Come on, Spike. You can do better than this.
By Jonah Raskin | The Rag Blog | July 2, 2020
SONOMA COUNTY, California — Spike Lee has made a name for himself over the past 35 years as the preeminent African-American film director, with movies like She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X with Denzel Washington in the leading role and the BlackKkKlansman in 2018.
Lee’s new movie, Da 5 Bloods, has been praised and reviled, most notably by the Vietnamese-American author, Viet Thang Nguyen, who writes that while Lee “means well, he also does not know what to do with the Vietnamese except resort to guilty liberal feelings about them.”
Nguyen, who won a Pulitzer for his 2016 novel The Sympathizer, added, “as I watched the obligatory scene of Vietnamese soldiers getting shot and killed for the thousandth time. I felt the same hurt I did in watching Platoon and Rambo and Full Metal Jacket.
Why does Spike Lee have to make another movie in which Americans slaughter Vietnamese?
When I saw Da 5 Bloods I had much the same reaction. I thought, why after all these years, does Spike Lee have to make yet another movie in which Americans slaughter Vietnamese?
As an SDS member and longtime activist against “The American War,” as the Vietnamese have called it — there was also “The French War,” which ended at Dien Bien Phu — I wanted to see on the screen a scene that showed African-American soldiers choosing not to fire on “the foe.”
I know from G.I.s that that’s what often happened in Vietnam. American soldiers saw the Viet Cong and the Viet Cong saw the G.I.s and neither side fired on the other. Also, from newspaper stories and books about “the war” I know that G.I.’s tossed grenades into tents occupied by their officers — it was called “fragging” — and in other ways rebelled against the military.
Sadly, Spike Lee has made a war movie with many firefights in which the characters use automatic weapons that make loud noises and create carnage. He has made a movie without a white American and also a movie without an American military commander. That’s a big, glaring omission.
The characters in the movie — “the 5 Bloods” — are ordinary “grunts” who frequently say the word “nigger” and the words “fucked” and “fuckin’.” I know G.I.s used those words, but the fact that they used them doesn’t mean they have to show up again and again in this movie. They don’t drive the story and they don’t add significant information about the characters who spit them out.
The plot is borrowed from John Huston’s film, ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.’
The plot, which is borrowed from John Huston’s black-and white film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), depicts the five Black GI’s returning to Vietnam long after the end of the war to hunt for buried gold. As in Huston’s movie, they find the gold and lose the gold. As in Huston’s movie, the gold drives one of the characters crazy. Lee even has one of his characters repeat more or less word-for-word, the quintessential line from Treasure: “We don’t need no stinkin’ official badges.”
But Da 5 Bloods also diverges from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. In Huston’s movie one of the gringo prospectors — played by Walter Huston — chooses to live in the Sierra Madre with the Indians.
The real “treasure” isn’t the gold, but the quality of life in the remote village that hasn’t been destroyed by greed and corrupted by commodities. Lee might have depicted one of the G.I.s choosing to stay in Vietnam.
His movie ends with a scene that depicts African-Americans chanting “Black Lives Matter.” No doubt Lee endorses that view and echoes that cry. But if he really felt that “Black Lives Matter,” wouldn’t he have made a movie in which soldiers don’t go on murderous rampages and instead express a reverence for life itself?
In his review of Lee’s new movie, Viet Thang Nguyen explains that he feels “almost churlish writing.” I understand. I too feel a tad churlish. After all, Spike Lee is a great director and I’m just a white American anti-war activist. Who am I to quibble? Still, I agree with Viet Thang Nguyen when he writes that “decolonization and anti-imperialism are impossible if we keep reiterating the imperial country’s point of view, even from the minority perspective.”
I’ve written about imperialism and anti-imperialism in many of my books,
I’ve written about imperialism and anti-imperialism in many of my books, including The Mythology of Imperialism, which I dedicated to Ho Chi Minh. There’s an all-too brief image of a smiling Ho on screen in Da 5 Bloods. I would have liked more smiling characters — and less yucking it up — more screen time for Ho and some recognition of generals like Vo Nguyen Giap and the Vietnamese guerrilla army that defeated the U.S. on the battlefield.
Come on, Spike. You can do better than this.
I spent a month in Hanoi in 1995 on the twentieth anniversary of the end of the war. I met G.I.s who were haunted by the battlefields they knew and who wanted to come to terms with their own sense of guilt. I also met Vietnamese men who had fought against the French.
I met very few Vietnamese men of my generation. They had been slaughtered. Their absence was a grim reminder of the tragedy of the American war in which millions of Vietnamese died. Still, I came away from my time in Vietnam admiring the Vietnamese for their ingenuity and resilience.
For me, the one word that seemed to sum up their experience was “survivors.” Spike Lee might have honored the Vietnamese ability to survive horrendous bombings, Napalm, tiger cages, torture, Agent Orange and awful carnage. Maybe now we might remember Ho’s words which apply to the whole world, “When the prison doors are opened, the real dragon will fly out.”
[Jonah Raskin is the author of For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman just translated into French and published in France under the title, Pour le plaisir de faire la révolution.]