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The Forgotten Man: ‘Da 5 Bloods’ and the Black Vietnam Vet

In Spike Lee’s latest film, Delroy Lindo turns in a stunning performance that tackles trauma and how Donald Trump spoke to a disaffected subset of Black men

Netflix/Ringer illustration

The forgotten man is a familiar archetype in American history. President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously made reference during a 1932 radio address, speaking to those at the economy’s bottom rung whom the New Deal would revitalize. Donald Trump weaponized it as he entered the White House, galvanizing blue-collar whites who not only felt disenfranchised by a rapidly changing America, but simmered with bitterness as a result. Spike Lee, meanwhile, has made the various injustices America has enacted against Black people central to his work. His latest film, Da 5 Bloods, emphasizes just how little America values Black people by designating Black veterans as the forgotten.

Be it Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, or Born on the Fourth of July, none of Hollywood’s most venerated depictions of the Vietnam War have addressed the horrors Black soldiers experienced both during (including racism in the military) and after. If they survived what can be characterized only as a failure at the hands of five American presidents, they faced unemployment, vilification, and insufficient support from a government they risked their lives for. Preston A. Whitmore ll’s The Walking Dead and Allen and Albert Hughes’s Dead Presidents, both released in 1995, made attempts, but only the latter explored the abandonment many Black vets felt after fighting (and dying at disproportionate rates compared to their white counterparts) for rights they didn’t have in America. The Civil Rights Act wasn’t signed into law until July 1964; the Voting Rights Act didn’t receive the same treatment until August 1965. Out on Netflix this past Friday, Da 5 Bloods is part reunion, part war epic, and part treasure hunt. It tells the story of Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Paul (Delroy Lindo), four veterans who return to Vietnam after nearly 50 years to recover the remains of their gallant squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and the millions in gold they buried in the jungle. They’re later joined by Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), who forces his way into the action. The film stresses that time and unhealed wounds can strain seemingly unbreakable bonds and corrode people from the inside.

Paul, played with remarkable bluster and torment by Lindo, immediately sears himself into memory. He’s volatile, racked with PTSD, and haunted by a past he’s unable to open up about. “This is why I went to acting school: to tackle these types of big, tragic characters,” says Lindo, a severely underrated actor who’s phenomenal in the role. “And Paul is very much that.” Paul is also an ardent, MAGA hat–wearing Trump supporter—a choice that, on the surface, contradicts his position as a subjugated Black veteran. Trump has shown outright contempt for Black people and veterans alike. But as the layers of Paul’s character are slowly peeled back, the more his stance makes sense. “We got back from Nam, we didn’t get nothing but a hard damn time,” he says early in the film. “I’m tired of not getting mine, man. Been fucked my whole goddamn life, bruh. Going for me.” In Paul’s eyes, he’s the ultimate forgotten man. The gold is his reparations.

“He’s been given a raw deal on so many levels—and not handling it, which is the other part of it,” says Kevin Willmott, who adapted Paul De Meo and Danny Bilson’s original script along with Lee to make Da 5 Bloods about Black veterans. “He refuses to get counseling, he pushes people away, and he blames others for his problems. I think that is like the prototypical Trump supporter.”

Da 5 Bloods marks the second consecutive film, following 2018’s BlackKklansman, in which Lee and Willmott have confronted Trump’s presidency in some manner. Paul, a collision of extremes, is an allusion to this fringe group so far askew that they decided to roll the dice when Trump asked Black voters what they had to lose by supporting him four years ago. Eight percent of Black voters, including 13 percent of Black men, subsequently did in 2016. With Da 5 Bloods arriving at what is either the end or midpoint of Trump’s presidency, Paul epitomizes the damage endured by Black soldiers on behalf of America and the irrationality of Black Trump support. Even if the decision is understandable, it’s still 100 percent antithetical to Black people’s well-being.

A piece published by The Atlantic about a month before the 2016 presidential election includes an anecdote about a Black veteran who feels invigorated by Trump:

Six hundred miles south, just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, a similar scenario plays out as a black veteran makes a spirited case for Trump to his barber, with the entire shop tuned in. As a small business owner, he admires Trump’s personal success and blames his own inability to get ahead on day laborers, who he suspects are undocumented and who he says are cutting into his home-contracting services. He tells of attending two Trump rallies and then, amid chuckles from the other men, launches into a familiar refrain: “Build that wall! Build that wall!”

This sounds exactly like Paul, whose “Build that wall” talk shocks his companions. They’re aghast that he voted for “President Fake Bone Spurs” (a nod to the diagnosis that helped Trump avoid being drafted into Vietnam) and joke that Paul’s the dubious figure who appeared behind Trump at various rallies holding that infamous “BLACKS FOR TRUMP” sign. Lindo, who previously worked with Lee on 1992’s Malcolm X, 1994’s Crooklyn, and 1995’s Clockers, called the Trump aspect of the character a “stumbling block” initially, but said he got past it after reading the script three times before accepting the role. Paul is far more than a sentient barbershop argument: Lindo created a backstory for him, rooting his vote for Trump in the loss and betrayal he’s experienced since arriving in Vietnam as the war escalated, then serving three tours between 1967 and 1971.

“A major betrayal by my country, coming back from my third tour in Vietnam and being reviled and rejected in the way that I was,” says Lindo, who speaks of Paul as if he’s still connected to him. “It’s really important to understand that Paul volunteered for Vietnam, and here he is coming back to America after the third tour and being rejected and reviled—which comports exactly with, for instance, the experience of one of my cousins who was drafted into the Vietnam war at 19 years old. Within three or four days of landing in Vietnam, he’s in the jungle fighting on the front lines. So you go through that kind of experience, you come back, and you’re told that what you just did was wrong?”

Paul suffers a string of personal misfortunes after being admonished by society, stymied by then–President Richard Nixon’s “benign neglect” approach, and cast aside by the government. “The loss of my wife, the loss of my son in terms of the fact that their relationship is so fractious—despite the fact that they love each other,” says Lindo. “After all these betrayals and all these losses, Paul needs a win. I need for something to go right in my life, and here comes this individual who says, ‘I can make it right. I can give you a win. I can make things better for you.’ I think Paul is at a point where he needs to believe that, so that’s what leads him to cast that vote.”

Lindo prepared for the role by speaking with a number of veterans, including two of his cousins who served in Vietnam. He studied the changes in their body language when discussing their experiences, and the common denominator in many of these conversations—particularly with his cousins—was PTSD. “What they been through in the bush, plus what they have to go through back in the world, they can’t face it,” one soldier told war correspondent–turned–author Wallace Terry about the difficulty readjusting to society. Lindo reread Terry’s Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans in preparation for the role, incorporating it into the foundation of Paul’s character.

Much of his struggle with PTSD, as well as his general outlook, is steeped in an inability to cope with Stormin’ Norman’s death. Norman was a guiding force who educated the bloods about their Blackness, specifically how it related to their presence in Vietnam. They refer to him as their Malcolm and their Martin—the authoritative voice of reason who stops them from enacting violence against white soldiers in retribution following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Norman was their collective ideal, but Paul was the most inspired by him. He’s the last thing Paul believed in for a very long time. According to Lindo, Norman’s death was a structural loss: “If you think of it as a house with four walls, two of the walls and the foundation crumble. Now what do you do?” This helps to explain how someone who, as a Black soldier, was a pawn in a white supremacist mission went on to become a pawn in another white supremacist mission by voting for Trump.

Paul’s affinity for Trump highlights the cognitive dissonance at play with Black Trump supporters. America fucked him over just as it has Black people, at large. Trump has engaged in that for decades. But despite his lengthy history of racism and the fact that Black Trump fans are in the extreme minority, there’s something appealing about him to people who exist beyond the margins. According to the Black conservative orthodoxy—with specific regard to the failures of the Democratic party—that’s where this group resides. “One of the things that I think those supporters connect with is that ‘We’re all outside the system’ element of it, so that’s why they like Trump: He doesn’t play by the rules,” Willmott says, noting that Trump’s “gangster quality” is alluring to Paul. “He’s not accepted by the mainstream. All of that connects to that person who has a whole set of grievances, like Paul. They kind of found a community and banded together, in a sense.” But even if motivated by desperation or self-interest, it’s a vote against their own best interests.

“They drank the Kool-Aid, man,” Lindo says. “But, rather than just out-and-out criticizing that, we have to understand how you got the point that you even held the Kool-Aid in your hand! But that’s hard; it’s very difficult. We have to accept the depths of the disenfranchisement and the rejection of the Democratic party. ‘You can’t give me what I need, this cat can!’”

Trump sold himself as a radical alternative to this community. In an Undefeated piece about Black Trump supporters published three weeks ahead of the 2016 election, their justification ranged from his economic-empowerment preaching to his law-and-order tough talk and a shared belief that respectability is Black people’s best path to advancement. Kanye West, who said he would’ve voted for Trump if he’d voted in 2016, expressed effusive praise for the president while appearing at the White House in 2018 wearing a MAGA hat he claimed made him “feel like Superman.” West, who said he was drawn to Trump’s “male energy,” was there in part to discuss sentencing reform—even though the “tough on crime” ideology that has accelerated mass incarceration in the United States was integral to Trump’s campaign. Actor Isaiah Washington, who appeared with Lindo in Clockers, announced his exit from the Democratic party last year citing its negligence toward Black people and endorsed Trump’s support of the First Step Act. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has treated First Step (which addresses only a small fraction of the U.S. prison population) like a major legislative triumph while the Department of Justice seeks to reincarcerate former inmates freed by it (including Gregory Allen, who appeared alongside Trump at a First Step Rally in 2019), arguing they never should’ve been released in the first place.

The unifying thread is a willingness to overlook what’s directly in front of them, just like Paul. Willmott says the character’s trauma led to drawing conclusions that make little sense. “In one moment he’ll say that Black people have been ripped off, exploited, or discriminated against, but in the next he’ll say he’s tired of Black people complaining about it,” he explains.

Trump also positioned himself as a savior to a sect that resents the rest of the world for their circumstances. “The people you see in the Trump rallies are people that—and mainly poor whites—have kind of been left behind economically,” Willmott says. “They blame Blacks, immigrants, and the whole litany that they talk about. And for the few Blacks that do support Trump, a lot of times you see those connections as well. Instead of kind of looking at it as a Black experience, they turn within themselves and there’s an element of self-hate that goes with it.” This is the plight of feeling so forgotten that you’ll grasp at dangerous extremes to get ahead.

“He absolutely identifies with being a forgotten man,” Lindo says of Paul. “That is the crux of Paul’s attachment to that vote that he cast. And it is different in white men, because in them it’s connected to white supremacy and the continuance of the white dominance in this country and in the world over everyone else.”

Because racism is irrational, poor whites will battle against their own well-being for the mere chance to feel superior. At the same time, overlooking the racism that you’ve experienced your entire life is as unreasonable as racism itself, hence why Paul’s support of Trump is so nonsensical: He’s just cutting off his nose to spite his face. However, his fourth-wall-breaking rant—a Lee staple—as he wanders alone through the jungle offers justification for his worldview.

“I’m expressing this deep-seated loss in that monologue and it culminates in what the military has done to me. Exposing me to Agent Orange. Exposing me to these chemicals and defoliants,” Lindo says. “Then the [United States Department of Veterans Affairs] gives me information I completely reject out of hand. Let’s talk about the fact that the VA—and this isn’t me, this is kind of common knowledge—despite its best efforts, has failed its vets on many levels. It’s one of the reasons my cousin, for many years, refused to go to therapy. ‘What they gonna do for me, man? They don’t have anything that I can use.’ And, taking a half a step back, I can understand the mistrust based on his experience. So Paul, in that moment, is expressing, ‘This person betrayed me and made a choice I don’t agree with. They turned my son against me. Then, the American military has violated me by exposing me to these chemicals. But guess what? I’m stronger than all of that.’”

Lindo views Paul’s outrage as more valid anger than pure resentment. “Me, as Paul, my reality is ‘I’ve done this, this, this, and this, and I did it out of love for this country. I wanted to do something positive and I come back and you kick me in the ass like that? How dare you treat me like that.’” Willmott believes Paul is so astray because of several unaddressed problems and a refusal to share them with a larger community, particularly his fellow bloods. “It’s that isolation that really is destroying him on one level and feeding his resentment on another,” he says. Either way, Paul’s anger comes from feeling like he’s owed something his service didn’t bring: respect. His resentment is directed toward every system that failed him. It’s for America. Regardless, Paul wears his veteran paraphernalia with pride because he wants recognition from America despite his indignation. His patriotism, however toxic, is the result of respect he still seeks—a very nuanced aspect of the Black veteran experience.

“Black people love this country, man,” Lindo says. “So what happens to the love?” In some cases it becomes righteous indignation, which has fueled the fight for equality in a country that has shown consistent disdain for Black people—even those willing to die in service of it. But for Paul, it goes so far to the right that even if you can understand how he got there, it still doesn’t add up.

Lee has never been one for subtlety. The red MAGA hat has become a symbol of hate during Trump’s presidency, and Paul is at his worst while wearing it during Da 5 Bloods. “We know what that whole phenomenon represents,” Lindo says. “Right now, that’s how evil is passed on in the world,” Willmott adds. “It’s also a horror movie kind of motif where people take on this demonic symbol or prop and it has an effect that they don’t really understand.”

Paul has despicable qualities, but Lindo captures his many facets with such care that it’s difficult to completely write him off as a person. Lindo’s portrayal makes it possible to empathize with an antagonistic figure who swings from concerned father desperately trying to save his son’s life to disowning his son in the next breath. “That part is very real in terms of tortured characters and how they respond to the world, friends, and family,” Willmott says. “Paul will do something really bad, then it will come back to him how much he loves the bloods and his son in the very next moment. He’s ultimately a victim, more than anything.”

“When you look at the history, the thousands of years of violations, then you say, ‘How, even in that context, does this result in different opinions or worldviews?’” Lindo says of Paul being a Trump voter. “And it has to do with the fact that Black people, like everybody else on the planet, are not monolithic.”

Black people aren’t guided by a hive mind, but Da 5 Bloods was released at a time when America is underlining how it feels about them. This is the fourth month of a pandemic in which Black Americans are at greater risk of death than their white counterparts and the federal government has left most Americans to fend for themselves, healthwise and economically. The pandemic prompted a recession, and even as the U.S. forces its way back to business-as-usual, a recent Department of Labor report revealed the Black unemployment rate rose to 16.8 percent in May (nearly three times what it was in February) while the overall unemployment rate declined. Additionally, after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis on Memorial Day when a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, people across the world risked exposure to COVID-19 and stormed the streets to protest his death, along with those of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many other Black people for no reason at all through the years. It’s true: Some Black people love Trump, but his actions make clear the extent of that love is a photo-op and empty words, at best.

At a time of reckoning in America, Paul’s character is a reminder of the damage the country has done to Black people, and that Black conservatives have far more to lose by aligning with white supremacy than they have to gain. “What’s kind of happened is that George Floyd’s murder has made white people in the country who never took issues as seriously as they probably should have, have been shaken at the core,” Willmott says. “And now they kind of understand that, specifically, these murders have been happening since the police were invented. But more importantly, that Black people face a kind of unspoken discrimination all the time and that when they’re complaining about it, they’re probably telling the truth. And that is the opposite of what Black Trump supporters would like to believe. They’d like to believe that Black people need to get over it. That if you just work harder and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can find your way in all of this.”

And that’s impossible. Nothing can exempt you from the cruel realities of being Black in America—not even being a veteran. That’s why, Willmott says, Da 5 Bloods essentially asks Black Trump supporters through Paul: “In the midst of all this, is this still your guy?” “I think that’s the thing people will have to ask themselves: Does that thing that gives you a certain degree of solace and that feeling of camaraderie and community within the Trump world still exist?” he says. “I would hope they’d come to the conclusion that the feeling was false to begin with.”

The Vietnam War was further proof that Black soldiers could become victims of American imperialism after being used as instruments of it. At the same time, being instruments of white supremacy can’t protect Black people from white supremacy. No “ism” that’s harmed Black people throughout history will be their salvation. America has never been great to Black people, something Paul, like many other Black veterans, experienced first hand.

Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.

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