In June, film director Spike Lee released his latest project, “Da 5 Bloods.” The film tells a story about Black American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War, and has drawn a fair amount of critical praise for shifting focus away from white soldiers, who’ve typically inhabited central roles in movies about the war.
But on Wednesday, Pulitzer-prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen called into Boston Public Radio to say — as someone who's claimed to have seen "almost every Vietnam War movie that Hollywood has made" —the film has a glaring blind spot.
"I’m a huge admirer of Spike Lee’s movies,” Nguyen said. "When I first heard about 'Da 5 Bloods,' I did feel a sense of dread coming because, as much as I admire Spike Lee, I also know the Vietnam War movie genre very well. … I know it works with certain kind of conventions and protocols.
"And one of the most basic of those is that the Vietnamese people, or any other Southeast Asian person in these movies, are serving [as] sidekicks, or extras, or just props for the American drama,” he said.
Nguyen detailed his thoughts in a June piece, published in The New York Times, titled "Vietnamese Lives, American Imperialist Views, Even in ‘Da 5 Bloods.’”
"I think what's basically missing is the perception of the Vietnamese people as humanity, pure and simple,” he said. "Where Spike Lee missed his opportunity is to show Vietnamese people with the same kinds of complexities. Not to make them into angels, but instead to render them with the same kind of fully, three-dimensional capacity for good and terrible deeds.”
Nguyen said representation in Hollywood holds a unique power, because of the way that American movies and TV influence attitudes both in the U.S. and around the world.
"I think there’s a stereotype that Hollywood is a liberal enclave, which might be true in terms of people’s personal politics, but I don’t think it’s true in terms of what Hollywood puts on the screen,” he said. "I consider Hollywood to be our country’s unofficial Ministry of Propaganda.
"When we talk about movies like the Vietnam War movie genre, we’re not just talking about entertainment. We’re talking about a type of genre that helps Americans see the world in a particular way: centered around the U.S., centered around American experiences, ignoring how American foreign policy effects others," he said, adding "and I think this does effect American attitudes towards what we do politically and militarily overseas."
Viet Thanh Nguyen is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English , American Studies and Ethnicity and Comperative Literature at the University of Southern California, and the author of the Pulitzer-prize winning book 'The Sympathizer.'