Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods landed on Netflix on Friday, June 12, with critics raving. The film, which was initially supposed to be released in theaters, is a war drama set in Vietnam. But this is no 1960s era period piece, but a present-day film, where a group of veterans, the "Five Bloods" of the title, return to the country in hopes of retrieving the gold they stole and buried years before. But is Da 5 Bloods based on a true story? Not exactly – like many Spike Lee films, it's complicated.
Hollywood has long focused on a specific sliver of Vietnam veterans when it comes to glorifying this complex war, the John Rambo types, who are, notably, always white. The movie world has long ignored the contributions of Black veterans in America's most difficult war, despite making up a quarter of all combat deaths during the war's height in the 1960s. There are plenty of historical figures to focus on, too, like James Anderson Jr., the first Black Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
The film name-checks another Black hero from the Vietnam war in its dialogue, Milton L. Olive III. As Eddie (Norm Lewis) describes it: "That man jumped on that grenade and saved his Bloods' lives."
The film mentions real heroes of the era and includes photographs and archival footage from the 1960s showing the horrors these men faced. But the characters in Da 5 Bloods are fictional, even though their experiences in Vietnam are loosely based on the heroism of real soldiers.
For instance, the Blood who does not make it out of Vietnam alive, Stormin Norman (Chadwick Boseman), did not technically exist. But his death in the 1970s, that allowed his mates to escape is much like the death of James Anderson Jr., covering an enemy grenade during a North Vietnamese ambush. The platoon's medic, the character Otis (Clarke Peters), closely resembles the story of Lawrence Joel. Joel is a legend for crawling across the battleground with two injured legs, to give medical aid to his squadron.
So even though the story of Da 5 Bloods is technically fiction, the history it pulls from is not. For those interested in the reality of Vietnam and the Black veterans who served, it's a great jumping-off point to get into that history.