The long history of racism in war movies

In the mid-1980s, Oliver Stone’s Platoon followed in Apocalypse Now’s footsteps by offering a slightly more sophisticated depiction of the conflict. It portrayed racial divides amongst American troops, that were mainly defined by cultural ties: soldiers were either predominantly white ‘juicers’, who drank, or predominantly black ‘heads’, who smoked marijuana. However, while Stone highlighted issues of race and class, the representations of black soldiers we see are all refracted through the memories of a white veteran: Stone himself, who wrote the script based on his experiences as well as directing. And its depiction of the Vietnamese was still crude to say the least: indeed, from Platoon to Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, it’s difficult to remember a ‘classic’ Vietnam war film with an Asian woman who is not a sex worker, or in which the Vietcong are not depicted as faceless savages.

One film that did better on this front was Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam, loosely based on the career of real-life Armed Forces Radio Services DJ Adrian Cronauer. Released in 1987, it surprised at the time in its depiction of its Vietnamese characters with their own interior lives, as family members, friends and lovers.

Vehicles for white supremacy?

Most popular and most egregious, however, were the Reagan-era films that tried to rewrite the conflict as a victory for white supremacy, with pumped-up action heroes like Chuck Norris (Missing in Action) and Sylvester Stallone (Rambo First Blood: Part II) playing Vietnam veterans returning to the country to rescue prisoners of war and gun down their old enemies. In another post-modern nod, the characters in Da Five Bloods debate and slam these very movies (“Do you all remember those fugazi Rambo movies?” “All those Holly-weird [people] trying to go back and win the Vietnam war.”)

“If I may say so respectfully, America got their ass kicked by a very small nation, in the same way France did, so [these films] had to rewrite the narrative,” says Lee, reflecting on this sub-genre. “I guess there is a large part of Americans who couldn’t deal with reality.”  

Since then, there have been few depictions of Vietnam that have had much impact on the public consciousness or revised Westerners’ understanding of the conflict (though one notable work was Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers (2002), which gave the North Vietnamese soldiers a human face by giving as much time to the perspective of Lt Colonel Nguyễn Hữu An (Đơn Dương) as it did to Colonel Hal Moore (Mel Gibson)). So Da 5 Bloods feels long overdue.

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