From Academy Award® Winner Spike Lee comes a New Joint: the story of four African-American Vets — Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) — who return to Vietnam. Searching for the remains of their fallen Squad Leader (Chadwick Boseman) and the promise of buried treasure, our heroes, joined by Paul’s concerned son (Jonathan Majors), battle forces of Man and Nature — while confronted by the lasting ravages of The Immorality of The Vietnam War.
In the 1970s, Paul, Otis, Eddie and Melvin left Vietnam with a lifelong bond. They had been uprooted from their U.S. hometowns as teenagers, summoned thousands of miles to outthink a mysterious foe in its own jungles. At this vulnerable juncture, each was thrust into an Army squad and handed an assault weapon. Under the direction of Stormin’ Norman — a fellow African-American who taught them how to coexist as rebels and patriots — the Men became a surrogate family, Da 5 Bloods. During the Vietnam War, “Bloods” became a brotherly term between African-American soldiers — a casual term of camaraderie. This brotherhood even outlived its patriarch.
Yet their greatest shared pain awaited The Quartet back home. Like countless returning soldiers, the men received no warm welcome in America, where Anti-War activists dominated the public discourse. Although veterans of previous wars had been embraced as heroes, Vietnam GI’s were spat on and derided as “Baby Killers” — even those who were drafted to serve. Da Bloods also still had to contend with systemic racial discrimination, which robbed them of respect and economic mobility.
Despite recent decades apart, Paul (Delroy Lindo) , Otis ( Clarke Peters) Eddie (Norm Lewis ) and Melvin ( Isiah Whitlock, Jr. ) have a stronger connection than ever when Academy Award®-winner Spike Lee opens his new film, DA 5 BLOODS, with their present-day reunion. Hidden beneath backslapping and jokes, these are broken men struggling with the realities of Grief, Illness, Divorce, Addiction, Financial Ruin, Regret and Shame.
By refusing to seek help for his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] symptoms, Paul — a defiant supporter of President Donald Trump — is exacerbating his flawed relationship with his son, David (Jonathan Majors) . When he’s not advocating for Black Lives Matter, Eddie lives in denial of his impending bankruptcy. Melvin chances his happy home life with nights of carefree carousing. A one time Medic carrying a pocketful of pills, Otis, attempts to keep them all grounded.
From a Ho Chi Minh City Hotel, the four — plus David, an uninvited, eleventh-hour arrival — embark on a fateful double mission: find the remains of their Squad Leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman ), plus a chest of Gold they first discovered during combat. To help with the latter, Otis’ former lover, a Vietnamese Woman named Tiên Luu ( Lê Y Lan ), introduces Da Bloods to her international exports contact, Desroche (Jean Reno) .If the treasure hunt is successful, the French mancan transfer currency from Gold bars into offshore accounts, taking a generous cut for himself. Unaware of the fortune, Local Guide Vinh Tran ( Johnny Trí Nguyễn) accompanies Da Bloods on a tense boat ride to the edge of the brush, so they can locate Norman within. Amidst the landscape of their nightmares, however, individual greed eclipses Blood loyalty. New fears arise from treacherous terrain, wild animals, deadly traps, the elements, shattered trust and two more lurking parties — LAMB [Love Against Mines and Bombs] personnel (M élanie Thierry , P aul Walter Hauser and Jasper Pääkkönen ) and a band of Vietnamese officers (commanded by N guyễn Ngọc Lâm).
DA 5 BLOODS is an Epic Adventure centered on the African-American experience in Vietnam. Lee wrote the script with his BlacKkKlansman co-scribe Kevin Willmott , based on an original screenplay by DannyBilson andP aulDeMeo .A40AcresandaMuleproduction,theNetflixFilmisproducedby LloydLevin ,B eatrizLevin ,J onKilik andLee.Oscar®nomineeT erenceBlanchard (B lacKkKlansman ) composed the score, which compliments several tracks from Marvin Gaye ’s groundbreaking 1971 album “What’s Going On.”
A WAR THAT NEVER ENDS
On both sides of the Pacific, the Vietnam War (1955-1975) remains the defining conflict for a generation. Vietnam was bisected into opposing factions — single families supplied recruits for the North and South — and American ideology was cleaved in two. Generally, Vietnamese citizens are no more hostile toward the U.S. than any of the country’s former adversaries. But in certain U.S. circles today, the Vietnam War remains a taboo subject.
The psychological scars of the Vietnam War are distinctly palpable in The Black community. African-American soldiers made up a disproportionate number of Vietnam deployments and casualties, as well as Post-War Unemployment and Homelessness. Those fortunate enough to return Stateside had to fight their government — the same one they had just defended abroad — for basic Civil Rights.
Lee is among Cinema’s most original and prolific Writer-Directors, and DA 5 BLOODS is the latest entry in an indelible Body of Work that began with 1986’s indie breakthrough, She’s Gotta Have It. Following the tradition of D o The Right Thing (1989), M o’ Better Blues (1990), Malcolm X (1992), 25th Hour (2002) and six-timeOscar®nominee BlacKkKlansman (2018),this Film begins with a collage of photos and footage confronting America’s prejudiced past. An uncompromising creative force, Lee roots his art in facts and social justice.
“I’m a big historian,” Lee said. “I was taught that African-Americans fought for this Country from day one,” citing Crispus Attucks (1723-1770), an African-American Man killed during the Boston Massacre, becoming the first victim of the American Revolution. With 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna , Lee increased awareness of what Black Infantrymen — known as Buffalo Soldiers — endured during World War II . “We’re still fighting for this country today,” he continued.
Conversations about DA 5 BLOODS began when Lee and his writing partner, Kevin Willmott, were approached by producer Lloyd Levin (BoogieNights ) as they prepared to shoot BlacKkKlansman. “No disrespect to any film that’s been done before about the Vietnam War, but we wanted to do this
through the perspective of the Black Soldiers,” Lee said. “Kevin and I felt that the premise was fantastic. We knew that we had not seen Brothers like this in a Vietnam film.”
Thus DA 5 BLOODS evolved into Lee’s first project produced with Lloyd Levin and his wife, Beatriz Levin.Lee made an important addition to the filmmaking team —Academy Award®nominee and prolific producer Jon Kilik (Babel ). In1988, Kilik and Le ewere introduced by then president of Columbia Pictures David Picker. Kilik produced Lee’s first feature to vie for Oscars®, Do the Right Thing , and DA 5 BLOODS marks their 15th collaboration.
Drawing inspiration from classics like Sir David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), as well as John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre ( 1948) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), the Writers collaborated on a script that brought Vietnam veterans back to the Far East. Their journey is interspersed with flashbacks to the late ‘60s through 1971; along the way, Paul, Otis, Eddie and Melvin try to reconcile the men they’ve become in Norman’s absence.
“He was a Malcolm X and a Martin Luther King, Jr. kind of character,” Willmott said of Norman. “He held them together not just in terms of being a leader in the jungle, in the fight, but also being a leader in the fight for civil rights.”
In an innovative conceit thought up by Lee, actors Lindo, Peters, Lewis and Whitlock, Jr. maintain their roles for the flashbacks — and no makeup or de-aging technology is used to hide the fact that they are in their 60s. “The memories of War stay with Veterans as they grow older,” Willmott said. “These are still living memories,” meaning current dilemmas and even ailments color recollections of their former selves. Since flashbacks are told from Da Bloods’ vantage, long-lost comrades always look as young as they did in their final months and moments.
MEET DA 5 BLOODS
Delroy Lindo as Paul
Paul’s most memorable accessory is a red cap brandishing President Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.” Only eight percent of African-American voters cast their ballots for the Republican candidate — Paul’s inclusion in said demographic is a point of deep-seated conflict within the Bloods (Lee himself refers to Trump as “Agent Orange”).
“I absolutely do not relate to Paul as a Trump supporter,” said Lindo, a Tony® nominee working with Lee for the first time in 25 years. “It was a stumbling block that I had to negotiate as an actor.” Lindo trusted his past Malcolm X, Crooklyn (1994) and C lockers (1995) director, finding his way into the role after completing his second read of the script. “Paul is a tragic character in every bit the same way as King Lear,” he said. “From a creative and dramaturgical point of view, that deeply attracted me.”
Lindo also responded to the idea that Otis, Eddie and Melvin still embrace Paul as their Brother. “A Deep Seated Love exists between these Men, and it’s stronger than any political endorsement’s ability to drive them apart,” he said. “On many levels, D5B feels to be a Love Story among these Men. The Bloods’ acceptance of Paul in this instance is a significant manifestation of that Love.”
Given Lee’s vocal opposition to the current administration, a Trump-endorsing lead may sound shocking. “By the end of the film, the audience is going to really empathize with him, and see that the man’s not in his right mind,” Lee said.
Willmott concedes that Paul is “probably the most complicated character” in DA 5 BLOODS, but still representative of the resentment felt by many Blue-Collar Americans. “They turn their bitterness on the wrong people,” he said. “Paul’s problem is that he hasn’t learned much from all the bad things that have happened to him.”
The son of a World War II veteran — who came home triumphant following his role in the Normandy invasion—Paul completed three tours of Vietnam duty.Naturally,Lindoc on ducted extensive research to relate his alter-ego. “I had a broadly based, vague notion of this war” — Vietnam — “that was controversial and causing so much social disruption, but I didn’t understand it, because I was young when it happened,” he said. “The importance of having Black Men as protagonists telling this story cannot be overstated.”
Paul’s politics are just the latest factor alienating him from his only child, David, a millennial African-American studies teacher who has been seeking paternal validation his entire life. As David grew up, Paul’s paranoia and agitation increased ( The American Psychiatric Association did not officially recognize PTSD until 1980, when such woes were commonly being observed in Vietnam War Veterans).
“Now that we’re both adults, the son is really trying to get to know the man his father is, after an upbringing that was not cupcakes and sunshine,” said rising star Jonathan Majors, a 2020 Film Independent Spirit Award nominee (T he Last Black Man in San Francisco) . Through his Godfather, Otis, David knows that Paul has faced nonstop anguish since witnessing the death of Norman, his best friend.“You don’t often see black masculinity portrayed in the honest, raw way evident in this film,” he said. Out of concern, David hacks into Paul’s emails, and tracks him down on the other side of the world.
Majors spent his youth on California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base while his father served in the armed forces, and his grandfathers respectively fought in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. “That’ll get you to work six days a week for sure,” he joked. DA 5 BLOODS was an opportunity he accepted “sight unseen” when he heard “the kings” being proposed as his scene partners.
“It’s been like showing up at school everyday,” said Majors, an alum of The University of North Carolina School of the Arts and Yale Drama School alum. “It’s very rare as a young, black, trained actor that you get to work with the OG who came up the way you came up,” noting that Lindo and Whitlock, Jr. studied at the American Conservatory Theater, while Peters and Lewis also have long lists of influential stage credits. “To watch them, learn from them and be taken in as the young Blood, it’s the best thing that could happen as far as moving forward in an acting career.”
Take after take, Lindo was impressed with Majors’ delivery. “Jonathan has an openness that is wonderful to engage,” said Lindo. “We have found instances in the story in which our love for each other, father to son, is very evident. It has resulted in what I’d like to believe is a finely-nuanced, lifelike relationship. That’s part of the complexity of deep-seated love: having the capacity to love and simultaneously ‘hate’ a human being.”
Clarke Peters as Otis Peters —the actor best known as The Wire’s Detective Lester Freamon—once entertained thoughts of enlisting in the armed forces. “My father was part of the first Black Marine battalion that America had, and when those surviving came over to the house, they would speak of war in a glorious way,” Peters said. “Hearing that as a young man, I thought, I want to do that .”
But once Vietnam emerged as the site of a terrible conflict that left families destroyed, Peters was entirely against the war. “There were other battles to be fought from the early 60s onward,” he said. Peters was raised in New Jersey, yet had family in the American South, where the Congress for Racial Equality [CORE] and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] held voter registration drives. Soon, his anti-Vietnam stance “became the foundation of my political points of view in America, and it was supported by guys like Malcolm [X] and Martin [Luther King, Jr.] and [Muhammed] Ali,” whose speeches are woven into DA 5 BLOODS.
In the film, Peters plays Otis, a Vietnam War Medic who returned to the States with bullet scars and the drive to keep healing people. “He was always compassionate for humanity, despite the circumstances he found himself in,” Peters said. At his most edgy moments, Paul is more likely to listen to Otis than anyone else. When it comes to Da Bloods, Otis has a simple philosophy: “Stick with your Tribe.”
On location in Thailand and Vietnam, the Actors fell into the easy rhythm of lifelong friends. “We share the same jokes and have the same points of reference,” Peters said. “We got into a pretty deep conversation about how being Black Men in America has affected us, and you don’t just do that with any Brother these days. I trust them on Camera, and I can imagine that on a Battlefield, I would trust them, too.”
Peters also has ample faith in Lee, who previously cast him in Red Hook Summer (2012). “I like the way that he handles the set,” Peters said. “Spike doesn’t waste any time. As a Director, he’s also very generous. He knows us, so he can get under our skin with a little bit of cajoling. We are all doing this together.”
Wise and organized, Otis is Norman’s heir apparent in thoughtful leadership. He procured the documents necessary for Da Bloods to legally collect Norman’s remains, and he studied satellite photos of the mudslide that may have unearthed their clandestine gold.
Otis is also good at keeping secrets, like the origins of the gun and opioids in his backpack. Then there’s Otis’ extra incentive to take this odyssey: Prior to meeting his wife, he had a passionate relationship with Tiên. Their affair resulted in repercussions he never fathomed — including a daughter who grew up without him.
Norm Lewis as Eddie An Actor, Singer, and the first African-American to play the namesake role in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway , Lewis met Lee many years ago. DA 5 BLOODS is their first collaboration. “Spike sent me the script and said, ‘No questions. Just read it.’ Then I called him up and said, ‘This is brilliant. Good luck with your project.’” Lewis had no idea he was being offered a part until Lee asked outright if he was interested.
The character Lee had in mind, Eddie, had the misfortune of being drafted to fight in a war he strongly opposed. “A lot of people didn’t believe in the Vietnam War,” said Lewis, a two-time Grammy® nominee. “But pressured into going, Eddie felt like he had to be the best at what he was doing” — Battle Photography. “Especially in a company of Men who were also at the top of their game.”
Ahead of filming, Lewis read a book recommended by Lee, Wallace Terry’s Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History (Ballantine Books, 1984). In the same tradition as DA 5 BLOODS, the text takes its title from the collective nickname young, politically-engaged, African-American recruits gave themselves during the war’s second decade.
T he Vietnam War was the first major combat where American soldiers were deployed to fight as part of an integrated military. “ For years, we couldn’t fight in certain wars, and even if we did, we were segregated,” Lewis said. “But when it came to the Vietnam War, we were put right up front.”
At first, Eddie appears to be Da Bloods’ biggest success: Cars made him a wealthy Man, and dealerships across America bear his name. In the company of his former comrades, Eddie throws money around as a ruse — he has deep insecurities about his dwindling bank account. A string of divorce settlements, regrettable investments and expensive habits have left on the verge of bankruptcy.
If Da Bloods are able to reclaim gold, Eddie has no desire to horde his portion. Instead, he echoes Norman’s familiar refrain of putting the greater good first. Eddie is determined to put every dollar towards Black Liberation, to the chagrin of Melvin and — especially — Paul.
“The world has crushed all of them in various ways that have made their belief in that collective spirit dissipate,” Wiillmott said. “It seemed right to show how these guys are brought back to a reality that they once believed in.”
Isiah Whitlock, Jr. as Melvin Like his co-stars Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Pääkkönen, Whitlock, Jr.’s second consecutive film with Lee is DA 5 BLOODS.This particular Actor-Director rapport stretches back six titles, to 25th Hour.
“One of the things I love about working with Spike is that he allows me to try some different things — a certain reading or line inflection that will help a story along,” said Whitlock, Jr. “The excitement comes from getting to do what I want, character-wise. If I miss the boat, he’ll be the first person to tell me. But he usually gives me a very long leash.” Composer Terence Blanchard has enjoyed a similar experience with Lee, and added, “He knows what he wants, but if he trusts you, he gives you a ton of room to express yourself.”
This time, Whitlock, Jr. assumed the role of the youngest Blood. “ Melvin represents a lot of Brothers who went to Vietnam,” he said, citing those who “lied about their age, got into The Army, wanted to get away from home and didn’t really have anything going for them. The military was definitely a way to go.”
Melvin and his wife, Cissy, are happily raising their 18-year-old son. However, there are occasions where he appears flippant towards this domestic stability. A bit indulgent, Melvin has a taste for cocktails and a roving eye. He lives in the moment, and prioritizes having a good time.
“I wouldn’t say he’s the deepest Brother, but in a way, he’s one of the most honest about who he is,” Whitlock, Jr. said. “That’s one of the reasons why the other Bloods like him. He sees things in black and white. I mean, he flies off here and there, but he’s got a nice little soul. He’s grounded.” Contrary to Paul, Melvin adapts a clearer sense of right and wrong as the film progresses.
Whitlock, Jr. tapped into his own adolescent memories to channel his character. “I remember in high school being terrified that I was going to get drafted,” he said. “Some of my friends got drafted. Some enlisted once we graduated and got out of school. I never, ever wanted to go to War. I saw the people coming back, and it was very disturbing. I just didn’t want to be a part of that.” Chadwick Boseman as Stormin’ Norman For the supporting role of Da Bloods’ venerated Squad Commander, Lee turned to an actor who has played legends of sports (Jackie Robinson in 42) , music (James Brown in G et On Up ), politics (Thurgood Marshall in M arshall) and, of course, comics (King T’Challa in B lack Panther and Avengers: Endgame, the highest grossing films of the past two years). Boseman immediately joined DA 5 BLOODS for the chance to finally work with Lee. “I fell in love with the idea of telling stories, at some level, through his movies,” Boseman said.
To the surviving Bloods, Norman epitomized excellence, rising fast through the Army ranks. Norman had no inner conflict about entering a War in the pursuit of peace. He taught his soldiers how to navigate the jungle and discern between truth and propaganda .From him, Paul, Otis, Eddie and Melvin learned to be proud guardians of African-American history. With Norman’s patient encouragement, the lower-ranking GIs all believed they would see The War’s end. And they did.
Shortly before Norman’s death, Da Bloods were carrying out a mission for the CIA when their helicopter was shot down. Their task: deliver a chest of Gold bars to Indigeonous People who were aiding the American War effort. Norman devised the plan to bury the Gold until they could reclaim it for the benefit of their communities.
Boseman envisioned Norman as a Preacher and Prophet as much as a warrior. “ You’ve got a Nat Turner in there,” Boseman said. “You’ve got a Tunis Campbell there. You’ve got David Walker’s appeal. There’s this idea that God is leading Norman to fight, but at the same time, he’s also a Patriot. He believes in American ideals — ‘If you ain’t doing right by my people, I have to use this moment to fight in different realms.’”
During the Vietnam War, Boseman’s own uncles fought overseas. “I could see the effect of the war — what they brought home or what they carried with them,” he said. Boseman felt the responsibility to honor the sacrifices of those who served, specifically African-Americans. “Part of the reason why I chose to do this movie is because it tells the story of the Vietnam War in a different way. Usually, when they do the movie version, we’re in the background or nonexistent, when in reality, these were the people doing the grunt work, the hard work.”
Norman appears only in flashbacks, but each interaction conveys the abiding and profound influence he had as a mentor. “That dynamic has been fun to play, being the person that they look up to,” Boseman said. “Especially because in reality, I look up to all of these actors. You see who they were when they were younger through my character, and that’s the extraordinarily unique conceit to Spike’s storytelling in this movie.”
VIETNAM REVISITED: CRAFTING AN EPIC
DA 5 BLOODS is hot on location in the cities of Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City in Spring 2019.Spike Lee hired BAFTA Award®nominee Newton Thomas Sigel( Bohemian Rhapsody) ashis Director of Photography. The two previously worked together on commercials, but DA 5 BLOODS is their first joint feature. Although the Cinematographer’s filmography also includes Oscar®-winning The Usual Suspects(1995),Three Kings (1999)and Drive (2011),Sigel began his film career in the ‘80s by shooting documentaries, and he has experience behind the camera in various Central American combat zones.
Sigel looked forward to embracing the specificity of Lee’s creative vision. “Spike has always been somebody that loves to be very bold: experimental with lenses, film stocks, techniques and film trickery, in the best sense of the word,” Sigel said. “We looked at ways to explore the idea of memory, and what it would be like for these guys to come back to a place that was so formative for them 50 years ago, and also happened to have such a distinct place in history.”
One selected avenue was shooting the flashbacks in 16mm Film to replicate period newsreel footage. “It’s similar to the way that you would’ve shot it if you were embedded with the Army in Vietnam in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Sigel said. “They shot predominantly reversal, or what they called news film. So we’ve gone back to that format. We’re also shooting it in 4:3 aspect ratio, which was the shape that televisions had before our contemporary times. We felt that it was a really evocative way to record the memories, by using a lot of the technology of those days.”
Audiences will notice the changing aspect ratio throughout the story. When the Quartet arrives in modern Vietnam, the scenes all play out in a widescreen, 2:40 aspect ratio. Once they reach the jungle, the image opens up farther, with Sigel employing a 1:85 aspect ratio as a signal that The Heroes have crossed into “the more wild and dangerous parts of Vietnam.”
Production designer Wynn Thomas was another key department head responsible for the film’s look and feel. Although Lee has enjoyed a 13 film-career with Thomas, until DA 5 BLOODS, they had not shared a set since the 2006 heist thriller Inside Man. Lee makes most of his films in New York City, and this was his first production in Asia. Shooting across the globe allowed Thomas to conjure the aura of an undeniable saga.
“Spike and I have a really collaborative relationship,” Thomas said. “At the very beginning of the job, we talk about the script in abstract terms, and then he tells me what’s important for him. Usually, it’s within those details that I’m able to figure out what he needs for the movie. We have an understanding of how he’s going to use and move the camera.”
On DA 5 BLOODS, Thomas’s greatest challenge became using the local geography to enhance the storytelling. He spent months scouting the right sites to host the shoot. “The visual journey on this film is through the jungle,” Thomas said. “I had to form a conceptual approach to how we were defining the jungle and what we were seeing. Essentially, when the movie starts, the jungle areas are all very big and expansive and you see a lot of sky and great vistas.”
As the tension in the story escalates, the jungle begins to encroach on the characters — they feel trapped . “The wall of trees begins to thicken, and there’s more leaves on the trees,” Thomas said. “I had to think about how we were going to move the actors through these scenes, and where we’d place the camera. All these choices supported the storytelling.”
Perhaps the most daunting sequence unfolds when Da Bloods’ helicopter is shot from the sky. The scenes were filmed in Chiang Dao, Thailand, on a large field with dramatic views. Yet the same grounds doubled as an area the characters hike through in the current era.
“For the contemporary sequence, we left it as a farm field, because that’s how the land is being used now,” he said. “But when we revisit ’71, it looks completely different. We planted palm trees and banana trees. We filled this huge, open space with greenery. We bought a helicopter, and then essentially had one day to install that helicopter in our field.”
Lee was committed to hiring local talent for all aspects of the production. “You just can’t come with that American imperialism thing,” he said. “I had never been to Thailand before. I had never been to Vietnam before. This is their land. This is their history. I welcomed their participation.”
A Thai team of artists helped Thomas construct a temple for the film’s electrifying climax. The structure was modeled after M ỹ Sơn, a collection of Hindu temples in Central Vietnam, erected between the 4th and 14th centuries. “The level of artistry and craftsmanship by the Men and Women who were working on the film has been extraordinary,” Thomas said. “In my art department, I’m working with people who are the descendants of those folks who built all these great temples here in Thailand.” Lee had his actors undergo a week-long Boot Camp, which included a lesson in handling M16 rifles. Participants also practiced squad movement formations to grasp how they would need to react in a combat scenario.
“When I heard we were doing a Boot Camp, I thought we were going to be wading into mud and climbing over walls,” Lewis said. “It was not that. It was pretty strenuous, though. We learned from some amazing coaches that have been in both the Vietnam War and Afghanistan. It’s been a wonderful process, getting to know the importance of discipline and the regimented hierarchy.”
Actors also received safety training as they braced to zigzag uneven terrain in temperatures reaching 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Filming often commenced around 6 a.m. so that the day’s shots could be completed before the warmest hours. “Then there’s the bugs,” Sigel deadpanned. “It’s not an easy environment by any stretch.”
Lee commends his Cast for roughing it with Mother Nature. “Look, when you go into the jungle there’s going to be bugs and animals and snakes,” he said. “It’s not a backlot. We were thousands of miles away from home. We were up in it. I’ve got to tip my hat to all the Actors — w ho were not 18, 19, 20, the age those young Brothers were when they fought in The War. There’s a lot of physicality to this film. People were sore.”
To lend further authenticity to their performances, Lee brought cultural advisors LaMont Hamilton and Andre Zachery to Thailand to work with the Actors. Curators of The New York Times- praised dance show Dapline!, Hamilton and Zachery gavet the ensemble an education in dignity and pride [Dap]. Dap is a handshake African-Americans originated during the Vietnam War, to emphasize unity and survival.
“It was a very important handshake that showed fraternity, showed togetherness, showed that I have your back and you have mine,” Hamilton said. “It was more than a greeting, more than a handshake. It was basically a sign to signify the burgeoning Black Power Movement. Black Soldiers found themselves fighting Two Wars — they were fighting for Civil Rights at home, and they were also fighting a very unpopular war against other Brown Folks abroad. The Dap creates an understanding. If you weave it tight enough, you become inseparable from your brother.”
Boseman said that learning the Dap for DA 5 BLOODS helped him connect with his co-stars. “There’s a Brotherhood already amongst us as Actors,” Boseman said. “You watch each other’s work. You cheer for each other. Then, Spike added to this movie the swagger of The Dap. We’re all going around, touching each other with The Dap, shaking hands. There’s a fight and a struggle in just trying to keep up with the other person. A lot of times, that’s how Men build brotherhood — competitive spirit.”
As always, Lee moved with precision and efficiency on set, expecting his team of exceptionally talented actors to deliver their best work on each take.
“Spike is somebody who is very intelligent,” said Jean Reno, The French Actor behind Desroche — a businessman with a pipeline of get-rich-quick schemes. “It is a great honor for me to be in the movie because I like his work, and after working with him, I very much like the Man, too.”
AN ALBUM, AN ANTHEM AND BEYOND
The 11th Studio Album from Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” provided the film’s musical and thematic underpinnings. “One of the greatest albums ever made,” Lee said. “Marvin is a saint. He is godlike. That album spoke to us as the record of the time. I knew that The Music would help the narrative.”
Six of the Album’s Songs are featured in The Film — “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler),” “Wholy Holy,” “Flyin’ High (in the Friendly Sky),” “What’s Happening Brother,” “God Is Love” (sung by Lindo) and “What’s Going On” — as well as one of Gaye’s later Tracks (“Got To Give It Up”).
“When I saw the first cut and I heard the Marvin Gaye songs, my first reaction was, ‘ Right, this makes total sense,’” said DA 5 BLOODS composer Terence Blanchard, Lee’s collaborator for three decades. “Next I started thinking about growing up in the ‘70s, and all the dudes I saw in my neighborhood that used to walk around with the tattered military jackets and shirts, who fought in Vietnam. They were struggling — emotionally, mentally. It brings me back to that period in time where African-Americans were struggling for certain rights. I still remember as a kid going someplace in Louisiana and seeing the water fountains that said, ‘For Coloreds Only.’ It’s that common theme of just trying to be recognized as equals, generation after generation. Frankly, you get tired of it.”
Gaye’s younger brother, Frances “Frankie” Gaye, served three tours of Vietnam War duty. While working as a Radio Operator during those years, Frankie wrote letters to Marvin, recounting the daily horrors he witnessed. Frankie’s descriptions gave Marvin a starting point for the album.
The entire song cycle shares the perspective of a Vietnam veteran who is shunned when he returns home to the USA. Gaye’s lyrics reference both battleground atrocities in Vietnam, and the concurrent civil unrest in America. With his lilting four-octave range, he discussed Radicalism, Unemployment, Ecology, Pollution and more. Some classify the title track, “What’s Going On,” as a Protest Song, while others claim it as a Love Song. Norman would assert that it’s both — like Lee and Gaye beforehand, the character maintains that those who truly love their country will examine how its citizens are treated.
“You could make a documentary about trying to figure out how many people that music kept alive,” Blanchard said. “When you put the songs into context with this movie, they become even more powerful.”
Prior to filming, Lee led The Cast in a close reading of the album’s lyrics. “Once we started getting into the script and the dramaturge of this whole piece, we had one day where we actually sat down and just listened to Marvin Gaye’s ‘ What’s Going On, ’” Lewis said. “Each song was broken down. It really helped us in developing our characters.”
“What’s Going On” was also a poignant selection because of what happened after its release. Gaye’s life ended when his father shot him on the eve of his 45th birthday, in 1984. As Blanchard worked, he was moved that DA 5 BLOODS explores how the Vietnam War rendered multitudes of men — like Paul and Otis — incapable of being loving, hands-on fathers.
“Sometimes when I’m scoring these scenes, I cry in my studio,” Blanchard said, such as when Paul narrates a letter he has written to David. “The Actors help write the score, they don’t even know it. Paul is very sensitive and very emotional, based on the way he reacts to everything throughout the movie. To hear the resignation in his voice, to hear him admit to understanding that he wasn’t the person his son needed him to be, man, I was a wreck, I’m not ashamed to say it. Because being an African-American Male, sometimes it’s hard for us to find that vulnerable spot in our lives. I try to be honest about how I feel about the characters. Those are moments where I have to allow whatever is going through me to come through The Music — that’s what I want other people to feel.”
Blanchard has written music for more than 15 of Lee films—including Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X ,and2 5thHour —but their shared history dates back even further. Spike Lee’s father,musician Bill Lee, was long regarded as one of the world’s preeminent folk bassists, performing with the likes of Bob Dyan, Judy Collin and Simon & Garfunkel. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Blanchard and the second generation of the famed Marsalis family came to New York City as young men. They all sought out Bill Lee, and got to know his son.
After scoring Spike Lee’s student films, Bill Lee did the same for his first four features: She’s Gotta Have It , School Daze , Do The Right Thing and M o’ Better Blues. Blanchard’s working relationship with the Lees dates back to that era — he performed as part of the score on the latter three titles.
Mo’ Better Blues was a milestone for Blanchard, who supplied the respective trumpet and saxophone playing for Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) and Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes). During a
recording session, Blanchard briefly sat down at a piano and began playing an original piece. Intrigued, Spike Lee asked Blanchard if he could write a string arrangement for the film.
“Mybrainwaslike,B oy,thisisanopportunity,soyoueithertellthetruth,oryoucantellabiglieand say that you do know how to write for strings, ” Blanchard said. “I said yes. I had never done it before.” Blanchard quickly called his composition teacher for pointers and delivered. “Spike was probably auditioning me for the composer job, I didn’t think about it at the time. He’s given me a chance to do somethingsIn ever wouldhavebeenabletodo,andIlovehimforit,”Blanchardsaid.“Ifitwasn’tfor him, there’s a whole bunch of us who wouldn’t be in this business.”
A Blanchard string composition has even become something of a tradition in Lee’s films: Spike noticed that the original score for DA 5 BLOODS did not feature a string quartet, so he nudged Blanchard to write one to accompany dialogue between Otis and Melvin.
A multi-instrumentalist who has dedicated his life to jazz, Blanchard is the recipient of six Grammys® — themostrecentcamefor”BlutundBoden(BloodandSoil)”fromtheB lacKkKlansman soundtrack,a film that also earned him an Oscar nomination.
“He has a wealth of understanding of music — from what music does to what feelings, colors and shapes it evokes,” Lee said. “Through the years, he’s perfected music to support what he’s seeing in a story, and not a lot of people have that skill. They might be scoring music, but they’re not doing what Terence is doing, in my opinion.”
With their long professional history, Blanchard has a comprehensive understanding of Lee’s needs for each title. “When we first started working together, he told me he didn’t like underscoring, he didn’t like atmospheric music,” Blanchard said. “He used to tell me all the time, ‘I want people to walk away from the theater singing the themes.’ He challenges you.”
After reviewing that early cut, Blanchard came up with groups of melodic lines so Lee could pair musical sequences with narrative slices from the film. “Once we get that out of the way, then the rest of the process is really like research and development for me,” said Blanchard, who paid tribute to the military by incorporating lots of bass drums and snare drums, as well as full, dark, thrumming brass. “I have to go in and find the sound for the film. People don’t believe me when I say this, but once Spike and I finish figuring out what the themes are going to be, he doesn’t hear anything — not even demos — until we get to the studio. This has worked to our benefit, because it makes me check and recheck everything that I do. I want to make sure things are right the first time he listens.”
THE MISSION AND THE MESSAGE
With DA 5 BLOODS, Lee has crafted a thrilling drama where lifelong friends risk their lives on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. A layered s toryteller, he makes art that directly responds to world events of the past and present. By masterfully infusing entertainment and history, Lee demands multiple viewings with the latest addition to his remarkable oeuvre.
Apowerfulandemotionalnarrative,DA5BLOODSco nfrontsAmerica’sHistoryofRacismand diminishing the contributions of Black Citizens. The movie is a call for empathy. To celebrate the exceptional patriotism of African-American Soldiers on the frontlines of the Vietnam War, the
Filmmakers populated the story w ith a collection of relatable, imperfect heroes. In the wilderness, they inspect acre after acre for missing artifacts, when what they actually yearn for is inner peace.
“In doing D a 5 Bloods , you want people to be proud,” Blanchard said. “We stand on some very strong Shoulders. There’ve been a lot of people not only in the Film Business but just in life who have set the stage for us, and opened some doors for us, and it’s incumbent upon us not to let them down. Some of those people gave their life for us just to be able to sit here and be creative.”
Lee demands a more inclusive American definition of “Patriot,” insisting that Patriots can kneel during the National Anthem, or refuse to accept every presidential statement. Slave labor was the foundation for the earliest U.S. economy. African-Americans never stopped building the country up, or fighting to be respected. They have every right to voice critiques, and doing so is a patriotic act.
“I’ve had the pleasure and the honor to screen this film for a lot of Black Vietnam Vets in the New York City area,” Lee said. “They loved the film. For me, that was a thumbs-up. It was very moving to hear them talk about the film and their experience. Many of them were teenagers when they got shipped away to kill people.”
Also lending contemporary resonance to the film is the fictional organization LAMB — aimed at raising awareness to the ongoing problem of Vietnamese landmines — and Black Lives Matter. The chairman of the movement’s greater New York chapter, Hank Newsome, was on set in Thailand to witness filming firsthand. “The man is hot off an Oscar®, and Black Lives Matter is referenced in his next major picture project, starring phenomenal actors — people who I watched growing up? It’s crazy. Spike Lee and 40 Acres and a Mule played a part in inspiring me and giving me tools to go out there and do this work.”
Lewis believes that films like this one can help people feel less divided. “We need to know everybody’s story, just to understand each other,” he said. “A line from Les Misérables is, ‘To love another person is to see the face of God,’ and that’s what I live by.”
DA 5 BLOODS suggests that overcoming enmity in the world is possible, with immense effort. The film ends with a “MAGA” alternative — M artin Luther King, Jr. reciting the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be Great Again.” Hughes felt that American principles and reality were at odds, and the disparity would continue until greed was curbed.
“History repeats itself,” Lee concluded. “And we can learn from history — if we wake up.”
Written by Danny Bilson, Paul DeMeo, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee
Starring Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock, Jr., Mélanie Thierry,PaulWalterHauserandJasperPääkkönen,J ohnnyTríNguyễn,LêYLan,NguyễnNgọc
Lâm, Sandy Hương Phạm, with Jean Reno, and Chadwick Boseman
DA 5 BLOODS releases globally on Netflix JUNE 12