Does it make any difference if politically conscious Black men kill us?
June 29, 2020 9:28 AM   Subscribe

Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer, reviews Spike Lee's new movie about the Vietnam War, "Da 5 Bloods", from a perspective rarely heard in America: a Vietnamese one.

“Da 5 Bloods” remains a “Vietnam War” movie about fighting an American dirty war again, except that it puts Black men in the spotlight and it eliminates the worst of the anti-Asian, Yellow Peril racism that characterizes the genre. What remains, however, is evidence that while Lee means well, he also does not know what to do with the Vietnamese except resort to guilty liberal feelings about them.
On whose stories get to be told:
Being a victim, over and over again, besides being traumatic in real life, is really boring onscreen, and Lee understands that basing a Black story on such an experience is a losing proposition. His strategy in “Da 5 Bloods” echoes Francis Ford Coppola’s in “Apocalypse Now,” which he references often — reserve the starring role for American men who struggle with their own heart of darkness. In a brilliant performance, Lindo becomes a kind of Black Ahab, driven by demons until he meets his fate. “Da 5 Bloods” shows Black men as agents of their own destiny, capable of both heroism and horror, as we all are as human beings whose inhumanity is an inextricable part of ourselves. This complex subjectivity is what white Hollywood has mostly denied Black people, and it is what they deserve. But so do the Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians and Hmong.
On this message not being a new one:
But don’t listen to me. Listen to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose important speech “Beyond Vietnam” is quoted at the film’s end. The fact that most Americans know “I Have a Dream” but not “Beyond Vietnam” is testimony to the depth of American propaganda, the willingness of Americans to want to feel good about the American Dream and their reluctance to confront the American Nightmare. In the American Nightmare, the severity of anti-Black racism is inseparable from the endurance of American imperialism. As King said, Black Americans were sent to “guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” He condemned not just racism, but also capitalism, militarism, American imperialism, and the American war machine, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” In another speech, he demanded that we question our “whole society,” which means “ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together.”
On the importance of expanding American thinking and history beyond diversifying imperialist apologia:
But the true urgency here is not only for self-representation and the need to recognize ourselves so that others will recognize us, too. What is also crucial is the need to tell stories differently. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Audre Lorde once wrote, and indeed, a war story that repeats a purely American point of view will just help ensure that American wars continue, only with more diverse American soldiers and ever-newer targets to be killed or saved. What kind of war story sees through the other’s point of view, hears her questions, takes seriously her assessment of ourselves? Would it even be a war story? And isn’t that the story we should tell?
[Viet Thanh Nguyen previously]
posted by Ouverture (21 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
As a Vietnamese classmate in graduate school pointed out, in Vietnam they call this the American War. So I guess I am not terribly surprised that the stories that American storytellers tell about the American War in Vietnam are always U.S. centric.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:05 AM on June 29 [4 favorites]

As one who has not yet seen Lee's movie, I nevertheless am convinced of the simple truths in Nguyen's analysis. His article contains a link to MLK Jr's speech Beyond Vietnam, which is constructed around historical and political truths about Vietnam not presented to Americans back then, and truths about our militarism Americans are still not ready to face fifty years later.
posted by kozad at 10:06 AM on June 29 [5 favorites]

Like kozad, I still haven't seen Da 5 Bloods (it's that kind of month). I'm looking forward to it.

But I'm prepared for Nguyen to be right. I used to research and teach the Vietnam war (in the US) and found that US-centric narrative structure to be enormously popular in movies, tv, and print.

One film tried to address both sides, The Siege of Firebase Gloria (1989). Australian, though.

(In my classes I always tried to get students to read lit by people on either side of a war. So they read Tim O'Brien, of course, along with Bao Ninh.)
posted by doctornemo at 10:54 AM on June 29 [5 favorites]

I made it about an hour into Da 5 Bloods and hated every minute of it. It's certainly one of the worst scored movies in recent memory and Lee's decision to use his elder actors to play their younger selves in flashbacks without any attempt to de-age them either with clothes, make-up, CGI, or hire age-appropriate actors is certainly one of the more mind-boggling decisions I've ever seen in a movie.

I was honestly so taken aback by this decision that I truly thought I'd fallen asleep or had a seizure and missed something so I rewound it and watched again. Nope. Just... baffling. I suppose a more contemplative story or a more subtle director (I like Lee fine but he's anything but subtle) could have pulled off such a stunt, but it absolutely didn't work for me. I found it to be a bad decision and a laughably bad execution.

I enjoyed The Sympathizer and agree with Ngyuen based on the section of the movie I saw but have no idea if the film got any better after I gave up.
posted by dobbs at 11:15 AM on June 29 [4 favorites]

Pop Culture Happy Hour reviewed the movie last week, with Aisha Harris and Soraya Nadia McDonald joining Stephen Thompson.

They remarked on the lack of de-ageing as a positive, as it emphasized how Chadwick Boseman's character got left behind, while the other four of them continued their lives. Both Harris and McDonald mentioned Spike Lee's monetary limitations while working on the film, too - that he couldn't afford The Irishman's level of de-ageing (for example), and worked with what he had.
posted by minsies at 11:36 AM on June 29 [6 favorites]

Nguyen did a twitter reaction thread as he was watching it the first time, but I'm not sure how to find/ post twitter threads these days.

I thought Da 5 Bloods was, like most late-period Lee, many different things*, some successful and some not.

* Those things being:

A bad late-nineties Vietnam War movie (complete with Jean Reno!) that never updated the timeline to match its 2019 production (ie these characters would all be 70, and Otis's half-Vietnamese daughter would be at least 45 years old instead of a timid 20-ish as portrayed)

An education on Black history and outrage that only Lee can do

25 minutes of sublime Delroy Lindo monologue that will probably be in Oscar conversations
posted by Think_Long at 12:26 PM on June 29 [3 favorites]

Otis's half-Vietnamese daughter would be at least 45 years old instead of a timid 20-ish as portrayed

I should add that I know the actress who portrays her is not in her 20's, just that the way her character was written read very much younger to me than someone in their 40's.
posted by Think_Long at 12:30 PM on June 29

Here's the FanFare discussion of the movie and from that post, a link to Nguyen's twitter thread.
posted by Frayed Knot at 12:57 PM on June 29 [4 favorites]

I've seen the movie and thought it was very good. I'm a Spike Lee fan and I'd put it in his top 1/3 of his movies.

This seems like an instance of someone being unhappy with a movie because it wasn't the movie they wanted to see, instead of the movie the filmmakers actually made. I would love to see a big-budget Vietnamese movie from Vietnamese perspectives, but I don't think it's fair or realistic to expect Spike Lee to make that movie when he's making a movie that addresses the often-ignored experience and perspectives of Black soldiers in Vietnam.

Spike Lee also included scenes to acknowledge and humanize Vietnamese people that most other American Vietnam movies don't. There's an early scene where the American vets are drinking in a bar across the room from a table of Việt Cộng veterans, and they raise their glasses in a tacit acknowledgement that the Việt Cộng won. In one of the later flashback scenes the Americans are about to ambush a Việt Cộng squad and you hear the Việt Cộng guys talking about their girlfriends and stuff. Most American Vietnam movies don't translate Vietnamese to underscore the unfamiliarity of the setting for American soldiers there.

I liked how the actors played themselves without makeup or de-aging technology. As the author of the article says in his first sentence, "All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory." The movie was about the main characters, especially Delroy Lindo's, coming to terms with their mythologizes memories of their wartime experiences.

(I liked the Irishman despite the de-aging. Seventy-year-old bodies still move like seventy-year-old bodies .)

ie these characters would all be 70

I mean, Isiah Whitlock Jr. is 65. Delroy Lindo is 67. Clarke Peters is 68. So...close enough? Norm Lewis is 57 and I agree he seemed to young. Definitely agree about the daughter's age.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:17 PM on June 29 [2 favorites]

I don't think it's fair or realistic to expect Spike Lee to make that movie when he's making a movie that addresses the often-ignored experience and perspectives of Black soldiers in Vietnam.

perhaps not. but it's not like you have any perspectives of vietnamese in american movies about vietnam.

Spike Lee also included scenes to acknowledge and humanize Vietnamese people that most other American Vietnam movies don't.

did you read the thread which pointed out all the times where spike lee continued the tropes of dehumanized vietnamese bodies?

it's okay to like the movie and understand that maybe the vietnamese perspective wasn't going to be highlighted in spike lee's movie. it's another to just dismiss the critique by ignoring the broader context and pretend that this is good representation.
posted by anem0ne at 6:05 PM on June 29 [17 favorites]


I like the old guys playing themselves as young men. I liked the "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" homage. I like some of the performances. I liked black people being people and not one dimensional tropes. I thought the movie was too long, I thought there was too much BS in the plot. I did not like stupid fire fights and cheesy show down. It made me think about how hard it is to make a movie or how easy it is to fail. I felt the germ of something great but there was too much ground to cover or something. I despised the end with the checks getting mailed by the magical Vietnamese travel agent character. I would have preferred it with half the budget, no guns or explosives in the present, just the main characters in the woods and the flashbacks.

I did like the ambush scene with the subtitles, war is ditch murder and that is what happened there.
posted by Pembquist at 10:20 PM on June 29

We can ask if it's too white or Black or American or Vietnamese but I found it way too male
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:10 AM on June 30 [1 favorite]

kirkaracha, was the scene with the Black and Vietnamese vets in the bar in the U.S.? Because then I would assume the Vietnamese counterparts to the protagonists were NOT Viet Cong and instead the South Vietnamese allies of the U.S. The immigrants to the U.S. from Asian countries that served as Cold War proxies (Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) are the die-hard anti-Communists.

This is not to chastise you, but does underscore how these films have radically different resonances based on the viewer. Spike Lee might not be making a movie for Viet Thanh Nguyen personally, but he could have thought more carefully about who is in his imagined "American" movie audience. YA writers (and others?) have started to hire sensitivity readers to make sure that characters they are writing are not painfully off-base or ring false.

I guess now that I think about it, I really do want that other movie, movies about the reverberations of war in the lives of those who stayed and/or those who immigrated. Films about the camptowns and bases that don't traffick in crappy stock characters of the tragic "half breed" or the scrappy orphan rescued like a puppy. It's been a while since I kept up with Korean films, but I imagine there have been recent releases in Korean language media.

My skin in the game is the "Forgotten" War aka the Korean War. I am still irritated every time I go to a library or the bookstore in the U.S. and the few books on Korea they have on the shelves are half about North Korea and half about the Korean War, either a memoir by an American or a battle-by-battle retelling from a general's viewpoint.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:10 AM on June 30 [4 favorites]

kirkaracha, was the scene with the Black and Vietnamese vets in the bar in the U.S.?

It was an Apocalypse Now themed bar in Vietnam and they are explicitly identified as former VC - it's sort of played as a tense 'the past is the past but also we won' moment.
posted by Think_Long at 9:24 AM on June 30

I watched in two segments, power outage midway through meant I had to wait a while to see the second half. I really liked it, thought it was great. But yes, very little from the Vietnam side. And I would love to see a big budget film from the Vietnamese POV.

I'll admit in that first half I found it very jarring and tough to get into, but by the end of it I really loved it. It didn't always work but I loved that it was so different. And I was a big fan of the lack of de-aging, which I didn't like in The Irishman.
posted by Fence at 11:30 AM on June 30

(why hasn't anyone made a movie of The Sympathizer yet?)
posted by mittens at 12:42 PM on June 30 [2 favorites]

The disconnect illustrates for me why the struggle against white supremacy and the struggle against imperialism are two different fights. Both struggles run the risk of being misunderstood by the other, as they aren’t the same. When people insist they are the same I believe it’s because they wish that both were prioritized equally.
posted by um at 10:41 PM on June 30

I liked the old characters reliving their past visuals. I found the way the movie dealt with the Vietnamese kind of terrible. The disabled kid, that was hard to parse. It felt very ham handed. The movie definitely felt very of one perspective only and the end just seemed too neat. I would still recommend it, the black perspective of that war is under reported as is all of US history. I watched it twice to try to figure some things out.
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 11:20 PM on June 30

Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History is one of the sources for the movie. I read it in the '80s and I'm re-reading it now (prompted by the movie). It's an interesting look at the experiences of Black soldiers and Marines in Vietnam.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:20 AM on July 1

On the subject of The Sympathizer, Nguyen really deconstructs the Hollywood Vietnam War Movie in that book - per his twitter thread, deconstructing that is part of a long-term project of his... One big weakness to me in The Sympathizer was his presentation of torturing a woman in a way that echos some of the torture tropes he critiques. I saw him gently questioned on that in an interview I can't find now... and he was not defensive about that, which I appreciated.
posted by latkes at 10:44 AM on July 1

Watching Da 5 Bloods in Saigon
...I was keen to speak to moviegoers (or, in this case, Netflix subscribers) in Saigon, where I live, about their experiences watching Da 5 Bloods. The conversations I had in the days after the film’s release were reflective of Saigon’s complex demographic and socioeconomic makeup; for some of the residents I spoke with, Lee’s attempt to draw parallels between the realities of Black GIs and their descendants and the realities of Vietnamese soldiers and their descendants is a much-appreciated step-up from the Western canon’s historical portrayal of the American War and its aftermath. For others, Da 5 Bloods is still a work of fiction, one that does a better job tackling American racism than it does American imperialism.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:43 AM on July 3

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