Here at the Ugly American Book Club, we shine a light on the behavior – and often the utter ignorance – of Americans abroad with little experience or knowledge of Southeast Asia.
In “Da 5 Bloods,” Spike Lee’s latest cultural/ political/ historical eye-opener, we meet four Americans who know an awful lot about Vietnam because they were infantrymen in the American War, one of them for three tours of duty.
But now it’s 2020. The four ex-grunts are reuniting in Ho Chi Minh City for what could be a Buddy Movie with requisite scenes of family reunification or a Road Movie over backwater canals and jungle trails. But wait, this is Spike Lee. We’re not here to feel good about a Father and Child reunion or a Return to Eden.
The 4 buddies – joined by a 5th who is not of their generation – are ostensibly reuniting for a “Rambo”-worthy rescue mission to retrieve the remains of their fallen comrade in arms. However their mission of mercy serves as a foil for what they’re really after – a cache of U.S. gold bars buried along with their buddy back in 1971.
The New York Times critic A.O Scott calls “Da 5 Bloods” a “long, anguished, funny, violent excursion into a hidden chamber of the nation’s heart of darkness.” Amen to that.
Like “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now,” this 2 ½ hour long excursion focuses on the insanity that is war while touching on universal themes of greed and honor, commitment and loyalty, revenge and morality, citizenship and fatherhood, themes common to the American everyman.
I haven’t yet mentioned that the film is about African Americans. “Bloods” means blacks, although Spoiler Alert! we see a lot of red blood gushing out of people of all colors.
Lee mixes in news footage of war with violent scenes from anti-war protests and racial strife on the streets and college campuses of America. The images are thrown out willy-nilly as if all violence is the same. I fault Lee for introducing these landmark historical and cultural events out of context and without chronological order. If the artist meant to educate or inspire a new generation, he should have been a more caring historian.
After a slow-fuse start, the story explodes with love and hate, fear and loathing, humor and antipathy.
In the New Vietnam, the Americans encounter a number of sympathetic Vietnamese, among them an old flame played by the luminous singer Le Y Lan. She smiles at her ex-lover beautifully but with a fortune in gold at stake, can she be trusted?
There is race hatred as well. When one of the Bloods declines to buy a live chicken from a floating-market vendor, the Vietnamese man erupts with a stinging anti-American tirade that boils over into an ugly race-based rant. The few white characters (Europeans) in the story also express anti-American, anti-black and anti-Trump sentiment.
In flashbacks, we see the 4 Bloods fighting for their lives, mowing down Vietnamese with weapons of war, and watching as their fellow infantrymen are cut down by enemy fire. The Bloods listen to Hanoi Hannah, a Vietnamese broadcaster who spins records by Marvin Gaye and reminds “Negroes” they are giving their lives for a country that does not afford them basic civil rights at home.
The actor Delroy Lindo, who brilliantly plays the tormented Blood named Paul, has said the role gave him a chance to “Learn a lot of stuff I did not know.”
Having never been a G.I., or a black man, I learned a lot from this excursion into darkness about Ugly Americans and caring Americans, who happen to be black.