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'Da 5 Bloods': Conjuring a war that never really ends

Reza Mardian
Reza Mardian

Film enthusiast

Jakarta  /  Tue, June 16, 2020  /  01:35 pm
'Da 5 Bloods': Conjuring a war that never really ends

A still from Spike Lee's latest feature release, 'Da 5 Bloods', shows Delroy Lindo as lead character Paul (center, kneeling), his fellow African-American veterans and Jonathan Majors as his son David (far right) returning to Vietnam, inevitably confronting the effects of a war that scarred and shaped their lives. (Courtesy of Netflix/File)

When you hear that director Spike Lee has just released another movie after his groundbreaking Blackkklansman (2018), in the middle of the worldwide Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and during the dearth of new releases amid the coronavirus pandemic, it becomes an instant must-see.

Just like Lee's last release, Da 5 Bloods tackles an important societal and political issue amid the current turmoil around the world, especially in light of the ongoing BLM movement that has resurged and gained ground as a global movement, prompted by the May 25 killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, in the US state of Minnesota.

The film opens with a montage of African-American veterans talking about the unfair treatment they received when they fought for the US in the Vietnam War, underlining how racial segregation was a problem back then and that action needs to be taken today. The footage is from 40-60 years ago, and it’s both shocking and humiliating to realize that it is as relevant now as it was then.

Establishing the gravity Lee intended at the outset, we are then introduced to the four protagonists: African-American Vietnam War veterans Paul (Delroy Lindo), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Otis (Clarke Peters) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) as they reunite in Hoi Chi Minh City in present-day Vietnam, along with Paul's son David (Jonathan Majors).

As the film rolls, we learn that the only reason they go back to Vietnam is to collect the remains of their leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and the gold they hid during the war. Using flashbacks to reveal the backstory layer by layer, Lee patiently reconstructs every puzzle through the 2-hour, 30-minute runtime toward a near-perfect culmination at the end.

While the first half of Da 5 Bloods might be slow-paced, this is deliberate technique to ensure that we grasp the context without too much of an information dump and for solid character development. These include how African-American soldiers slept with Vietnamese women, and how these women and their mixed children are discriminated against for "sleeping with the enemy"; how the Vietnamese never forgot the destruction and damage they suffered; and how live mines and bombs are still everywhere in the country and still being disarmed or detonated to this day.

The latter also sets up tension for the quartet's mission to retrieve the gold they hid. We also can’t be sure that there aren't other parties wanting to snatch the treasure, never mind the mines.

In other words, Lee succeeds in portraying a war that has never really ended, ( but on a deeper level, it talks about the war in terms of humanity.

What makes this movie more relevant at this time is that it addresses racial segregation and power imbalance, and features African-Americans characters as the central story of a war film. Da 5 Bloods is likely the first war film to do so in the last decade.

The film also raises a variety of discourses on these issues that are still current today. For example, African-Americans soldiers comprised 32 percent of the US force during the Vietnam War and yet, they were still discriminated against even after they came home from the war, just because of their race. 

In contrast, white American soldiers come home, get office jobs and tend to create a workplace environment of toxic masculinity, with female employees forced to face the fact that these men deserve to be promoted for their wartime service. As infuriating as this may be, the same doesn't apply to a black man, furthering the message that even after equally sacrificing their lives, African-American veterans still don’t have equal opportunities.

Vietnamese director Pham Thu Hang's award-winning documentary, The Future Cries Beneath Our Soil (2018), also exposes how toxic masculinity is established in households. Veteran husbands don’t have to work while their wives work extra hard and also do the housework.

Da 5 Bloods is a wake-up call that war never ends, that everything lives on, lingering in our memories that can conjure us back to those days at the tiniest incidence – even if we weren't born yet. It’s a healthy discourse for our society that more movies should attempt to tackle.

Many directors argue that the gore and epic war scenes should frighten you into maintaining order and peace, but Lee has taken a different approach. Da 5 Bloods has no epic war scenes (at least compared to 1917 or Dunkirk), but the hidden aftermath of the war in the present teach us that no war is worth investing in.

You might think that you have to be American to feel the urgency of the movie's message, but Indonesia is no different. We have fought a war of independence, a battle over West Irian to claim it as part of our country – only to realize now that they’d been left abandoned for so long and our treatment toward Papuans are no different from how white Americans treat African-Americans.

The lack of discourse and the negligence of both the government and the public in Papua, and the nagging conscience of the #PapuanLivesMatter movement should also be a wake-up call for us to start educating ourselves and supporting healthy discourse.

Even though it might seem that we’re at peace today because of the absence of war, we should remember that war always leaves behind a hidden aftermath of unresolved issues that takes just the tiniest event to set off. (kes)

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.