Dear Black GI: Da 5 Bloods and Spike Lee’s gory, exploitative examination of imperialism and PTSD

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Spike Lee’s latest joint, Da 5 Bloods, seems to have dropped on Netflix at an unnervingly opportune time.

Da 5 Bloods tells the story of four Black Vietnam War veterans who return to Vietnam to find both the remains of their fallen brother-in-arms as well as millions of dollars worth of gold they hid decades prior. The veterans, along with the son of the veterans, are taken on a painful, life-shattering journey as they trek through the harsh, dangerous jungle and fight the many demons that haunt them.

The movie goes to great lengths to discuss the never-ending effects of war, imperialism, and Black patriotism in the face of white supremacy. The movie is constantly asking why Black people should fight for a country that hates them so much. Why should Black soldiers give their lives to a war that emulates the same brutality and cruelty Black people face in America? Is it really fair for Black people to fight a war for a country that doesn’t even seem to see them as human?

It’s a series of questions that is appropriate for this time, when people all across the world are protesting anti-Black racism and police brutality. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others at the hands of the police have sparked an uprising that is different than what we’ve seen before. It’s been an unprecedented, incredibly taxing three weeks, but it’s also exciting, because it feels like the world is ready for real, systemic change. Thematically speaking, Da 5 Bloods is quite timely.

Da 5 Bloods feels like everything Spike Lee has ever tried to do in his career: it’s incredibly ambitious and large in scope, filled to the brim with MESSAGES (because Spike doesn’t do subtle) and centers a very specific type of Black man in a way few movies have. It is peak Spike Lee.

The movie is receiving a ton of praise, with some hailing it as Spike Lee’s best work to date. A lot of the praise is directed towards the performance given by Delroy Lindo, who plays Paul, one of the veterans and a deeply traumatized, Black Trump supporter. He gives an amazing, affecting performance that I hope will inspire conversations about PTSD and trauma in the Black community.

I see what Spike Lee was trying to do with Da 5 Bloods, and I genuinely appreciate the effort. What I’m bothered by is the way he does it. Spike Lee employs so much gore, violence and general madness in this film that it makes me question who he made the film for. I feel as though Spike Lee ultimately cheapens the messages of his own movie by shifting from a frank conversation about imperialism and PTSD to a Rambo-esque deathfest.

I expected this movie to be violent. It’s a war film, and there’s no way to craft a war film without pointing out the atrocities committed during war. What I didn’t expect was for Spike Lee to literally use archival footage of people getting shot in the head or of naked, bloodied children with their limbs blown off. Spike Lee uses actual video of Vietnamese people being horrifically murdered and brutalized during the film’s opening montage, splicing it with anti-war speeches from Muhammad Ali, Dr. Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X and Kwame Ture. I understand that Spike wanted to contextualize the violence his protagonists were experiencing (and contributing to), but I can’t help but feel that there was a way to do that without exploiting the pain, suffering and death of real people. The footage of anti-war speeches and footage of Black soldiers in the jungle painted the picture clearly enough.

The violence doesn’t even stop there. The second half of the film is entirely devoted to enacting violence against our Black veteran protagonists. There’s shoot outs, and bombs exploding and all manner of catastrophic death. These Black men spend decades fighting mental and spiritual demons that linger from their time in war, only to return to the jungle decades and be brutalized and destroyed again. And we have to watch.

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I spent the second half of the movie asking why. Why are these horrific things happening to these men who have already spent the majority of their lives suffering in one way or another? On its face, the violence the veterans experience seems to be Spike’s way of telling us that war never ends, that imperialism is a destructive cycle that cannot be broken. But that point is already made in the film without the gratuitous violence. We can see the lasting effects of war in the protagonists as they recount their memories and grapple with their PTSD. Not to mention there’s a Vietnamese character who literally says the sentence, “War never ends” to the protagonists!

The violence ends up feeling like an unnecessary addition to the film. It feels like Spike just decided he wanted to make a gory action flick in addition to the contemplative drama he’d already made. So, he smashed the two films together and went about his day.

The extreme amount of violence in the film reminded me of an issue that’s been popping up on Black Twitter. For the past few years, there’s been a big push to stop posting videos of Black people being brutalized or murdered on the timeline. The call to stop sharing these graphic, violent images have increased over the past few weeks, since the video of George Floyd being murdered by former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin first went viral. The argument behind this call is that sharing these images does not actually raise awareness of the issue of police brutality and state-sanctioned violence. Instead, these videos and images only serve to further traumatize Black people; we don’t need to see ourselves being killed to understand that we’re being killed. The increasingly-long list of names and hashtags provides enough evidence.

I often wonder why some people need to see someone’s life being snuffed out to understand. What is the fascination with watching the assault and murder of real people, of spreading those images with no regards the families of the victims? I had these exact same thoughts while watching Da 5 Bloods. What is Spike Lee’s fascination with presenting this type of gore and violence when even he seems to understand that it’s not totally necessary? Moreover, why is the audience so eager to consume that violence and encourage others to consume it without giving any sort of warning about its intensity?

I have three great uncles who I know were sent to Vietnam. I’ve heard their stories about the terror of war in the jungle, of how they spent months afterwards reliving that terror in their dreams. I’ve heard my mother and grandmother say how they came home completely different men, haunted by what they were forced to see. I thought about them the entire time I watched Da 5 Bloods, and I realized that I couldn’t show them this movie. All this movie would do is trigger those horrific images in their minds. They would be reliving all that trauma decades after they survived it.

That realization brought me back to my main question: who is this film for? Who exactly is Spike Lee talking to? Are they even listening?

I sure hope they are. But I guess it doesn’t matter if they aren’t. Spike’s still going to have his awards contender.

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