“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big powerful America. They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me.” Muhammad Ali’s politically super-charged call to arms opens Da 5 Bloods and clearly sets out director Spike Lee’s intent to set the record straight on the white-washed reporting of the Vietnam War.
“Over the years Vietnam war films have exhausted a lot of the politics and stories but the black experience has not been one of them,” explains the film’s editor Adam Gough. “Spike Lee is always asking the audience questions and there are a lot of hard truths about war today revealed about the events half a century ago.”
“I got a call from agent in December 2018 and he put Spike on the phone,” Gough says. “I had no warning, which was probably to my advantage since it gave me no time to mess things up in my head.”
With regular collaborator—Barry Alexander Brown—busy directing his own project, Lee was looking for a new partner in the cutting room. “He said he was a big fan of Roma [also edited by Gough]. We chatted and he sent me the script,” Gough relays.
“It was exactly what you’d expect from a Spike Lee joint. Politics and seriousness mixed with light hearted humor written with the same energy you find when you meet him in person.”
Da 5 Bloods is the story of four black veterans who go back to Vietnam to find the remains of their fallen squad leader (played by Chadwick Boseman), as well as a trunk full of gold that they buried in the jungle during the war.
Early discussions included references to Lawrence of Arabia. “Spike wanted to make an epic journey, not in the visual style of Lawrence of Arabia, but about the internal journey of Vets revisiting their experiences of decades before.”
Read more: Da 5 Bloods’ Breadth Is Absolutely Necessary
“I prefer to avoid the set in order to view material objectively but just being in proximity to the director was important,” Gough says. “Every day Spike would come in [to the edit room] and watch dailies and give me a heads-up about what was coming tomorrow. I’d have cut the dailies from the day before and we’d watch that together. This was great since by the end of the shoot we not only had an editor’s cut but close to a director’s cut.”
He continues, “As a filmmaker, Spike is very organic. He will change his mind on the day. If there’s something he likes he will reset the scene accordingly. The actions scenes for example were storyboarded but the footage didn’t match any of it. The boards were an idea of the intent which he freely developed on location.”
From Malcolm X to BlackKklansman, Lee has incorporated archive footage in his features and Da 5 Bloods is no exception. The opening three minutes to the film is a montage taking the viewer on a quick tour of the Vietnam war to explain the events that have shaped the character’s lives.
The 18-hour documentary film series The Vietnam War directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick provided a body of material for Gough to “get up to speed” on the history: “Part of my research was watching [this documentary] and noting any visually striking imagery. The idea was to either use the same imagery or find similar in the archives.
“Our incredible archive researcher Judy Aley combed hours of footage to uncover just what we wanted. The problem we had—which is part of the reason for telling this story—is that most of the material showed white GIs. News footage of the time was very white oriented. When we needed to show the experience of black Vets coming home and being hugged by their families, we had to dig deeper.”
The filmmakers combine some of the era’s most iconic images—a Vietcong being shot in the head at point blank range, a young girl running naked from a napalm attack—to contrast with lesser seen but equally revealing images.
“We tried to avoid too many obvious images but using a few of them helps an audience know exactly where they are and what the mindset of the story is,” Gough says.
Lee goes as far as to nod to Apocalypse Now in one scene. Instead of The Doors, though, the soundtrack includes psychedelic classic “Time Has Come Today” by Chambers Brothers and the anti-war songs of Marvin Gaye: “Music is his thing,” Gough says. “Spike hand-picked all the tracks for the source cues.”
Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel shot on ARRI Alexa LF for the film’s present day story and 16mm for flashback sequences mixed with some 8mm presented in 4:3 aspect ratio, in accordance with real footage from the time. Where possible, they went back to the original archive source and scanned it to 4K.
“The most difficult element was the use of archive,” Gough reveals. “The narrative backbone was strong but finding a way of punctuating the story with the archive without breaking the flow was tricky.”
A pivotal scene set in 1969 depicts black soldiers learning of the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Lee tells Vanity Fair that the US Armed forces came to close to being torn apart by the event: “They also heard that their brothers and sisters were tearing shit up in over 100 cities across America. The tipping point came very close; the black soldiers were getting ready to set it off in Vietnam—and not against the Vietcong either.”
To create the scene, Gough found archive footage of protests and riots in LA and New York, buildings burning, police beating people all of which would have been easy to show but the filmmakers were trying to present the wider spread of unrest across the country.
“That meant researching local news stations and city archives and not being content to use the most low hanging fruit.”
The archive is superimposed on film of GIs back in Vietnam. “We’re trying not to lose the connection between the soldiers and events at home. Finding the images that worked together and reworking it for composition and to retain the high emotion of the scene and the strong performances was a dance that took a long time to fall into place.”
Gough was assisted by first assistant David Valdez and assistants Veronica Vozzolo (who supervised the archive tracking in the edit) and Pilar Gómez-Igbo with vfx editor Luftar Von Rama and trainee Panupan (Ong) Kanchanwat.
Locating to Brooklyn after the 10-week shoot (which also included photography in Ho-Chi Minh), Gough attended weekly screenings of the film in progress with Lee. The film is released at 155 minutes, down from an initial cut over three hours.
“We’d play the film all the way through and talk about it. He is very easy to edit for because he wears all his emotions on his sleeve. He’s also open to experiment. Even if I went down the wrong path and it turned out to be a bad idea, he understood the reasoning and encouraged trying something different.
“Many directors are like that, perhaps, but only Spike will jump up and celebrate like the Knicks have scored when it’s a great edit.”
“3 Brothers-Radio Raheem, Eric Garner And George Floyd.” pic.twitter.com/EB0cXQELzE— Spike Lee (@SpikeLeeJoint)