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The Real Story Behind ‘Da 5 Bloods’

Let’s talk about the real-life Black soldiers who inspired Spike Lee’s Netflix joint about the Vietnam War.
Da Bloods Low Angle
By  · Published on June 25th, 2020

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the stories behind the movies and shows. It’s that simple.

The contributions of African-American soldiers to the Vietnam War effort have been ignored by Hollywood throughout the years. That’s just the truth. Until Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, no movie about the infamous war has centered around their experiences, even though 23% of American combat troops at the time were Black men. Prior to Lee’s film, the only other movie to explore the topic with any detail was Dead Presidents, which mostly takes place in a post-war urban setting and doesn’t spend too much time in the jungle.

Black soldiers made up 1/4 of all American troops during the conflict, but they’re footnotes in history compared to their white counterparts. This particular war was the first in which people of color were considered fully integrated members of the military, having been segregated from the white soldiers in previous conflicts. In 1948, the Executive Order 9981 brought an end to segregation in the armed forces, but units were still separated by color until well into the 1950s. Unfortunately, the Vietnam War didn’t position Black and white troops as equals, as the former group was often given the most dangerous front line missions.

The divisive social issues in America stemming from the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s, coupled with the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, found their way into the military at the time. Black soldiers were understandably angry about the assassination of King, and the racist white soldier didn’t provide any sympathy or support for their comrades-in-arms. For example, some of the military’s Ku Klux Klan members celebrated King’s murder by burning crosses at Cam Ranh Bay, and Confederate flags were displayed as prominently as Old Glory from the inception of the war.

Black soldiers weren’t afforded promotions back then, and their heroics have been forgotten by history. Da 5 Bloods is a fictional story, but it’s a tribute to the forgotten heroes of the unpopular war. Furthermore, the film directly references some of the Black soldiers who bravely fought for their country courtesy of conversations among the characters, along with archival footage of the actual soldiers.

“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.”

Milton Olive III, who is the subject of a conversation in the film, was a real-life soldier who made history by becoming the first Black man to win the Medal of Honor. He joined the army when he was 18, surviving through some of the conflict’s most brutal eras during his military tenure. He didn’t make it home alive, though, as he dived on top of a grenade to save his platoon during a Vietcong ambush in 1965. The soldier’s bravery was acknowledged by President Lyndon Johnson posthumously.

Olive’s heroism didn’t go unnoticed by his platoon either, and some of them haven’t forgotten about it. In an interview with HistoryNet, Doug Sterner, a veteran who witnessed the soldier’s sacrifice first-hand, described it as “the most incredible display of selfless bravery I ever witnessed.”

Olive wasn’t the last Black soldier to earn the prestigious medal during the war. James Anderson Jr., a member of the Marine Corps, was given the award two years later after he too sacrificed his own life to save his comrades. Like Olive, Anderson jumped on a grenade during an unexpected ambush, saving his allies without a second thought. Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) does the same for his friends in Da 5 Bloods, in a scene that’s evidently a tribute to Olive and Anderson’s sacrifices.

Several Black soldiers went on to win the Medal of Honor as a result of Vietnam, though some of them didn’t receive their accolades until years later. Lawrence Joel’s story is arguably the most heartwarming tale, as he lived long enough to see a parade held in his honor.

Da 5 Bloods might focus on the Vietnam war, but Lee is out to make a broader point about African-Americans and people of color who serve their country. The film also mentions Crispus Attucks, a dockworker of Black and Native American heritage who was killed in the American Revolutionary War.

While Lee’s films condemn the worst aspects of America’s racial history, Da 5 Bloods also highlights the patriotism of the troops that Hollywood films don’t pay enough attention to. As he told Vanity Fair: “[African-Americans] always believed in this country. That is why we fought for this country, even knowing we were slaves, in the Civil War. That is the reason why I show Milton Olive III [and] Crispus Attucks.”

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.