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From ‘Apocalypse Now’ to ‘Da 5 Bloods,’ a war that never really ended

Spike Lee’s latest is a sprawling, ambitious, vital and fiery entry into the Vietnam War film canon

About halfway through Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War epic, Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), under fire and in command of a bunch of frightened teens who can barely fulfill his orders, utters a word of comfort.

“Someday,” he says, “this war is gonna end.”

Someday still hasn’t arrived. At least, not according to Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee’s sprawling, ambitious, vital and fiery entry into the Vietnam War film canon, which begins streaming Friday on Netflix.

The film, one of the best of Lee’s nearly four-decadelong career, is set in present-day Vietnam, with four black soldiers returning to complete a final mission, but vestiges of 1968 loom everywhere. Paul (Delroy Lindo), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Otis (Clarke Peters) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) are the four surviving Bloods in question. The fifth is Norm (Chadwick Boseman), their commander, whom the group buried in the jungle after their helicopter was shot down by the Viet Cong. The four men return, accompanied by Paul’s Morehouse-educated son, David (an astonishingly tender Jonathan Majors), to do two things: repatriate Norm’s body, and bring back a haul of gold bars they had discovered back then in the body of a bombed-out plane.

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The gold was intended as payment for Vietnamese aiding American forces. But when the soldiers found it, Norm (the men’s “Malcolm and Martin,” they say) urged the Bloods to take it as reparations for the shabby treatment America has exacted on them. Unable to get it out of the country, they bury it and vow to return later to smuggle it out of the country and enjoy their windfall.

Lee adapted Da 5 Bloods from a script originally written by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo about a group of white soldiers. Together with screenwriter and director Kevin Willmott, who also co-wrote BlacKkKlansman and Chi-Raq, Lee charts their odyssey through Vietnam, using flashbacks shot in 16 mm to delineate memories of the war. Norm’s youth remains frozen in amber in these moments, while the other actors play their younger selves in these flashbacks, another signpost of a war that’s never truly ended for them.

Da 5 Bloods exists in direct conversation with Apocalypse Now, and in true Spike Lee (left) fashion, he makes no effort to hide it.

David Lee/Netflix

Da 5 Bloods exists in direct conversation with Apocalypse Now, and in true Spike Lee fashion, he makes no effort to hide it. When the four surviving Bloods return to Vietnam, middle-aged and still carrying a variety of unseen wounds, one of the first places where they stop is a bar that shares the name of Coppola’s film. Lee also includes his own helicopter scene set to Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” thus establishing a throughline not just from Apocalypse Now, but also D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. America may see itself as an exporter of democracy, but Lee uses Wagner to illustrate how the United States is an exporter of violent chaos. The Vietnam War becomes another example of American heroism providing a facade for domination fed by white supremacist ideology. It’s just that in Vietnam, black soldiers are subsumed into the project.

This idea and the intergenerational havoc it creates are embodied by Paul, the group’s MAGA hat-sporting leader, who clings to the notion that his liberation can be obtained with firearms and militaristic barbarism. Just as Capt. Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) finds himself sinking deeper into a morass of violent depravity in Apocalypse Now, so too does Paul. As the Bloods trek into the jungle, Paul becomes increasingly ensnared in the past and a war that has not ended. The farther away they drift from recognizable civilization, the more hardened and ruthless Paul becomes, to the point that he’s only able to serve himself, even if it means betraying his son. His is a specific sort of malignancy, once captured in the character of Sgt. Vernon C. Waters of A Soldier’s Play, though Paul’s is complicated by a black nationalistic jingoism that Waters never reaches.

The role may be a career-best for Lindo, who imbues Paul with an acrid sense of the tragic that stretches to cover a range of deep-seated wounds. He is well aware of the ways his country repeatedly has failed black people — during the war, it was Norm who kept the group from turning their guns on their fellow white soldiers as word of racial upheaval in America reached the men in Vietnam. But with Norm dead, there is no one to hold Paul in check. Try as his fellow Bloods might to rein in Paul’s single-minded pursuit of the gold and temper it with basic humanity, Paul is blind to everything except this mission to obtain tainted reparations that do not even belong to him. As loathsome as Paul may be, Lindo excavates his demons to great effect, lending a Shakespearean depth to the vicious, unfillable pit of anger, paranoia and need in which Paul is trapped.

Compared with the battery of American war films, relatively few feature films exist that explore the intersections of race, patriotism, war and betrayal from the perspective of black soldiers. This despite the fact that they have fought in every war since the country’s founding, with Crispus Attucks standing at the vanguard of revolution in 1770. They include A Soldier’s Story (1984), adapted from Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play, Glory (1989), The Walking Dead (1995), which starred Eddie Griffin as a mouthy, reluctant soldier in Vietnam alongside Joe Morton, Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna (2008), about black soldiers in the Italian theater of World War II, and Mudbound (2017) from Dee Rees, who studied under Lee at New York University before adapting the story of two soldiers, one black and one white, struggling together to overcome their experiences of fighting in World War I.

From left to right: Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters, Delroy Lindo and Jonathan Majors star in Da 5 Bloods.

David Lee/Netflix

Lee stuffs a dizzying amount of context in Da 5 Bloods, which is part polemic against the lasting damage wrought by American imperialism, part history lesson and part rejection of Americentric Vietnam films that largely disregard or excuse the agony and cruelty inflicted on North and South Vietnamese citizens alike. As the story of the Bloods unfurls, he wraps it in a cocoon of references, including Muhammad Ali’s “they never called me n—–” objection to the war, the on-camera execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém and the enduring need for revenge exemplified by the My Lai massacre.

Lee’s frequent collaborator, composer Terence Blanchard, who fetched his first Oscar nomination for the score of BlacKkKlansman, gives Da 5 Bloods an emotional grandeur that places these men, for better or worse, at the center of the American project with a style that is more Aaron Copland than John Philip Sousa. When juxtaposed against Lee’s use of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Happening Brother,” Da 5 Bloods becomes another heady work that swirls around the bitterness and beauty of being a black American, of a nation but also an eternal outsider. By wrapping himself in a toxic macho patriotism (even as he and the other Bloods decry the fakery of Rambo), Paul finds that he, too, is American because he’s still entrenched in the idea of American superiority. Paul has not crafted an identity for himself that exists outside of being a member of Team America: World Police.

Da 5 Bloods is punctuated by Lee’s ever-present need to connect “What’s Going On” with what’s happening right now, and so a Black Lives Matter protest serves as a coda to Da 5 Bloods. It’s a film without a clear winner. Instead, we see that there’s no such thing as good American imperialism, even when it’s black.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.