Spike Lee's 'Da 5 Bloods' Honors the Real Black Soldiers Who Died in Vietnam
Early on in Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee’s latest film, the Bloods are walking the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, bickering about Hollywood’s long history of casting Rambo types in glorified, beat-em-up Vietnam War flicks.
“I would be the first cat in line if there was a film about a real hero, you know, one of our blood. Somebody like Milton Olive,” says Otis, played by Clarke Peters.
Eddie (Norm Lewis) chimes in: “That man jumped on that grenade and saved his Bloods’ lives,” which Otis adds is the sacrifice that led to Olive being the first African American to be awarded the Medal of Honor in Vietnam.
It’s a double-edged point: Black men flew thousands of miles away from their homes and smothered grenades to fight a war they didn’t start—and on top of that, Hollywood has historically ignored the sacrifices of Black men in favor of the Cordell Walkers and John Rambos of Vietnam. In Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee honors the legacy of the African Americans who fought in the Vietnam War—showing photographs and archival footage from the 1960s of the horrors they faced while overseas. Also, in its portrayal of five black war veterans, Lee makes a movie about the war’s real heroes—just like Otis wished—with the stories of the Bloods resembling those of the real-life soldiers who fought in Vietnam.
Da 5 Bloods peppers its fiction with the actual names and faces of real people and statistics about the war. Black men made up roughly 11 percent of the United States civilian population. In Vietnam? They made up 16.3 percent of draftees and 23 percent of combat troops—and, in 1965, almost a fourth of all combat deaths. As the Civil Rights Movement picked up steam in the late 1960s, the racial tension increased, which we glimpse in Da 5 Bloods when the group learns about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Milton L. Olive III entered the United States Army when he was just 18 years old, in those earlier years of the war—when the death rate of African Americans in Vietnam was at its most disproportionate. On October 22, 1965, his platoon was pursuing a group of Viet Cong fighters when one of them turned around, and threw a grenade in Olive’s direction. The soldier immediately grabbed the grenade, ran away from his men, and fell on the weapon—saving his entire crew. "It was the most incredible display of selfless bravery I ever witnessed," the platoon commander told a journalist at the time. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the Medal of Honor to the soldier’s family, making Olive the war’s first African-American Medal of Honor recipient.
Olive certainly wasn’t the last, though. Two years later, James Anderson Jr. joined the U.S. Marine Corps, fighting in Operation Prarie III. Like the ambush that took Stormin Norman’s (Chadwick Boseman) life in Da 5 Bloods, Johnson’s platoon was ambushed by North Vietnamese troops while moving through the jungle. Like Olive, he covered an enemy grenade with his body, without hesitation, to save the men in his platoon. He became the first African-American Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor, period.
Even Da 5 Bloods’s Otis, might have a real-life, Medal of Honor-winning counterpart. Like Otis, Lawrence Joel served as a medic in Vietnam. When his group was ambushed north of Saigon in 1965, Joel became a military legend after he crawled across the battleground for over 24 hours, giving medical aid to his comrades—after he was shot twice in his legs. Joel survived the war, even living to see his hometown of Winston-Salem throw a massive parade in his honor.
This is by no means a comprehensive list—21 Black soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor in Vietnam: Including Riley Leroy Pitts, Eugene Ashley, Jr., William Maud Bryant, and Melvin Morris, who wasn’t recognized for his heroism until long after the war. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, these men won’t be honored on the big screen, for now.
But Jonathan Majors, who plays David in Da 5 Bloods, probably said it best: “If there is any silver lining to this, it’s that we get to bring the story of some actual real-life heroes to everybody’s homes."