Review: Da 5 Bloods adds to America’s library of Vietnam War films but does not break the mold

“All wars are fought twice,” Pulitzer-Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote, “the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”

Da 5 Bloods is an evocative contribution to the memory of the Vietnamese battlefield.

“Furiously alive,” in the words of an LA Times review. The movie strikes close to home, in two ways: first, although it is set in contemporary Vietnam, some of the filming actually took place in Thailand’s North (around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai). Second, it speaks to the deep traumas of the war and their inescapable proximity to the present – something instantly recognizable to the Southeast Asian viewer.

In Thailand, we continue to live this history, as U.S. wartime support for Thai royalism and militarism reinforced institutions that we struggle to dislodge today.  

The movie follows four U.S. army vets, played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Norm Lewis, as they return to Vietnam to retrieve the body of their brother, Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and stacks of hidden gold. The movie is replete in wartime flashbacks, moving dizzyingly between Spike Lee’s Vietnam of the 1960s and his version of Vietnam today.

It wants to be a movie about the complexities of Blackness, American imperialism and war, and the timing for such a movie couldn’t be more urgent. The Black Lives Matter movement has thrown America’s policing infrastructure into sharp focus. It is an infrastructure inherited from America’s imperialist sojourns abroad, as well as its deeply rooted culture of white supremacy at home.

The intersection between white supremacy and imperialism has long been an arena of solidarity between anti-colonial nationalists in the Third World and America’s civil rights activists. Lee’s opening montage gestures at this: it splices together Muhammad Ali’s speech in 1978 where he refused the draft, Malcolm X’s statement on America’s mistreatment of the people who “fight all your wars and pick all your cotton,” Angela Davis’s explicit linkage of what was happening to Vietnam and to what was happening in America amidst the civil rights movement.

To this he could have added Ho Chi Minh’s statement in 1924, at the Fifth Communist Congress, that “the Black race is the most oppressed and the most exploited of the human family.” Or Fanon’s dark, seething treatise on the role of white supremacy in capitalism and colonialism, and the centrality of Dien Bien Phu in the anti-colonialist fight. Writing from Algeria, Fanon declared: “the great victory at Dien Bien Phu is no longer, strictly speaking, a Vietnamese victory. Not a single colonized individual could ever again doubt the possibility of a Dien Bien Phu.” 

But to do so would make the story of Vietnam part of a broader struggle between the colonized Third World and white supremacist colonialists – one that is replete with Vietnamese agency and continued defiance, first against the French, then against the Americans. But in his admirable re-telling of the Vietnam war, Lee unfortunately stops far, far short of any measure of Vietnamese agency. Instead, we are given a rehashing of the ‘American Vietnam War Movie genre.’

The opening montage, for example, also includes every classic image of Vietnamese death and victimhood: General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Viet Cong in the head, Phan Thi Kim Phuc (the ‘Napalm Girl’), piles of bodies. As Vietnamese film critic Hoai-Tran Bui writes, “Da 5 Bloods maintains that very specific American perspective of the Vietnam War: of guilt.”

The actual Vietnamese civil war, the ideological battle between communism (and within communism, with the Sino-Soviet split) and capitalism, the decades long anti-colonial struggle is simply a backdrop to the heroism and failure of what the movie’s protagonists themselves call “The American War.”

The trope of Vietnamese people as perpetual victims has a special place in the American imagination. As John F. Kennedy said in 1956, “If we are not the parents of little Vietnam, then surely we are the godparents.” In the book Friendly Fire, Katherine Kinney argues that the majority of American memoirs, novels, books and plays depict Americans killing Americans in Vietnam – that they could have been killed by Vietnamese villagers and soldiers is excluded from America’s masculinized memory. Lee’s black Americans are also killed by Americans, and by the French.

My Lai is an important part of this narrative, also memorialized by Lee. However, Nguyen writes in his long twitter rant on Da 5 Bloods, “it just puts Vietnamese into the role of victims, their only place in a guilty American conscience. We’re victims, not agents… Then they get to stew in their guilt and make it an American-centric war.”

It is telling that American history continues to center My Lai and not Dien Bien Phu – especially since Fanon gave it such importance in his own call to revolution. The historic victory over the French was not only immensely symbolic for the decolonizing leaders of the Third World: it was also the beginning of the end of a Franco-Soviet rapport, and an example of the diffusion of military tactics among Asia’s communists, from Mao to General Vo Nguyen Giap. Dien Bien Phu was a Vietnamese victory, an anti-colonial victory, a socialist victory.

The Americans were involved, of course, supporting the French on the losing side. And those involved did recognize its importance, even as it was eventually excluded from national memory. In the words of Colonel William F. Long, “Dien Bien Phu or DBP has become an acronym or shorthand symbol for defeat of the West by the East, for the triumph of primitive…. Dien Bien Phu resulted in severe political consequences.”

To some extent, Colonel Long’s perspective still animates the American view on the rest of the world – that it is in battle between the ‘the primitive,’ a battle that America is (sometimes) losing. The conversation on political Islam and even the challenge from China is laced with racialized disdain. White supremacy at home is very much projected abroad, with enormous consequences both for Americans and the world.

To center Dien Bien Phu over My Lai is to ask more complicated questions about America’s involvement in Vietnam – ones that go beyond asserting the virtuous role of black soldiers in America’s wars. “Lee understands that war and American imperialism are part of the same system that violates Black communities across the country,” writes comedian Ashley Ray-Harris, “but he somehow also believes the five soldiers at the center of Da 5 Bloods deserve to be glorified even as they enact violence across present-day Vietnam.”

As new studies find, America’s imperialist efforts overseas to contain communism deeply shaped its approaches to domestic policing. The domestic pressures that drive Americans into the military must be understood in balance with the complicity of these soldiers in imperial violence, and how that has come to directly inform police violence.

At the end of the day, Da 5 Bloods isn’t truly about American imperialism. It is a story about Black soldiers in a white war; an important, yet not entirely original contribution to a long-running genre which posits the Vietnam war “as a civil war in the American soul.” That the movie doesn’t have a single Vietnamese writer tells you all you need to know.

The movie, unlike most American movies, is a celebration of blackness. Like most American movies, it is a celebration of American-ness. That contradicts the very essence of the irony that Martin Luther King speaks of in his speech on America’s role in Vietnam as a “strange liberator.” King does not fail to mention Dien Bien Phu, and America’s betrayal of the Third World in its collaboration with the French.

Watching from Thailand, where history continues to be replayed and distorted, where statues continue to disappear, such questions of historical accuracy and agency feel deeply urgent. The centrality of Vietnam and American empire continues to reassert itself in political conversation: the influence of Vietnamese communism on the students who led Thailand’s 1973 uprising, the American military equipment and infrastructure used to bring about the Thammasat University Massacre.

But it is only by understanding Vietnam on its own terms – the deep ideological struggles animating conversation among Vietnamese leadership, its complicated role as the anti-colonialist vanguard of the Third World, the often-predatory role that American empire played in contrast – that such complexity can be understood.

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