V Magazine – Confronting American society in a release that couldn’t have been more timely.
“In the Civil War, 186,000 Black men fought in the military service, and we were promised freedom and we didn’t get it. In World War II, 850,000 people fought, and we were promised freedom, and we didn’t get it. Now here we go with the damn Vietnam War, and we still ain’t gettin’ nothin’ but racist police brutality, et cetera.” (Bobby Seal; Oakland, CA; 1968)
Above is one of the statements that open the latest of Spike Lee joints Da 5 Bloods — a bittersweet comedy poignant with political criticism and social commentary that has premiered exclusively on Netflix earlier this month. Dealing with a subject that is oft-overlooked in American film, it’s a charming chronicle of a male group of friends growing old buried in a sobering statistical subtext: in 1967, 16% of all draftees and 23% of all combat troops were Black, never mind that only 11% of all civilians living in the United States that year were Black.
The story follows a group of four 60-something Black Vietnam War vets (also known as the “Bloods”) making their way back to Vietnam decades later with the intention of recovering the body of their fallen squad leader, Stormin’ Norman — and retrieving a cache of gold bars along the way. Arriving amidst the protests that decry systemic racism, it reminds one of the complex history of race relations in the 1970s, the Vietnam War, and its remnants of aircraft wrecks, landmines, and the general antipathy of Vietnamese people towards Americans.
In this story of honor, loyalty, and revenge, French expat Hedy was one of the post-colonial anti-war activists who set out to make amends for the French colonial rule in Vietnam and mitigate the traumas inflicted on the country and its citizens. Played by actress Mélanie Thierry, Hedy is the founder of a non-profit dubbed LAMB (Love Against Mines & Bombs) that seeks to support those impacted by the decades-long presence of landmines in Vietnam. Fueled by her adventurous nature and sense of duty, her character inadvertently gets caught up in the Bloods’ gold heist. “She grew up seeing something that felt like a terrible injustice to her,” Thierry explains. “And I have the feeling that she still feels like the war is still going on.”
While expanding her professional horizons, Thierry herself was also exposed to issues and cultural phenomena she has never dealt with before. Born and raised in Metropolitan France, she never really learned about the Vietnam War or the historical oppression experienced by people of color in the United States that they still face today.
Fitting for the current sociopolitical climate, for Thierry, it’s important to acknowledge the whole world rising in power and unison to support the Black Lives Matter movement beyond the United States. “It is a process which touches on hope, unity, and awakening of our conscience,” Thierry explains. “It is important to denounce it, to combat this scourge of racism by being vigilant about the education of our children — teaching tolerance, having open dialogue and not being ignorant about the history of your country. It is disheartening that this struggle is not over, just as it is disheartening that gender parity is still a debate.”
For the actress, who has primarily worked in the French film industry, a chance of meeting and potentially working with maestro Spike Lee himself has spurred the desire to give this project a go. “I knew the filmmaker, his energy, the history of how he influenced Black culture and helped the emancipation of Black people and the youth,” she remembers. “I just wanted to be a product of his writing, be a part of something that feels like it’s completely beyond me.”
When Thierry found out that Lee was looking to cast a French girl for his next project, she immediately decided to give it a go and audition for the role. “He came to Paris for just 24 hours just to meet some actresses, so I knew that my audition was for seven minutes — no more,” she recalls. “I remember he had this certain casualness and the boldness of spirit with confidence. He wasn’t there to laugh, but he was very nice and warm. I just tried to enjoy the work with him for a few minutes, because you never know if you get a callback.”
One month later, Thierry was on a train to Thailand, anxious and excited to be a part of something deeply moving and capable of leaving a mark on history and culture. “With Spike, he films from the inside of Black people, the youth; he understands who they are, how the war broke them, and what they want to express,” she explains. “[It’s] an adventure film, but always with the Spike Lee perspective and political aspect seeking to reestablish the truth and keep a better term of history. It was an unforgettable memory, and such a great chance to be a part of his work.”