Always timely in terms of American politics, Spike Lee’s new movie arrives on Netflix amid urgent Black Lives Matter protests around the world. Da 5 Bloods is the story of five African American veterans returning to Vietnam to recover their fallen squad leader.
“There have been good Vietnam films but not one that really dealt with black soldiers’ feelings,” co-writer Kevin Willmott tells Lane Brown. Indeed, the whitewashing of war has concerned Lee since childhood when he would watch World War II films and his father would tell him: “We fought in the war too.”
How the Vietnam War epic Da 5 Bloods became one of the most ambitious films of his career.
Producer Lloyd Levin approached Lee after reading in an interview that his favorite film was John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which bore similarities to a spec script called The Last Tour that initially had Oliver Stone attached as director and concerned a group of white veterans going back to Vietnam. “We flipped it,” Lee tells Rebecca Keegan. “Put our flavor on it, some barbecue sauce, some funk, some Marvin Gaye. And there you have it.”
“One of the advantages of working with Spike is that he’s not just writing the script with me; he’s also looking at how he’s going to direct these scenes. He knows how to keep the tone even,” Willmott adds. “Plus, he loves to include homages to other movies—when we use film history to our advantage, we can weave in and out of genres without running off the road.”
These reference points include nods to distasteful Rambo-style Vietnam rematches (“They went back and tried to win a war—that they lost—in a movie,” says Lee. “In reality, that shit did not happen.”) and of course Apocalypse Now—again flipping the script by humanizing the Vietcong soldiers; “The Vietnam War was an immoral war,” notes Lee. “I was not going to villainize the Vietcong. How could I do a film like Bamboozled and then make caricatures of the Vietnamese?”
In an interview with Jordan Raup, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel recalls discussing Apocalypse Now with Lee in preparation for the shoot: “I’ve now seen it many, many times. It’s one of my favorite Vietnam movies.” Sigel also cites David Lean’s ultra-widescreen framing on Laurence of Arabia as a major influence
However that’s only a quarter of the story; the film actually uses four different aspect ratios and film formats to depict different times and places—2.39:1 digital for the present-day city scenes, 1.33:1 16mm for the Vietnam flashbacks, 16:9 digital for the present-day jungle and 2.39:1 Super 8 for the riverboat home movies.
“When we hit the jungle, we wanted the jungle to overwhelm them – this big, wide sort of all-encompassing environment,“ Sigel tells Raup. “With the flashback we wanted it to represent their wartime experience, because this is all taking place in 1971. In doing so, we thought it would be appropriate to emulate the style in which it would be shot, which is by a news crew.”
This allows the characters to essentially travel through time without expensive CGI or recasting. “I knew there was no way in hell I was going to get the budget that Martin Scorsese got [to de-age] De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci in The Irishman, and it was a lot of money,” Lee tells Keegan “And I dislike when films get different actors to play younger versions of the main characters. Also, makeup or prosthetics would’ve melted in the 100-degree heat.”
The film’s digital release represents another case of limitation ultimately becoming beneficial; originally shopped around traditional studios two years ago, the film eventually found a home on Netflix, allowing it to be released now when the political situation most strongly demands it. “We barely got this film made,” Lee tells Keegan. “We had gone to every studio, and they all turned it down… There was nowhere to go after Netflix.”
Willmott sums up the film’s political timeliness: “Most people get their history from movies, not books, which is not necessarily a good thing—but it may be true, and it makes films like this important.”
Read more: Da 5 Bloods’ Breadth Is Absolutely Necessary