Black Reparations and American Imperialism in Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee's new film goes far in its critique, but not far enough.
by Ben Kim Paplham

Black reparations are necessary.

Black reparations are necessary.

I’m saying it twice because we seem to get caught up in the numbers, questioning “how much?” or, “how many?” or, “how long?” while the world — as far as the world of the American government can extend itself — continues to drag its heels. 

Reparations are scary. That’s what we’ve heard. Family members, outraged Twitter posts, politicians, and journalist correspondents who fight against reparations with head-shaking comments like this gem from The Week in 2019: “The moral case for reparations may be strong, but the political and cultural consequences of enacting the policy are likely to be extremely high.” Or the infinite words of wisdom from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years go, when none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea.” This coming on the heels of ancestry records showing that McConnell is a descendent of Alabama slaveowners. Oof. And no, McConnell is not responsible for his ancestors’ wrongs, but too many lawmakers choose to forget that the very definition of the wealth gap means that you inherit economic benefits from your ancestors where other people do not. 

To borrow from a social media post going around lately: “If you care more about looting than human life, well … We don’t know what else to say.”

Because the American government has been looting Black communities for centuries. 

Unfortunately, I don’t have the expertise nor the time to lay this groundwork in its fullest, but the history of America stealing property from Black families and preventing Black families from wealth accumulation through house ownership is much more recent that many of us remember. The landmark Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” explains this in great detail.

Essentially, American imperialism is an erasure of human civil rights. We get distracted by the complexity of policy implementation as an excuse to place Black reparations in limbo.

Despite the recent rise in activism and awareness for Black reparations, this month is the first time in our country’s history that any state (California) has signed a bill to create a task force to — just — study and — just — make recommendations regarding reparations for slavery. But maybe I’m underselling its divisiveness, even among people who support slavery reparations. One faction, like Bernie Sanders or the city of Asheville, North Carolina, believes that investing in community organizations and government initiatives are the only ethical means of distributing reparations. Other people, like The 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones, believe that individual payments are non-negotiable. In an interview with Into America: NBC News, Hannah-Jones states, “There should be individual cash payments to descendants on top of investment in segregated Black communities and segregated Black schools, on top of strict enforcement of the civil rights laws that we already have.”

But here I go again, getting lost in the details of the debate. When, really, the most important thing for you to remember moving forward is this: Black reparations matter.

So now we’ve finally reached “Da 5 Bloods,” Spike Lee's new movie. It took us a hot minute, but the foundation of Black reparations is essential to understanding both the story of the film and its contemporary social commentary. 

And so is this: The relationship of American imperialism and war films.

My apologies, but I must dive into another quick history lesson. This one is shorter, I promise.

American cinema sure loves war, and if the Academy Awards are any measurement (which is debatable), to the spoils go the Vietnam War. From Oscar darlings “Platoon” and “Forrest Gump,” to the valkyrie helicopters of “Apocalypse Now” and Robin Williams’ iconic radio broadcast “Gooooooood morning, Vietnam!” — Hollywood has a certain reluctance to depict Vietnam as anything other than moments of white American heroism, and we as moviegoers are reluctant to change it. Hollywood has only recently started a movement to create films that are more diverse and socially responsible — depicting the inhumanity of war without accidentally glorifying its violence or propagating a national agenda. A couple of films that do this, in my opinion, would be the recent “1917” and the underappreciated “Letters from Iwo Jima.”

On their own, I have no problem with these films. “Forrest Gump” is a stone-cold classic (despite what my brother says) and Robin Williams will always be my favorite comedian. But when it comes to media representation, it is not about individual accomplishment or failure, but a pattern of rigidity in the stories we choose to tell.

This film turns into a recreation of the Vietnam War for the veterans, engaging with the exact same battlefield trauma that they sought to leave behind four decades ago.

For many, many years now, Hollywood has avoided the stories of Black Vietnam War veterans. Stories that underline America’s usage of Black soldiers as fodder for the frontlines or the government’s insidious Project 100,000, which drafted impoverished Black soldiers at a disproportionate rate. How the majority of Black soldiers felt they were fighting two fronts — Martin Luther King Jr. leading the Civil Rights Movement back home while fighting (for?) white American soldiers who had no problem flying the Confederate flag at base camps. And in terms of who they were fighting against — many questioned who the real enemy was.

“Da 5 Bloods” begins with this very notion. In true Spike Lee fashion, archival footage of an interview with Muhammad Ali in Chicago on Feb. 26, 1978, opens the film.

“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 n—. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me. They didn’t rob me of my nationality.”

Essentially, American imperialism is an erasure of human civil rights. We get distracted by the complexity of policy implementation as an excuse to place Black reparations in limbo. Meanwhile, American war efforts and its depictions in popular entertainment engender a patriotism that supersedes other social abuses. 

Which leads me to my final thoughts on the social relevance of “Da 5 Bloods.” It is a critique of the idea that the American government wants to, and will, properly serve and protect Black people. Unfortunately, that is really easy to forget in a film that is — even critics who praised it will admit this — tonally inconsistent. It’s a story of four Black Vietnam veterans returning to Ho Chi Minh City to retrieve the remains of their fallen commanding officer and recover a fortune of gold, originally intended as payment from the CIA to the Lahu people for fighting against the Viet Cong, lost in the jungle. At times it feels like a comedy. Sometimes a serious drama. Sometimes it literally recreates scenes of Vietnam War films as a means of pastiche. And there are technical elements that I could really dive into that contribute to this inconsistency — the score overpowers rather than accentuates unspoken emotions, the film editing is unpolished with rough transitions, and there’s a lot of wasted time in the film where the screenplay could have condensed a couple scenes into one without losing any momentum.

But the main criticism, and the most important one to consider, is that this film turns into a recreation of the Vietnam War for the veterans, literally engaging with the exact same battlefield trauma that they sought to leave behind four decades ago. Because of this, it is no less an imperialist narrative than the stories Spike Lee is trying to separate his work from. As Viet Thanh Nguyen for “The New York Times” points out, this film treats Vietnamese people as “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 the Viet Cong.”

The struggle I have with “Da 5 Bloods” is that it’s a film where its ambition outlives its presentation. And as the first Hollywood story of its kind, it would have been wonderful if such a shortfall didn’t exist, in order to appreciate both its artistry and its message. The emphasis of the violence in war, I believe, actually distracts the film from its own core narrative, being a biting criticism of the American government. In the film, the ultimate realization is this: When it comes to Black Reparations, we are forced to trust an American imperialist government to take moral action, rather than their precedent of acting on self-interest. f

Ben Kim Paplham (MFA 2021) is the Entertainment Editor for F, a playwright, sports nut, film junkie, anime fan, Tolkienite, and harborer of DnD chaos.

Illustration by
Justine Guzman