With “Da 5 Bloods,” Spike Lee set out to tell a story about Black veterans’ experiences, crafting his tale around Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album “What’s Going On,” which encapsulated what soldiers faced during the Vietnam War abroad and after coming back home.

“Marvin had an older brother that did three tours in Vietnam; he was a radio operator. So he was writing Marvin periodically and giving him a firsthand account of the horrors of the Vietnam War,” Lee explains. “But also, he’s in Detroit, so he’s seeing the bloods come back in body bags, the ones who were maimed or strung out on heroin.”

From there, Lee takes the baton, portraying the lasting mental scars the war left on these veterans, namely post-traumatic stress disorder, as portrayed through the character of Paul (Delroy Lindo).

“That phrase wasn’t even around back then,” Lee notes. “People didn’t know or really couldn’t explain [what was going on]. Something’s off, but there’s no medical term.”

Though the war spanned from 1955 to ’75, the American Psychiatric Assn. did not officially recognize PTSD until 1980.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 15% of Vietnam vets were diagnosed with PTSD, per the National Vietnam Veterans
Readjustment Study conducted in 1988. But it is estimated that about 30% of all Vietnam vets have had PTSD in their lifetime. Both numbers are comparable to PTSD rates for soldiers who served in the Gulf War in the 1990s (approximately 12%) and the current conflicts in the Middle East (PTSD diagnoses estimated between 11% and 20%).

“It’s [also] a fact that during the height of the Vietnam War, Black soldiers were one-third of the fighting force, but we were only 10% of the population of the United States of America,” Lee says.

The NVVRS study found that Hispanic and Black male Vietnam vets showed higher rates of PTSD (28% among Hispanic vets, 21% among Black vets) than their white counterparts (14%), which reaffirmed the need for Lee to tell their story.

“Before we premiered on Netflix, I had five screenings for Black and brown Vietnam vets here in New York City, and they were very moved,” Lee says.

The director has continued to receive powerful feedback from vets and their families since the film’s release.

“A lot of people reached out to me on Instagram saying that seeing the film, and seeing the magnificent performance by Lindo, they now know why their father, brother, cousins or friends acted the way they did when they came back from Vietnam,” he says. “They saw their people in Paul.”