While on the front lines of the war, comrades Paul (Delroy Lindo), Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Norman (Chadwick Boseman) stumble upon a hidden trove of literal gold. Though the goods technically belong to the Vietnamese government, the soldiers see it as the universe's long overdue payment of reparations; after all, as Black men laying their lives on the line for a country that didn't respect them just because of the color of their skin, the self-proclaimed Bloods felt it was only right for them to take what was theirs. Led by Norman, the troop decides to bury the valuable treasure deep in the heart of the jungle and return for it long after the war ceased.
"We were the very first people that died for this red, white, and blue," Norman explained passionately, recalling the memory of Revolutionary War hero Crispus Attucks. "We've been dying from this country from the very get, hoping one day they give us our rightful place. All they gave us was a foot up our Black asses."
Almost 50 years after their final tour, four of the five Bloods arrive in Vietnam to begin their long-delayed mission, slowed down by their age as well as the trauma that they're still carrying from the war. Some of their PTSD is from the bloodshed that they participated it, and some is rooted in the death of their leader Norm on the battlefield. But most of the pain that they wear on their person even years after their term of service stems from the mistreatment that they faced upon their return home.
Da 5 Bloods isn't a completely biographical story — though who's to say that there isn't hidden treasure buried somewhere amongst the country's lush greenery? — but its premise does speak authentically to the lived pain of thousands of Black veterans, specifically for those who served in Vietnam.
When the United States involved itself in the international conflict in 1965, Black Americans were aggressively encouraged to join the ranks to fight the enemy overseas. Assured that they would be afforded the same respect and dignity of their fellow soldiers, many Black men excitedly took up the cause. Though only about 30% of them were drafted to the Army, the numbers of Black people on the ground in Vietnam didn't quite match up; TIME reports that the ratio of Black combat troops to white ones was double that for the U.S. population as a whole, and Black soldiers were dying on the field at an equally outrageous rate.
Black civilians watching the war play out back home were disgruntled by what they were seeing. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously decried the struggle that pitted Black men against a country that had done far less harm to them than the U.S in his "Beyond Vietnam" speech in 1967. Around the same time, boxing icon Muhammad Ali controversially identified as a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War and was stripped of his boxing license and his world title just for declining to participate in the draft.
"Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," said the boxer. "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?"
The Black men that returned to American soil after surviving the war would soon come to echo that sentiment; the homeland that they fought for did not welcome them back with open arms. GI benefits were embarrassingly paltry, people were angry that the U.S. had even involved itself in the first place and mistreated the veterans as a result — and more than anything, the soldiers that returned were still Black in a country just years removed from the Jim Crow era. Not even their battle wounds could make them the exception to racism.
Lee poetically captures that inner turmoil in Da 5 Bloods, portraying it through the survivor's guilt of the the remaining Bloods that fuels them towards recovering their leaders' body as well as the goal they hid so long ago. Their visit to the country that made them the men that they are today — for better or for worse — triggers their PTSD and threatens to derail their mission as well as their decades-long friendship. And the trauma from the war manifests in many ways, including constant nightmares, panic attacks, and even a misguided allegiance to President Trump's MAGA campaign.
Colored with authentic sound inserts and images from the Vietnam War era, Lee's latest joint reveals the devastating consequences of the international conflict on the Black psyche, positioning it as yet another another example on the long list of injustices against the community. Even as a new uprising turns the U.S. on its head, many Black elders are still mentally running through the jungles of the southeast Asian country, fighting a lost war.
Da 5 Bloods is now available for streaming on Netflix.