Past Lives
by A. G. Sims

Da 5 Bloods
Dir. Spike Lee, U.S., Netflix

One of the strongest sequences in Spike Lee’s latest release, Da 5 Bloods, comes about a half hour into the film. Lee’s already established the main plot: four black U.S. army veterans—along with the son of one of the vets—have arrived in Vietnam several decades after they served in the war to retrieve the remains of a fallen brother and recoup a secret gold stash they left behind. Cue “Ride of the Valkyries.” The Wagner piece’s violins swoop in as the crew travel up a canal in a riverboat. The overhead camera takes in the lush green and relaxing delta life, before the horns build over a brief, hilarious Chaplin-esque bit that has the youngest member try (and fail) to scoop a pair of Jordan 13s off of a power line as the boat chugs down river.

Of course, that famous opera passage first made it into the movies way back in the silent era as part of the original score for D.W. Griffith’s absurdly racist The Birth of a Nation (1915), used to accompany a scene where the Ku Klux Klan “comes to the rescue” of some helpless white villagers under attack from “scary” black soldiers. Then Francis Ford Coppola stuck it in Apocalypse Now, as if to make a point about the flow of American history. Whether it was an intentional choice by Coppola or not, the song seems to bridge the gap between the violence enacted on black people in the U.S. after the end of slavery and the American military raids on Vietnamese villages.

Lee’s using the famed battle song to bridge time gaps, too. Since Coppola’s depiction of the Vietnam War, some things haven’t changed—white supremacy still exists, and American imperialism remains a scourge. But the world is a different place. Those Jordans hanging above the river belong to a billion-dollar shoe brand made in the name of a black basketball god. Black culture has become an indelible part of American identity. And in turn, black American identity has become a premium U.S. export.

With his latest film, Lee writes black soldiers back into the story of Vietnam, and the changes in contemporary America are part of the political backdrop. His ensemble of leads are tragic figures, marked by their wartime experience and transformed by the country they came back to—a country that didn’t think much of their lives then, and doesn’t think much of them now. Lee layers too many ideas on top the main Vietnam story—the legacy of French colonialism, immigration, reparations, and black fatherhood, among them. But his most salient point shines through: that the Vietnam war fits neatly into a larger web of trauma inflicted on generations of black Americans by their own government.

We meet Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) in the lobby of an upscale hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. They’re old. The years gone by have greyed their hair (Otis, the quiet leader of the group, keeps his swept back in a ponytail) and changed their lifestyles. Melvin, with his red velvet Kangol hat and floral shirt is already sipping on something pink and frozen as the men greet one another with yelps and cracks about the heat. Eddie, who wears a cowboy hat and keeps a camera strapped around his neck, has apparently done well professionally in his civilian life, offering to put all four rooms on his card. While Paul, in a distressed shirt with the American flag on it in the shape of a skull, is clearly framed as the one who’s rougher around the edges. The friends dap each other up with the familiarity of kin before gliding through an Apocalypse Now-themed club in the next scene (the nightclub isn’t just a set piece; it’s one of the oldest bars in Ho Chi Minh City and a popular tourist attraction).

The scene opens on a shot of a glowing red DJ booth, the iconic Apocalypse title treatment behind the DJ and a prominent Budweiser ad in front of him. Then the camera pulls out, its frame widening to reveal the four grinning dudes, gallivanting their way down a crowd-parted aisle under the glow of the red light— “Got to Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye thumping through the speakers. At a table in the bar, the vets continue to catch up. Melvin shows off a picture of his 18-year-old son and mentions the “thug ass hardheads” who have moved into his neighborhood. Paul asks him if he’s got a piece for protection. Melvin makes a joke (though used sparingly, Isiah Whitlock Jr. is the best deliverer of punchlines in the movie) that gets interrupted by a disabled kid begging for money from the “GIs,” as he calls them. Everyone is sympathetic except for Paul, who bristles and moments later goes off about “freeloading immigrants” in the U.S. He reveals that he’s a Trump supporter and supports building a wall at the border. “Negroes better wake the fuck up with the quickness man.”

The movie zig-zags between the past and the present, using popular music (selections from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On sit alongside Terence Blanchard’s orchestral score), archival imagery of black soldiers, and flashbacks shot in an aspect ratio that can probably best be described as “grainy Vietnam War news footage format,” to place his fictional characters in the cultural context of real history. Through Lee’s flashbacks we learn that Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) was the radical thinker of the group, and in the decades since his death he’s become a kind of martyr figure in the memories of his surviving friends. And he truly is only a memory. Whenever Lee cuts back to their first tour, the older actors appear as their characters’ younger selves, though Norman remains frozen in time. The effect turns Lee’s central characters into time travelers, confronting their history with the perspective of age.

Lee tries to give dimensionality to present-day Vietnam to varying degrees of success. And he also adds perspective-altering nuance to the past. In one of the first war flashbacks, as the Bloods approach idle Vietcong soldiers in the jungle, they’re overheard talking about the wives and girlfriends they left behind. “We must be heroes, right, to our families?” one of the Vietnamese soldiers says seconds before being waylaid by Norman and Co. In the present day, Otis still has Vietnamese connections from the war. He enlists a man named Vinh (Vietnamese film star and stuntman Johnny Trí Nguyễn) to be their guide and help them locate Norman’s remains. Vinh is youngish, with a thick black goatee. He’s introduced at the Apocalypse nightclub. When Paul gets antsy about some Vietnamese gentlemen at another table, Vinh explains that, though he’s from the south, those are his relatives from the north and they fought with the Vietcong. “The American War turned Vietnamese family against Vietnamese family,” he instructs—or rather, Lee seems to instruct the viewer. (Lee, Kevin Willmott, Danny Bilson, and Paul De Meo share screenwriting credit on the movie, and their screenplay is filled with meta dialogue like this.) Otis has also reconnected with his old girlfriend, Tien (Lé Y Lan), and enlists her to play a role in the caper, as well. Her business is international exports. The vets can’t just bring millions of dollars’ worth of gold through customs, so she connects them with a wealthy French man, Monsieur Descroche (Jean Reno), who agrees to wash it for them for a fee.

But while some of Lee’s Vietnamese characters are thankfully animated beyond cardboard cutouts, he fails to give them a purpose beyond illuminating the anxieties and disappointments of his main ensemble. Vinh and Tien were burned by the war, too—Vinh’s family having split as he stated, and Tien reveals that she had a child that she never told Otis about because she was a “whore” and Otis “was a moi, the nigger,” which would have brought them shame—but they’re only there to further the story of the four returnees. Lee’s primary Vietnamese characters get their own motives. They both want cuts of the cash, and Tien’s assistance seems inextricable from her desire to introduce Otis to their lovechild. But their dramatic arcs are thin. They’re swept up in the movie’s violence and yet aren’t granted any real narrative reckoning with the American war that ravaged their home.

Paul’s PTSD has made him racist against Vietnamese people, as we discover when he overreacts to a zealous merchant at a floating market in Ho Chi Minh. As the boat carrying the vets bobs through the market, a man pulls up in a smaller boat and tries to get Paul to buy something. Paul quickly gets irritated and lashes out, using slurs and posturing for a fight. His friends step in, and his son, David (Jonathan Majors), who has flown to Vietnam to connect with his troubled father, discloses that his dad has PTSD. After everyone cools down, they all put their fists together, their bond having been deepened by Paul’s moment of vulnerability. Vinh, a passive witness to the whole scene, is encouraged to put his fist in, too. Because we never learn much about Vinh’s interiority, these brief moments of reconciliation feel unearned. The movie never bothers to ask what he truly thinks about his clients’ participation in the war. While the main characters negotiate their relationship to their painful history his feelings remain blank.

In the opening montage, Lee appears to set up at least one thesis for the film with an excerpt from Malcolm X: “When you take 20 million black people and make them fight all your wars and pick all your cotton and you never give them any real recompense, sooner or later their allegiance toward you is going to wear thin.” However, that radical notion doesn’t animate the identities of his characters. Paul is puzzlingly the inverse of that idea. Throughout the movie, he acknowledges how much his country has taken from him, and yet he proudly identifies with the U.S., wearing his Vietnam cap and flag shirt and supporting “President Bone Spurs,” as his friends put it. Lindo’s performance of Paul’s bitterness and resentment for the world is visceral and grandiose. However, even as his own choices as an actor add color and specificity to the character’s interiority, that interiority itself never quite comes together in a way that makes sense. Paul’s profile as a broke, black Vietnam war veteran that thinks immigrants are stealing job opportunities from black people feels theoretical more than an actual human identity. His friends bust his chops for his Trump support. Otis all but says he’s shucking and jiving, comparing him to the black men in the front row at Trump rallies right before Lee cuts to documentary footage of a black guy at a Trump rally, played for laughs. But the others never interrogate Paul’s support in a way that would allow Lee to flesh out Paul’s point of view as a character.

The story really gets going when the men are joined by David. A teacher of black studies and graduate of Morehouse, David is the social and temperamental opposite of his dad, who doesn’t want him there. He’s aware of his father’s war traumas, but as the gang plunges ever deeper into the jungle in search of their fallen man, he learns just how deep those scars go for the whole group.

There soon comes a turning point, where the film graduates from a classic Hollywood adventure genre movie into something more startlingly violent and emotional. As they scour the jungle for buried treasure, evoking the John Huston classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre, their laid-back dynamic grows tense and suspicions of one another increase. About midway through the film, they begin to find the gold, buried in several spots across an open landscape and immediately split over what to do with it. Half the group wants it for themselves, while the others want to honor Norman’s wishes to give back to the black community. They turn on one another, culminating in a scene where Eddie, who has confessed that he lost all of his money in bad investments and is troubled by Paul’s selfish attitude about the gold, stumbles backward onto a landmine. After this, the comrades are forced to unify for survival as they come under attack and take their own prisoners.

Lindo eventually removes himself from the group, injecting Paul’s inevitable collapse with a ferocity of soul. In a single unbroken take, Lindo delivers a stirring, direct-to-camera monologue in the fifth act that spells out the breadth of what the black American soldiers have experienced—not just three tours as he says, but also the hostility of the government for which they fought. “You will not kill Paul,” he says. “And the U.S. government will not take me out. I will choose when and how I die.”

Lee once accused Clint Eastwood of omitting black soldiers from his films about the battle at Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. In 2008, he made Miracle at St. Anna, a World War II movie about an all-black unit, in what he described at the time as necessary redress. Da 5 Bloods, at its heart, is a revision in the same vein. It is impossible to understand today’s pathologies without the context of the past, Lee’s filmography seems to say. In addition to Miracle, Lee’s made several films that reckon explicitly with black American history, including Malcolm X (1992), as well as documentaries that focus on the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham black church by the Klan and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 4 Little Girls (1997) and When the Levees Broke (2006), respectively. Black history has always been his muse, and for all his artistic shortcomings (convoluted scripts, occasionally awkward dialogue, and thematic tangents), it’s to his credit that he’s never shied away from trying to tell the truth. In the not-so-distant past, critics have accused him of being too race-focused. In a 2008 New Yorker profile of Lee, John Colapinto wrote that his films “have earned him a reputation as a filmmaker obsessed with race.” It’s a critique that could only reflect poorly on the critic, especially in light of the current upheaval that has thrust race back to the forefront of our collective national consciousness—at a point in time that is as far from the Civil Rights movement as it is from the Vietnam War.

Lee has never been any more obsessed with race than the country he has vigorously documented over the course of his multi-decade career. The ideas he explores and the stories he tells about the myriad of black experiences seem excessive only in a canon that all but ignores them. But Lee is a historical completist, with a seeming mission to fill all of the gaps where black Americans disappeared in the retelling of events they were present during. Black soldiers, at many points in history, have fought for the freedom of a country that stole from them, disenfranchised them, and denied them economic opportunity. Da 5 Bloods is at its best in the moments where Lee just states those grievances plainly.