Spike Lee tackles racism from Vietnam to present-day in ‘Da 5 Bloods’

Los Angeles (AFP)

With protests against racism sweeping the United States, two new films from Spike Lee place contemporary violence against African-Americans in its modern historical context, going as far back as the Vietnam War.

“Da 5 Bloods,” out Friday on Netflix, follows a fictional group of black soldiers who risked their lives in Vietnam even as civil rights protests and race riots broke out in their home cities during the late 1960s.

US director Spike Lee follows a fictional group of black soldiers who risked their lives in Vietnam even as civil rights protests and race riots broke out in their home cities during the late 1960s, in movie "Da 5 Bloods"
US director Spike Lee follows a fictional group of black soldiers who risked their lives in Vietnam even as civil rights protests and race riots broke out in their home cities during the late 1960s, in movie “Da 5 Bloods” Jean-Baptiste Lacroix AFP/File

The movie blends their story with archive footage of anti-war protesters being shot by the National Guard, deadly urban riots and speeches from iconic Black Power leaders such as Malcolm X and Angela Davis.

Its release follows more than two weeks of mass demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man killed in custody in Minneapolis on May 25, and criticism of heavy-handed policing of the protests.

“History repeats itself,” Lee said of the film’s message, in notes sent to the press. “And we can learn from history — if we wake up.”

“Da 5 Bloods” jumps between the wartime experiences of four African-American soldiers who lost their leader in the far-flung conflict, and their present-day return to Vietnam to retrieve his remains.

During the war, “bloods” was adopted as a brotherly term between African-American soldiers.

One flashback depicts the moment the soldiers learn of Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination by a white gunman — an event that sparked furious protests across the United States, and sowed racially charged division among troops in Vietnam.

In the war itself, a disproportionately high number of black US soldiers were sent to fight — and die.

African-Americans represented approximately 11 percent of the civilian population, but in 1965 they accounted for nearly a quarter of all combat deaths in Vietnam.

Still, they have not traditionally been the focus of classic Vietnam War movies such as “Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Casualties of War.”

“No disrespect to any film that’s been done before about the Vietnam War, but we wanted to do this through the perspective of the black soldiers,” said Lee.

He added: “We knew that we had not seen brothers like this in a Vietnam film.”

– ‘3 Brothers’ –

Although the film’s timing after the Floyd protests is coincidental, it is a theme Lee has regularly returned to — most recently in a separate short film called “3 Brothers” last month, which began with a title card reading: “Will history stop repeating itself?”

That film compared footage of Floyd’s death with Eric Garner’s — killed in police custody on Staten Island in 2014 — and the similar killing of fictional Radio Raheem in Lee’s own prescient 1989 movie “Do The Right Thing.”

“How can people not understand why people are reacting the way they are?” said Lee while introducing “3 Brothers” to CNN. “This is history again and again and again.”

He added: “We saw it with the riots in the ’60s, with the assassination of Dr. King… People are fed up, and people are tired of the debasing, the killing of black bodies.”

“Now we have cameras. But the attack on black bodies has been here from the get-go,” Lee concluded.

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