Four black US veterans return to Vietnam some 50 years after they left. They have come to find the battlefield grave of their squad leader Stormin’ Norman.
Director Spike Lee’s new film pulls together half a century of racial and nationalist politics. What makes it so powerful is the mixture of Lee’s rage, the unfolding mystery of how Norman died, and the prickly relationship between the four old comrades.
As soldiers they hoped for black revolution, but in the decades since they have drifted apart. So, embittered Paul (Delroy Lindo), has become a Trump supporter—complete with Make America Great Again cap.
Even the apparently well adjusted Otis (Clarke Peters) is addicted to prescription painkillers.
The film opens with newsreel of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam. Later, we see Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Angela Davis and Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers.
Lee shows shocking footage including a napalmed girl running down the road, Agent Orange being dropped on the countryside, and troops shooting anti-war protesters. Through all these elements Lee keeps a tight control on the main story.
In the present, the four prepare to hike upcountry. They are bemused by modern Vietnam—with its McDonald’s, tower blocks and war tours. It is both defiant in its victory over the US and as greedily capitalist as the people it beat.
The traumatised Paul calls a market trader a “gook”, kicking downwards with racial abuse in part out of rage at all the racism he has faced. He laments, “We fought in an immoral war that wasn’t ours.” But to the Vietnamese they were just the visible manifestation of the US occupation that killed their families.
One positive strand of the story finds resolution in the growth of Black Lives Matter
Everyone is damaged here. The soldiers have untreated PTSD. Michon (Sandy Huong Pham) grew up in Vietnam, the daughter of a black US soldier, looked down on both because of her dark skin and as a “bastard child of the enemy”.
And never-ending damage is caused by the landmines that are still strewn across the country.
In flashbacks the four are played by the same older actors, drawing out the unreliability of memory. We see their squad sent to retrieve the cargo of a shot down CIA plane.
They find out the cargo is gold bullion, but are then separated from it when the Vietnamese attack.
The issue of reparations simmers throughout. Who will pay for the damage done? The four idolise Norman, who taught them politics, but also how to survive in a war.
They look back to his radical politics from the mess that black resistance had ended up in. Has their attempt to get ahead in US society led to nothing more than destructive greed and love of money?
One positive strand of the story finds resolution in the growth of Black Lives Matter.
The film is better than Lee’s previous BlacKkKlansman, which awkwardly romanticised the police. The multiple strands allow for a much more complex view of history.
Also, it features stunning music, from an acapella version by Marvin Gaye of his famous What’s Going On to the Chambers Brothers.