From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject Vietnamese Lives, American Imperialist Views, Even in ‘Da 5 Bloods’
Date July 1, 2020 12:00 AM
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["I stand with Black Lives Matter but still, as I watched the
obligatory scene of Vietnamese soldiers getting shot and killed for
the thousandth time, I thought: Does it make any difference if
politically conscious Black men kill us?" ] [[link removed]]

PORTSIDE CULTURE

VIETNAMESE LIVES, AMERICAN IMPERIALIST VIEWS, EVEN IN ‘DA 5
BLOODS’  
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Viet Thanh Nguyen
June 24, 2020
New York Times
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_ "I stand with Black Lives Matter but still, as I watched the
obligatory scene of Vietnamese soldiers getting shot and killed for
the thousandth time, I thought: Does it make any difference if
politically conscious Black men kill us?" _

A scene from “Da 5 Bloods,” with, from left, Johnny Tri Nguyen,
Isiah Whitlock Jr., Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and
Delroy Lindo., Credit...David Lee/Netflix

 

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”
[[link removed]] 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,”
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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
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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
[[link removed]]. 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
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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,”
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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”
[[link removed]] 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
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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,”
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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
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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
[[link removed]] 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?

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_VIET THANH NGUYEN is the author of "Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and
the Memory of War." [email protected]_t_nguyen
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