Vietnam Veterans of America
How big is director Spike Lee’s upcoming Vietnam War film, Da 5 Bloods?
For starters, you have to go back more than three decades, to 1987 when Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket hit the multiplexes, for a full-blown Vietnam War movie written and directed by one of filmdom’s most accomplished auteurs. For another, there has never been a big Hollywood movie that concentrates on the role of African-American soldiers. Plus, Lee’s movie, which is due out from Netflix on June12, has an exciting action-adventure component. Think buried treasure.
Still, the biggest news about Da 5 Bloods is that Spike Lee and co-scriptwriter Kevin Willmott have created a big Hollywood movie that focuses on the war and African Americans’ role in it. “I wanted to do a film that was taken from the perspective of the African-American soldier” in the Vietnam War, Lee said in a telephone interview from his home in New York in late April. “I’m not disrespectful, but I wanted to do something that I had not seen before.”
In 2013 screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo came up with a script that focused on four veterans returning to Vietnam. Producer Lloyd Levin hired Oliver Stone, whose credits include Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, to direct.
But as is often the way in La La Land, in 2016 Stone opted out of the project. The next year, Levin pitched the script to Spike Lee, who has written, directed, and produced more than three dozen movies since his 1986 breakthrough, She’s Gotta Have It, including his most recent, BlacKkKlansman, for which he received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
DOING HIS THING
Willmott and Lee loved the idea of the movie, Lee said, “but we wanted to turn this group of guys into a group of African-American soldiers. The basic story was there, but we had to do our thing, and put that flavor in it.”
Part of the Lee flavor is the soundtrack, which relies on Marvin Gaye’s classic 1971 album, What’s Going On. “It’s my favorite album,” Lee said, and “one of the great albums.” Gaye’s older brother Frankie who served in the Vietnam War, “wrote Marvin letters about the horrors he was seeing,” Lee said. “Those letters affected Marvin.” As did the social unrest he saw first-hand in American cities in the late sixties.
“Marvin Gaye was there for the Detroit riot in 1968,” Lee said, “and saw the black soldiers coming back from Vietnam fucked up on drugs, messed up mentally, injured, and called baby killers.” All of that is reflected in Gaye’s title song and the soundtrack of Da 5 Bloods.
Spike Lee also was influenced by Wallace Terry’s Bloods—including its title. Plus, Lee has had a longtime fascination with war movies. “Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, I loved watching World War II films on TV,” Lee (whose two uncles served in Patton’s Army in France) said. “I didn’t even know [then] that I wanted to be a filmmaker; I just wanted to watch movies that I liked. So, early on, I liked the war genre.”
Then, the summer before he started Film School at NYU, Lee had an internship at Columbia Pictures in Hollywood where he got to see an early cut of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. “It was a great film on all levels,” Lee said. “It had a big, big, big impact on me.”
The Realism Quotient
Lee hired two top Hollywood military technical advisers—former SEALs Harry Humphries and Kevin Kent—to made sure the movie was as realistic as possible as he ran the actors through their paces, especially during a three-month shoot in Thailand and Vietnam. Then, after coming back to New York, Lee held four screenings for black Vietnam veterans.
“It was an amazing, amazing experience to show this film to them,” he said. “After the film, we had 90-minute sessions with them, just talking. Memories came back, some they had wanted to forget. It was like picking a scab off a wound.”
The veterans were not shy about telling Spike Lee what didn’t look right in the movie—and what did. And Lee took heed. “Those guys helped us,” he said. “I listened to them. They were there while I was in high school. They really, really helped us. And I knew that if they liked the film, then I had done my job. No way would I make a Vietnam War film and not let those guys look at it. They were there. Brothers died in their arms.
“I made the film for them,” he said. “I made the film for those guys who were 18 years old, boys who were trained to be killers and went overseas and never were the same. And they were the ones who were lucky; they came back. That was much of the justification for this film, that we had those four screenings for those vets and they loved it.”
That said, Lee said, “this film is not just for black Vietnam vets. There’s an adventure segment to this film that can be captivating, too. It’s not made exclusively for black Vietnam vets.”
The Political Quotient
Matters of race and politics are integral parts of Spike Lee movies. Da 5 Bloods is no exception. Like his 2008 World War II movie, Miracle at St. Anna, about the Buffalo Soldiers of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division in Italy, one strong theme in Da 5 Bloods is the history of African Americans and the U.S. military. “African Americans have been fighting for this country from the very beginning,” Lee said, “even before we were freed as slaves.” And “we’ve been very patriotic.”
Why did African Americans willingly serve in every American conflict from the Revolutionary War into the 21st century? “It’s the belief in the promise,” Lee said: the promise that social conditions at home would improve for them following the wars. “And it’s the same way today and the same way it was for the younger brothers who served in Vietnam. They were sold a bill of goods” in the case of the Vietnam War “that we had to stem the tide of communism.”
Which brings us to Lee’s take on the Vietnam War. “This film,” he said, “is about how immoral that war was. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, General Westmoreland—all of them—they all lied. They lied to America.”
In this life-changing time of pandemic and social isolation, Spike Lee and Netflix next month present a top-quality look at the American War in Vietnam and the African Americans who took part in it.
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