Spike Lee’s new film on Netflix is timely in how it crystalizes who white and black audience members are supposed to cheer for and who is lost in this binary examination of race. Here black and white audiences are unified on this point: Asian lives don’t matter.
The plot is simple. During the Vietnam War, five African American soldiers are sent to recover a treasure trove–bars of gold meant as payment to the Lahu people by the CIA, but the plane crashed. Dropped into the jungle, they find the gold, but the leader of the group, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), decides they will tell a lie: The gold bars were already taken by the Viet Cong. Spike Lee and this crew of writers (Danny Bilson, Paul De Men and Kevin Willmott) provide us with vintage Muhammad Ali for their rationale.
My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America and shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Norman had framed their theft as part of reparation owed to them by the US government. The men agree to steal the money; the gold is buried, but so is their leader. He’s KIA on 7 December 1971. Was Pearl Harbor Day a conscious choice? The Vietnam War will continue on until 30 April 1975. Decades pass with the war and time erasing all the landmarks. The wreckage of the C-47 CIA airplane is spotted, and the men return with government permission to recover the remains of Norman but the real reason to return is to take the gold as their “reparations.”
Without their charismatic leader, they have problematic Paul (Delroy Lindo) who carries a heavy weight of guilt, having seen Norman die and he continues to be haunted by him. His son, David (Jonathan Majors), tags along but the father-son relationship is troubled and Paul suffers from PTSD and a delusional support for Trump. Otis (Clarke Peters) is the voice of reason and a former medic (hint: Bad things will happen). Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) lightens the mood being the joker while Eddie (Norm Lewis) is the man footing the bill. The journey will include a forgiving former girlfriend/prostitute, Tiên, (Lê Y Lan) and a surprise package named Michon (Sandy Hương Phạm) but luckily Tiên doesn’t have to commit suicide. The quintet hire a Vietnamese guide, Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyễn) to take them from Ho Chi Min City to the edge of the jungle. Before they find the gold, there will be a flirtation with a white French woman whose name recalls old Hollywood and the political Camelot along the way. To get the gold out, they’ll need a fence to turn it into money in the bank and the men are introduced to a shifty French man, Desroche (Jean Reno). Not everyone will survive.
This is not “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” a movie based on a 1927 novel that followed three men in Mexico prospecting and finding gold. In that movie, the men actually mine the gold and are under attack by a bandits who are brought to justice by the Federales (the Federal Mexican police). A famous line from there is used (and that won’t be the only movie referenced), but the men in Mexico are the rightful owners of the gold in that movie. Here, the Bloods are thieves who have betrayed their government and their allies–poor tribal mountain people whom we never see–neither in Vietnam nor in the United States. You’ll leave the movie exhausted, and maybe better informed about the Vietnam War, but no more illuminated about the Lahu. As you might expect, since it is Vietnam, most of the people killed are the Vietnamese–nameless members of a mercenary detail.
And yet there’s more. The Vietnamese get a white savior(s). It’s not the Vietnamese who are out collecting bombs, but a group led by a French woman with colonial guilt, Hedy Bouvier (Mélanie Thierry) and her companions Simon (Paul Walter Hauser) and Seppo Havelin (Jasper Pääkkönen).
Through newsreels and archival photos, Spike Lee gives you a feel for the era from an American perspective. These are intercut with the past and the present time in Vietnam, popping up like your own Internet search or cellphone scroll as you’re watching on your television. What’s absent are the Vietnamese voices. It’s not as if there hasn’t been a documentary about both sides made widely available by PBS (The Ken Burns and Lynn Novick 10-part, 18-hour limited series “The Vietnam War” which premiere on PBS on 20 September 2017). The issue of GI children left behind in Vietnam was addressed in the updated Madame Butterfly story, “Miss Saigon.” So that’s not new. In a flashback to the past, we hear the purr of Hanoi Hannah (Veronica Ngo), telling the black GIs of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination and I wondered why Axis Sally wasn’t better known.
It’s also not as if the Vietnamese aren’t attending to the bomb and mine removal or as if a mainstream media hasn’t acknowledged this (“The Vietnam War Is Still Killing People,” 20 May 2016 in “The New Yorker”). If Spike Lee missed that article, The New York Times also covered it in 2018 (“The Vietnam War Is Over. The Bombs Remain,” 20 March 2018). And it’s not as if some of the monies for Project RENEW doesn’t come from the United States and couldn’t use some of that gold. Project Renew’s main partner is the Norwegian People’s Aid according to a Voice of America article. According to that article, as of 2019, the US has spend $400 million on UXO clearance in Southeast Asia. Yet last year, Trump made motions to cut funding according to SCMP’s article “Trump Lays Time Bomb for Vietnam’s Mine-Clearing Efforts, ” (13 August 2017). The article focuses on the Mines Advisory Group which was founded in 1989 and is based in Manchester, UK.
According to The New Yorker article, the Project Renew organization is now all Vietnamese. In a more recent article by Reuters, the teams include one that is all-female (“Meet the Female Squad Who Clear Out Vietnam’s Unexploded Bombs“). The Vietnamese are out clearing mines and they do have help from outside. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have a competent Vietnamese man or woman clearing bombs?
The articles make clear that there is non-Asian involvement and thus there are some white saviors (e.g. Chuck Searcy). White saviors do exist and it is not always a bad thing. The white viewpoint is valid and only one of many. It’s a matter of balanced representation isn’t it? What I find troubling is the manner of representation of Asians. We have the guide, we have the forgiving heart-of-gold ex-girlfriend and we have the siren. When it comes time to fight, we have an enemy and his faceless, nameless legions.
We are asked to justify stealing gold promised to an impoverished tribe because of injustice dating back centuries that the Lahu had nothing to do with. The Bloods aren’t Robin Hoods stealing from the rich to give to the poor. They are stealing from Asians to give to themselves and their own charities. Are Asians and Asian Americans supposed to cheerfully support this?
So imagine if an Asian American auteur director made a film about a Filipino group of Navy service men who decide to keep that some monies meant for poor black farmers or even slaves who are aiding the US Union Army during the US Civil War. They’ll come back after the war to dig it up, facing the racism from both sides and dealing with their own version of PTSD. The money will go to fund the Filipino war for independence against the US. That would dovetail nicely with the more contemporary betrayal by the US of the Filpino soldiers from World War II, some of whom still haven’t been compensated.
Or what about a group of Mainland Chinese scholars who were graduate students/researchers in the US at the time of the Tienanmen Square demonstration in 1989. While attending a party at Chinese embassy in the US, they hide an jade artifact that was supposed to be donated to an African American museum for auction in an attempt to smooth over bad Chinese relations over treatment of African or African Americans in China. Two decades later, they return as tourists, honored for their service and survival and their ability to translate US news articles into Chinese and while attending a college reunion they actually recover the stolen artifact which they sell on eBay and use the money for the Hong Kong Chinese demonstrations for democracy.
In those scenarios how would African Americans feel? Would they cheer for the Asians and Asian Americans and their fights for freedom?
The question is important because in “Da 5 Bloods,” not only are the casualties mostly unnamed Vietnamese, the majority of the profits also go without question to non-Vietnamese and none to the Lahu. Paul’s share is lost in the jungle. His son, David, keeps his share for himself as does Otis. Otis’ old flame Tien gets 10 percent. Eddie’s share goes to Black Lives Matter. Hedy and Simon’s share go to their non-profit land mine and bomb foundation. Melvin’s share goes to his widow. Vinh gets a share (instead of Desroche).
What of the Lahu? Did they get any of that money at all? Perhaps we’re reassured by the assumption that the CIA got more gold bars and eventually made the delivery to the Lahu. And yet, if that were true during the interim, between the expected delivery, the second delay because of these soldiers’s dishonesty, and the final delivery, how many Lahu could have used that money? How many died? How many could have escaped to Thailand better funded? And how many could have escaped to the United States? And if the funds were never replaced and never received?
The Lahu are also a minority, much smaller than the African Americans in the US, but does that make cheating them any more excusable?
How we feel about the monies owed the Asians is important because we mustn’t think of Asians, their lives and concerns as expendable. Not in today’s world and particularly not in relation to Black Lives Matter-related issues. Remember, the question about the four officers and George Floyd is not just black and white. The issue of racism is more complicated than that even with those four men in Minneapolis. Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who put his knee on George Floyd’s neck and killed him was white, but he was married to a Laos-born Asian American, (formerly known as Kellie Thao and Kellie Xiong). The second officer in seniority, Tou Thao, was a Hmong Vietnamese American. The Hmong, like the Lahu, were among the Vietnamese minority tribes who were recruited by the CIA to assist US efforts during the Vietnam War.
The Hmong are also currently under threat of deportation. It is also timely to talk about Asian Americans and African Americans because of a statement made by Norfolk, VA Councilman Paul Riddick (Ward 4) about COVID-19 aid and Chinese business when the topic of a language barrier was brought up. Working not on statistics, but solely on anecdotal experience and dismissing the reasons Chinese restaurants have closed, he said, “Chinese [restaurants] don’t need money” because “they have been making money hand over fist” and “don’t give back.” He then left an ominous message: “You wonder why blacks burn down these cities. It’s because we’re in a position to help, but we don’t do anything!” That doesn’t address the burden placed on Chinese businesses who faced anti-Asian sentiments under COVID-19, even in Chesapeake, VA. (“Chesapeake Customers Step up after Chinese Restaurant Faces Discrimination,” 27 April 2020), the incident that seems to have spurred part of the Norfolk council discussion on 2 June 2020.
In Norfolk, whites make up 47 percent of the population; African Americans, 43 percent; Latinos/Hispanics, 6.6 percent and Asian Americans, 3.3 percent. Small wonder that Asian Americans do not make a great impact on the Norfolk community compared to African Americans.
“Da 5 Bloods” is hampered by uneven acting and sometimes awkward staging. The casting is good, but if we are to embrace both Muhammed Ali and Martin Luther King Jr., two men of faith as the bookends to this tale, shouldn’t we care about the Lahu more and shouldn’t Asian lives matter, too?