Viet Thanh Nguyen writes about how, despite the centering of Black voices, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods still falls into the trap of American imperialism in regard to its Vietnamese representation in this op-ed for the New York Times.
Black soldiers finally get their own story, but in one important respect, the film is no different from other Hollywood dramas that came before.
All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory. This is certainly true for what Americans call the “Vietnam War” and what the victorious Vietnamese call the “American War.” Both terms obscure how a war that killed more than 58,000 Americans and three million Vietnamese was also fought in Laos and Cambodia, killing hundreds of thousands more and leading directly to the Cambodian genocide.
In its own typically solipsistic, American-centered, whitewashed fashion, Hollywood has been waging this war on celluloid ever since John Wayne’s atrocious “Green Berets” in 1968, a film so nakedly propagandistic it could have been made by the Third Reich.
Born in Vietnam but made in America, I have a personal and professional interest in Hollywood’s fetish about this war. Unfortunately, I have watched almost every “Vietnam War” movie that Hollywood has made. It’s an exercise I recommend to no one.
Watching “Vietnam War” movies is my own personal “Groundhog Day” experience, because I know, without fail, how Hollywood will represent the Vietnamese and Americans. For Americans, Hollywood turns a defeat by Vietnamese people into a conflict that is actually a civil war in the American soul, where Americans’ greatest enemies are actually themselves. In one of the stranger twists in self-aggrandizement, Hollywood renders Americans as the antiheroes, which might seem odd given that Hollywood is America’s unofficial ministry of propaganda.
The reason for this troubling treatment is simple: for Hollywood, and for Americans, it is better to be the villain or antihero rather than virtuous extra, so long as one occupies center stage. For Vietnamese people, as well as Laotians, Cambodians and Hmong, their role is almost always that of the extra, their function: to be helpful, rescued, blamed, analyzed, mocked, abused, raped, killed, spoken for, spoken over, misunderstood or all of the above.
So, when Spike Lee’s new movie “Da 5 Bloods” was announced, my feelings were mixed. On the one hand, I am an admirer of many of Lee’s movies. On the other hand, I feared that Lee, despite being a Black American with a powerful, necessary voice, would, in the end, be an American. Could his antiracist critique overcome the investment in American imperialism that most Americans have without knowing it?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. “Da 5 Bloods” is a lesser Lee movie — honestly, it’s a mess — whose characterizations of Vietnamese people are inextricable from its political failures.
I feel almost churlish writing this, given the urgency of Black Lives Matter that Lee gestures to and given how Hollywood — and America in general — has mostly erased, ignored or distorted the history of Black people. It’s been a decades-long struggle for Black talent in film to tell Black stories with Black actors as stars and with Black writers, directors and producers behind the scenes. In this context, “Da 5 Bloods” rightfully deserves its moment as it recounts, in unique Spike Lee fashion, the experiences of some of the Black soldiers who fought in disproportionate numbers during a war whose racism cut both ways, against Black (and Brown and Indigenous) American soldiers and also against the Vietnamese (and Cambodians, Laotians and Hmong).
I stand with Black Lives Matter and against anti-Black racism, but still, as I watched the obligatory scene of Vietnamese soldiers getting shot and killed for the thousandth time, and as I felt the same hurt I did in watching “Platoon” and “Rambo” and “Full Metal Jacket,” I thought: does it make any difference if politically conscious Black men kill us?
“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.
As a result, the Vietnamese appear as the tour guide, the sidekick, the “whore,” the mixed-race child, the beggar and the faceless enemy, all of whom play to American desires and fears. In a particularly absurd moment, a Vietnamese gangster threatens the Black veterans as he recounts the My Lai massacre. While acknowledging the massacre of 500 Vietnamese civilians is important, it is also a clumsy exercise in American guilt that relegates the Vietnamese to victimhood, which is how Americans prefer to remember them, except when they remember them as Viet Cong.
The sense that Vietnamese people must be victims also plays out in an episode where a vendor tries to force one of the Black veterans, Paul (played by Delroy Lindo), to buy a live chicken (something that no Vietnamese I know has ever heard of). The situation escalates rapidly and the vengeful native screams at the Black veterans that they killed his mother and father.
While this might have happened, it’s extremely rare. Many American visitors to Vietnam remark in amazement that the Vietnamese have seemed to let the past go. This is true. We have no time to hate Americans because we hate each other more, given that our war was actually a civil war (plus, the Vietnamese really hate the Chinese the most). The Americans and the French, our former colonizers, are seen as walking wallets, not to be offended.
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.
Perhaps this is asking too much from a Black story, but it’s Lee himself who sets the high bar. “Da 5 Bloods” clearly aspires to be a movie that jabs at American racism and imperialist warmongering, but whereas it succeeds at the former, it fails at the latter. Why? In putting Black subjectivity at the center, Lee also continues to put American subjectivity at the center. If one can’t disentangle Black subjectivity from dominant American (white) subjectivity, it’s impossible to apply a genuine anti-imperialist critique. Hence the marginalized Vietnamese continuing to serve their role as excuses for a Black drama staged against America’s Black-white divide.
This is not an argument for more Vietnamese inclusion. It’s a demand that we recognize how decolonization and anti-imperialism are impossible if we keep reiterating the imperial country’s point of view, even from the minority perspective.
The political ambitions of Lee’s movie are clear from the two Black intellectuals he includes at the beginning and ending. The film starts with the classic anti-racist, anti-imperialist quote from Muhammad Ali about the Viet Cong: “They never called me nigger.” It’s sad, then, that Paul’s response to the chicken seller is to call the Vietnamese “Gooks.” Yes, Black soldiers used this slur, and the slur says a great deal about Paul’s traumatized internalization of racism. But Paul’s justification rings hollow when he says that if Black people can call themselves by the worst slur possible, he can use the Vietnamese slur. No. Black people can call themselves whatever they wish; that is their right. But we don’t get to call Black people a racial slur, and they don’t get to call us one either. Lee’s attempts to provide anti-racist alternatives — another Black veteran connecting with his mixed-race daughter, or a donation to a demining effort — fall under the category of liberal condescension, the rescue narrative with Black saviors instead of white ones.
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.”
“Vietnam,” meaning the “Vietnam War,” continues to haunt this country, which was built on war and for war. American cinema and storytelling play their role in these wars, including our current “forever war,” by reiterating, again and again, the centrality of the American male soldier’s experience, mostly in white and now in Black. Making a “Vietnam War” movie in this classic mold, except with Black men, Lee cannot overcome the imperialism that is as American as slavery and genocide. He overlooks the more radical possibility that King outlined in “Beyond Vietnam” when he called on Americans to listen to the “voiceless ones.” King meant the Vietnamese, but the “voiceless ones” are anyone the United States confronts with its massive, multicultural war machine, including, now, Iraqis and Afghans. “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence,” King said, “when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.”
King knew that the only way to save a racially divided America from itself was to have white Americans listen to Black people, and he knew the only way to save an imperial America from itself was to have Americans listen to those it normally prefers to kill and silence through massive firepower, whether ordered by the Pentagon or Hollywood. I wrote about this in my 2015 novel, “The Sympathizer,” which includes a depiction of a Hollywood “Vietnam War” spectacle that looks suspiciously like “Apocalypse Now,” but with a little tweaking — change the white guys to Black guys — could be “Da 5 Bloods.” I created a narrator who was as complex as Delroy Lindo’s Paul, who spoke back in tragedy and anguish to American racism and imperialism. The novel was rejected by 13 out of 14 editors. The one who bought it was British.
I suspect that one reason for these rejections is that for Vietnamese people, we are often only heard by Americans when we are apologetic for our existence and grateful for our rescue by Americans. It is bad manners to point out, as I have done, that we wouldn’t have needed rescuing by Americans if we hadn’t been invaded by Americans in the first place. The reality, however, is that it is up to us to tell our own stories and create our own narrative plenitude. Other Americans won’t do it for us, even those Black Americans like Lee who understand too well the pain of narrative scarcity.
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?