vietnamese people as perpetual victims, with the U.S. attitude toward them being paternal at best, primitive at worst. As John F. Kennedy said in 1956, "If we are not the parents of little Vietnam, then surely we are the godparents." That same guilt is threaded throughout Da 5 Bloods, as the Bloods return to Saigon to retrieve the remains of their squad leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman). But that mission is really a front for their real goal to retrieve the cache of U.S. minted gold bars they had discovered during the siege where Norman was killed. The gold, which had been gifted to the indigenous Vietnamese soldiers who were allied with the American army, belonged to them, the Bloods decided, as reparations for the U.S. sending them to fight in a war overseas while the war for civil rights was raging Stateside.

A quest for buried gold is a classic cinematic Macguffin (as well as Lee's loving homage to The Treasure of Sierra Madre), but the gold takes on more meaning in Da 5 Bloods. The fight over who the gold really belongs to becomes the center of Lee's muddled thesis about the evils that imperialism has wrought. The Bloods take their mission to Otis' old Vietnamese girlfriend Tiên (Lê Y Lan), who puts the group in contact with Desroche (Jean Reno), a French businessman who agrees to help the Bloods smuggle the gold out of Vietnam. But the Bloods are suspicious that the greedy Desroche will betray them, a suspicion that proves true in a violent bloodbath at the end of the film when the French businessman brings with him a group of Vietnamese gunman who demand that they be given the gold that belongs to them.

The lines that Da 5 Bloods draws — of the Vietnamese soldiers who ally with the French businessman versus the black soldiers and the French activist who seek out the gold for reparations — is out of step with the historical context of the Vietnam War. The gold was given to the Vietnamese people who assisted the Americans in the war, who were now scattered across the world, former refugees who made their way to Europe, America, Australia. The ones who remain in Vietnam are mostly descended from the Viet Cong who fought against the Americans and whose revolution began in revolt against French colonialists.

It's easy to see what Lee was going for with Reno's ruthless French businessman. As Desroche is about to lay siege against the wounded, outnumbered Bloods, he puts on the bloody "Make America Great Again" cap that he had taken from Paul (Delroy) after killing him. With that action, Desroche becomes imperialism incarnate — the French colonizer who has no qualms about what his ancestors have done to the Vietnamese people, in direct opposition to Mélanie Thierry's Hedy, an activist who has dedicated her life to clearing landmines to atone for her family's exploitation of the Vietnamese. With this visual metaphor, Lee is equating France's imperialist legacy in Vietnam with contemporary "MAGA" America. While drawing this solidarity between long-suffering minorities, the Vietnamese people and Black Americans, is uplifting, it also plays into the age-old mentality of painting the Vietnamese as perpetual victims of American misdeeds.

Throughout the film, the Bloods are regularly faced with hostile native Vietnamese people, who accuse the veterans of killing their parents and seethe at the perpetrators of the "American War." The concept of the Vietnam War as the "American War" is a fallacy to begin with, and one that is inherited from both political leaders at the time and past Hollywood depictions of the Vietnam War going back to a film that Da 5 Bloods make explicit homage to, Apocalypse Now.

Like many Vietnam War films before it, Da 5 Bloods is haunted by, even enamored with, the legacy of Apocalypse Now. Lee references Apocalypse Now several times throughout Da 5 Bloods, paying tribute to some of the classic's most famous scenes and literally slapping the title right in the middle of the frame in a real Saigon nightclub that the characters attend. But Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 drama, which formed the template for the iconography and tone of Vietnam War movies for years to come, brings with it its own baggage. Based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of DarknessApocalypse Now renders Vietnam a metaphorical battleground for man's soul, where the Vietnamese people are faceless characters — animalistic soldiers to be picked off, prostitutes to be bedded, gangsters to be defeated, but mostly victims of Western wrongdoings. Admittedly, Apocalypse Now isn't as explicit as its source material in depicting the natives as outright savages who represent the darkest recesses of the non-civilized world. But Apocalypse Now still places American soldiers at the center of this conflict in Vietnam, the actual natives secondary. Granted, Apocalypse Now and most Vietnam War films that would follow it are Hollywood films and will naturally be told from the American perspective. But it has only fed into that perception of the Vietnam War as a tragedy caused by American hands.

The 2017 Ken Burns documentary series, The Vietnam War, goes into exceptional detail about the sociopolitical forces that would lead to the war, but even it — geared toward an American audience — would come from a specifically American perspective. It highlights the U.S. involvement in French colonialist occupation of Vietnam and the ideological conflict against Communism that would keep America tied to the country for decades more until it would come to a tragic head with the Vietnam War.

"Wouldn't it have it been better if America had never gotten involved?" I asked my mom after we had finished watching the first episode of The Vietnam War together. She had seen the war firsthand before leaving her homeland and making a new home in the United States.

"Don't say that," she replied quickly back at me. "Without the Americans, we would have lost even more badly."

That comment stayed with me, and I would think about it every time Apocalypse Now is reverentially referenced in a film, and when an American tourist apologized to me during a trip to Vietnam after a particularly sobering speech from our tour guide speaking about the effects of Agent Orange on the countryside.

Da 5 Bloods may still be about American guilt (with a smidgen of white guilt, in the form of Hedy), but Lee does take steps to undercut past Hollywood depictions of the Vietnamese people as faceless victims. Vietnamese stuntman Johnny Trí Nguyen gets the largest speaking role as Vinh, the group's tour guide whose father had fought in the war and been forced into a Vietnamese re-education camp. Vinh is mostly there to act as a calm compass for the group, but he strikes up a connection with the veterans, who reluctantly accept him as one of them. "A yellow n****," Paul says of Vinh as the group prepares to go on their mission. Da 5 Bloods is one of the few Hollywood films to address the thousands of half-Vietnamese, half-American children left behind by soldiers, with Otis' awkward meeting with his daughter with Tiên, Michon.

Lee's attempts to build this solidarity are better than ones we've seen in the past, most recently with HBO's Watchmen, which was just on the cusp of addressing the sometimes dichotomous, often symbiotic relationship between imperialism and racism. In many ways, Da 5 Bloods picks up where Watchmen leaves off, but doesn't quite stick the landing because of the baggage that past Hollywood depictions of the Vietnam War, which the film lovingly references, bring with them.