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Da 5 Bloods [Movie Review]

Summary

Da 5 Bloods is a movie about Black men serving in the Vietnam War but on a deeper level, it’s also about ensuring that Black lives matter. It discusses the history and aftermath of Black people being physically sacrificed for America’s goals while denied the full rights of citizenship, in this case through the prism of the Vietnam War and the turmoil of the 1960s. The soundtrack also goes hard with plenty of Marvin Gaye.

Media

YouTube Video

Podcast Episode

Show Notes

Da 5 Bloods begins with short clips of various Black icons speaking about racism in America, the military, and the Vietnam War. This is interspersed with clips of photos and videos related to the Vietnam War and protests of the draft. Some of the photos and videos were new to me but others I’d seen countless times. Or rather thought I’d seen countless times as I’d never seen them in their entirety.

Two images, in particular, stood out to me, I’d seen the photo of Major General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan pointing a small gun at the head of Nguyễn Văn Lém. But, I’d never seen the clip showing the actual shooting and Nguyễn Văn Lém’s body falling to the ground with blood and brain matter springing forth like thick oddly colored liquid from a fountain. I’d also seen the photo of children running after being bombed with napalm. But, I hadn’t seen the color video of them in motion with burns covering their bodies. It’s one of those situations where you think you know the story but in reality, you have no idea.

That opening seemed to promise the story of the Vietnam War being presented through a new perspective. The idea of Black people facing racism and inequality in America. Having a history of being denied the very rights and liberties that America prides itself on. But then being sent overseas to fight, maim, and kill other people of color in the name of democracy.

First off, let me say that I loved The Wire. I think it is quite arguably, the greatest show in the history of television. It is one of the few shows that I have on DVD and re-watched from start to finish just to reminisce and study the writing, acting, production, etc. I always get excited when I see actors from The Wire pop up in other shows. On several occasions, I’ve watched a show simply because an actor from The Wire was appearing in it. Da 5 Bloods was no different. When I saw Clark Peters and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. from The Wire AND Delroy Lindo, West Indian Archie from Malcolm X! I was in.

Da 5 Bloods were members of a platoon that was sent on a mission to find a plane that had been carrying the payroll for the locals who were assisting the Americans in the fight against the Viet Cong. Not wanting paper money, the payroll was provided and thus transported as gold bars. The platoon found the gold and buried it after their plane was downed with plans to say the gold had been captured by the Viet Cong and they would later return to take the gold for themselves. But the area was napalmed shortly after which destroyed their landmarks causing them to misplace the cache.

Decades later their downed plane is uncovered by landslides and they return to Vietnam in search of the gold and the remains of their fallen squad leader. They make an agreement with a Frenchman, Desroche (Jean Reno), to offload the gold with him for cash. I’ve seen versions of this story before but figured it was still worth checking out.

The dudes from Da 5 Bloods struck me as a man of a certain age, cat daddy convention. It’s interesting to see through these men the reflection of how life and attitudes have changed for Black people following the 1960s. Eddie (Norm Lewis) is balling out with an American Express Black Card. Paul (Delroy Lindo) is now an emotionally damaged and paranoid “Build the War” supporter who voted for him who shall not be named.

Through Paul, the film touches on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the mental effects of seeing the carnage of war. These experiences affect people in different ways. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn during the 90s, I saw men who were alcoholics and strung out on drugs stumbling around the neighborhood. Certainly, not all but some of these men were veterans who had served in Vietnam. There was one man in particular who always had that sickeningly sweet smell that characterizes some alcoholics and he would be loud for no reason.

I ran into him one year on either Memorial or Veteran’s Day and was surprised to see him dressed in an old military uniform. He was still drunk and slurring his words but took deep pride in having served in Vietnam and sought out other men in the neighborhood who had also served. The only White person in the neighborhood at the time was an older man who owned and/or operated the local butcher shop. They greeted each other as veterans and the butcher shooed away the neighborhood wino before returning to his customers.

On another occasion, I ran into the neighborhood wino again early in the morning when I stopped at the corner store before school. I was surprised to see him with three young boys and a middle-aged lady all of whom were very neatly dressed and appeared quite respectable in stark contrast to the man’s usual disheveled appearance. It might have been the time of day but it was the only time I’d ever seen this man speaking at a normal volume and not inebriated. I’d never considered that he had a family he cared about or who cared about him and how his experiences in Vietnam and alcoholism might have affected their relationship.

Being a child, I was curious about him for probably the length of those brief interactions but not enough to ask any other long-time residents about him. But as I got older and learned more about the Vietnam War I thought back to that man and the other vets like him from my childhood. Those experiences showed me that regardless of what you may think about the people you come across in life, everyone has their own story which shapes the facets of their character.

Chadwick Boseman who portrays Stormin’ Norman in flashbacks is younger than the other men. Looking at the movie posters and stills I didn’t get why these older men of the present day were also portraying the characters during the Vietnam War.

Historically, men from wealthy families have been able to either serve as officers or avoid combat by paying for others to fight in their place. Firstborn sons would inherit their family’s wealth while second-born sons would go off to seek their glory in the military, clergy, etc. Over time, the military became a means for improving one’s station in life. Black men have a history of serving in the military and through the Civil War, WWI, and WWII many have served with the hope that they would receive the rights of full citizenship in return for their sacrifices. To some degree, the reality of Black veterans returning to a stubbornly unchanged America after WWII was a major contributor to the Civil Rights Movement.

Back together again the men lean on each other and function as a solid unit which reminds them of the old days. But in actuality, they’ve lost touch and are now somewhat strangers to each other. While yammering on about solidarity and brotherhood they all have secrets which they try to keep from the group undermining their progress. Towards the beginning of their trek, its discovered that Otis (Clarke Peters) uses oxycontin to cope with hip pain and has brought along a gun for protection. The presence of the firearm sparks an argument that foreshadows the struggle for power that threatens to tear the group apart.

The men find the gold and Norman’s remains. That’s not a spoiler because it’s expected. As are the problems that come about from this newfound wealth. Following their moment of triumph, things seem to be going great before taking a sudden turn. The scene isn’t unbelievable but rather the special effects seem cheesy. The men are faced with a quandary that I think we might all ask ourselves. Upon achieving success where should your loyalties lie? Should you invest your financial riches in yourself, your family, or the Black community?

The true quest lies in getting everyone safely back to civilization along with the treasure which is worth millions. Eddie serves as the voice of reason and encourages everyone to be selfless and work for the greater good. But, instead, the group fractures at the very moment when they need each other most. Three members of Love Against Mines & Bombs (LAMB), a landmine clearing non-profit who the group previously met lend some assistance only to have Paul turn on them in his increasing paranoia. They must work together but also form alliances with outsiders which increases the number of people who know about the gold and want a share.

Stormin’ Norman was the platoon leader and tried to enforce the idea of brotherhood in the other four men. He taught them about Black history before it was popular and dissuaded them from devouring the military’s brainwashing. Norman encouraged the men to think strategically rather than emotionally so they could remain in control of themselves. He didn’t tell them to bury or deny their feelings of pain and anger but rather to be in control of those feelings instead of allowing external forces to dictate their reactions. It’s mentioned that he was the group’s Malcolm X and Dr. King so his loss was incredibly devastating. When the men left Vietnam, they were forced to leave Norman’s remains behind. They took their memories of him back with them but we find years later that they’d all left pieces of themselves. In returning to Vietnam they’re all hoping to reconnect with those lost pieces.

Paul’s PTSD and paranoia lead to him pushing away everyone including his son, David (Jonathan Majors). He has flashbacks and nightmares about Vietnam and returning to the jungle probably isn’t the best thing for his fragile psyche. Plagued by guilt from the war and hurt from feeling like he got a raw deal in life, Paul is weighted down by tremendous emotional and psychological baggage. He’s a ticking time bomb who is as much a danger to those around him as he is to himself. Yet, he’s in denial or more accurately trying to maintain a facade of having everything under control. His macho “I don’t need anyone” demeanor does him far more harm than good as it prevents him from getting the help he desperately needs.

Eddie is also putting up a front of having it all together but he deals with his problems differently than Paul. Where Paul pushes everyone away, Eddie tries to bring everyone together and wants to ensure they’re all comfortable and having a good time even at the expense of adding to his problems. He’s a foil for Paul as he’s filled with love and instead of focusing on his own needs or dwelling on his hurt is all about doing for others. That’s not to say that his method of coping is healthy as it’s revealed that Eddie’s life back home is in a tailspin. Yet, instead of trying to put his oxygen mask on first so he can better help others, he’s trying to ensure that everyone else has an oxygen mask, risking his life in the process.

Paul’s decades of baggage and heartbreak have hardened and made him selfish to the point where he is out for self. Eddie, on the other hand, is filled with love that he harms himself to share. At first glance, it would seem that they would do well to learn from each other to balance themselves out. But, the two are opposite sides of the same machismo coin where they do themselves harm by hiding their problems and struggles instead of asking for and receiving the emotional support that they need.

To a degree, they also represent facets of the Black community following the end of the Civil Rights Movement. Paul is the I’ve got mine by any means so you better get yours capitalist. And Eddie is the fake it till you make it and take the hood with you even if you drown in the process idealist.

Neither Otis (Clarke Peters) nor Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) looms large in Da 5 Bloods like Norman, Paul, and Eddie but they are still solid characters. We see throughout the film that they have a quiet bond and stand up for both each other and do the right thing even in difficult situations. They aren’t pushy or brash so neither fights to lead the group unless they feel it’s for the greater good. While they have individual motivations, leaning on and supporting each other, they work towards the greater good.

We don’t learn as much about the surviving men in their youth as we learn about Norman as a young man. But I think that’s part of why Norman is limited to the flashbacks and he’s the only member of Da 5 Bloods shown as a young man. Stormin’ Norman only exists as an idealized memory, killed in his youth during the Vietnam War, he didn’t have the opportunity to become an older man. He didn’t live long enough to experience the disappointments and changes in society that the other men have seen.

Paul, Eddie, Otis, and Marvin are portrayed as older men both in the flashbacks and present because their lives and experiences since the war have had an impact on their perspective on both the events of the war and life since. They’ve lived decades beyond Norman and that time means that even in their memories there is no going back for them. Life both in the past and now can only be seen through all of its scars, wins, and losses. They survived but have seen and done too much to ever be young men again.

I don’t know where I heard the phrase but “war is hell” and Da 5 Bloods proves that to be true. Regardless of the situation, I don’t think you can take a life without having it affect you. This is a bloody and gory movie that isn’t for you if you can’t watch such things. That being said while some of the effects leave much to be desired, I don’t think the violence is gratuitous.

I like this relationship that Spike Lee has with Netflix. To be quite honest, I’m not a big fan of his early work but I’ve enjoyed almost everything I’ve seen from him since 4 Little Girls. The film is different but still feels familiar as with She’s Gotta Have It, he uses quick shots of images related to the topics the characters discuss to give a little more context and detail. I also dig movies like this that are as much about the story and characters as they are about the location.

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