If America was a person, it'd be a narcissist. Psychology Today characterizes narcissistic personality disorder as "...a grandiose sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, a need for excessive admiration, and the belief that one is unique and deserving of special treatment." That diagnosis would explain why despite the many public displays of affection required to be considered "proud" Americans—like voting, jury duty, and serving in the military—the country has not protected everyone. This is the land where burning the flag can send you to jail, but 99 percent of killings by police officers since 2013 have resulted in no convictions.
To be a Black American is to be constantly warring with two identities. You are on stolen land run by a government whose constitution once described your humanity as being worth just three-fifths that of a white person. Spike Lee's latest film, Da 5 Bloods, finds four Vietnam War veterans wrestling with the irony of Black patriotism. As shown in the recent Black Lives Matter uprising, Black Americans are still fighting for freedom in a country synonymous with our bondage.
Da 5 Bloods follows the story of a group of Black men who return to Vietnam more than 50 years after serving in the war together. The quartet sets out to find the remains of their fallen leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman) along with $17 million worth of gold they buried during combat. Being back in Vietnam reopens emotional wounds for some of the vets, like Paul (Delroy Lindo), who is "tired of not getting [his]." Returning to Vietnam for the gold is about more than just finding lost treasure; it is a form of reparations, and a chance to finally be paid for their contributions to American history.
These men are the bridge between past and present, and Lee uses flashbacks to the war to show that although decades have passed, not much has changed. When the group first finds the gold during battle, it is Norm who decides they deserve it more than anyone else. "We were the very first people that died for this red, white, and blue," he says, noting the death of Crispus Attucks, a Black man who was the first soldier killed in the American Revolution. "We been dying for this country from the very get, hoping one day they'd give us our rightful place... I say, the USA owe us. We built this bitch!"
It's clear that Paul carries this speech with him over the years, and ultimately, it informs his politics. Early on, he reveals himself as a Trump supporter, and wears a Make America Great Again hat that practically serves as another character for most of the film. Lee's decision to outfit Paul with Trumpian rhetoric isn't hyperbolic, but a direct call-out to a tactic Trump used to appeal to Black voters in the 2016 election. "If you keep voting for the same people, you will keep getting exactly the same result," Trump said.
Trump's ambiguous remarks fail to address that, historically, America was designed to make sure Black people kept getting "the same result." Slavery, segregation, housing discrimination, and medical racism are just a handful of systems that have enabled and upheld white supremacy. Malcolm X, who believed in the rights of Black people to defend themselves, was assassinated, and even Martin Luther King Jr.'s message of nonviolence was met with contempt. The message from their deaths, even after the Civil Rights movement, was clear: The price for being vocal about ending white supremacy often meant sacrificing your life.
Fighting a war for America didn't make the "soul brothers" any more American, and Lee brilliantly shows that when the soldiers receive news from radio personality Hanoi Hannah that King was assassinated. "Your soul sisters and soul brothers are enraged in over 122 cities," she says. "They kill them while you fight against us, so far away from where you are needed." The film cites that despite making up only 11 percent of the American population, Black soldiers comprised around 32 percent of the US military during the Vietnam War. "Black GI, is it fair to serve more than the white Americans who sent you here?" Hannah asks on her show.
One particularly poignant scene portrays a conversation in French between Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), a woman who works for an organization that detonates landmines and bombs, and Desroche (Jean Reno) an unsurprising antagonist who wants the gold for himself. "These men are a part of our history in Vietnam, so this belongs to them," Hedy says. "We need to consider the sacrifice they made." Desroche, however, does not see it that way. "We have all sacrificed," he says. "Their Blackness does not make their sacrifice any greater." That statement might as well have been written as "all lives matter."
Da 5 Bloods helps undo the whitewashing of American history by commemorating the Black soldiers of the Vietnam War as heroes fighting a battle that was rigged from the start. The film's iconography feels eerily relevant in 2020, as the soldiers kneel before Norm's remains, throw up triumphant Black power fists, and give robust donations to the Black Lives Matter organization. By the end, it feels like Black Americans are all veterans of some kind of war.
The concept of Black patriotism is probably best expressed in James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son. "I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually." Our ability to challenge America and its systems is because of our love, and therefore an extension of our patriotism. Only time will tell if the feeling is mutual.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.