Despite their immeasurable – and, in hindsight, exploited – contribution to the Vietnam War, Black American soldiers have hardly been given their due in terms of recognition and honor. That venomous redaction also extends to Hollywood, whose plethora of Vietnam era films largely ignores Black soldiers beyond comic sidekicks, unspoken bullet bags, or a cliché hybrid of the two.
Less than a day after he won his first Academy Award for BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee flew across the Pacific to help change that narrative. His latest film, Da 5 Bloods, will have its Netflix premiere on June 12, and with it, so will the subgenre of Black Vietnam films. With a cast that includes Chadwick Boseman, Jonathon Majors, Delroy Lindo, and Broadway legend Norm Lewis, the story follows a tight-knit group of Vietnam veterans who return to the South Asian country to collect the remains of their fallen brother, and the piles of gold that they left behind.
Luke Parker recently had the pleasure of speaking with Norm Lewis about his experiences working on Da 5 Bloods, including his evolving relationship with Spike Lee, as well as his takes on the Black Lives Matter movement and Lee’s decision to include a Trump supporter as the main character.
Luke Parker with Film Inquiry: I know you and Spike Lee go way back, so I shouldn’t be all that surprised to learn that your casting was a bit peculiar. Why don’t you start off by explaining how this script and this role came to you?
Norm Lewis: Yeah, we have a relationship, we’re not besties – well, now we’re besties – but we kind of just knew each other from “the scene”, if you will, with certain events and stuff. He’s come to see me do a few of my shows, but I did She’s Gotta Have It for Netflix a couple of years ago, and a few months later, I get a phone call from Spike saying, “Hey, what are you doing?” I said, “nothing,” and he said, “well, I’m going to send you a script. I want you to read it,” and he just hung up. That was it.
So I read it. The next day he calls and asks what I thought about it. And I said, “yeah, it’s a great script!”
There was no offer; it was just my opinion. So I’m thinking, “this is great! If Spike wants my opinion on a script, then we’re really building up our relationship now!” Then we met for dinner and talked about it again, then he asked me about the character of Eddie. I said, “Eddie’s great!” I love the storyline, you know, the arc and everything. And he said, “I want you to play that part.”
I had a feeling there was something coming, but I just didn’t know. And I was very relieved when he said he wanted me to play the part just [because] I was going to get a chance to work with him again and be in a motion picture.
Of course, Spike Lee’s passion, knowledge, and drive to educate history has always been apparent in his work – a custom that’s still on display in this movie. When you were first reading the script – before you were given or even knew that there was a part in it for you – what struck you about the references, the nods, and the integration of history in the story?
Norm Lewis: Well, I didn’t see the visualization of what the final end product would be in terms of reel footage in Vietnam. But I did kind of envision from my memory bank of other movies [what] Vietnam is. Then knowing this particular modern-day plot – their journey to find their colleague and also the gold that they buried – I thought it was very intriguing because it felt like a departure from a lot of things Spike has done, in the sense of it being an action film. With that, I was like “ok, he’s going this route now. I’m on board with this.”
It wasn’t until we actually got to Thailand and started shooting the movie that we knew about the history that was left out of the history books about the Black culture over in Vietnam, cultivated by the soldiers. So we were learning on the job. Through the boot camp of learning how to hold guns and the vocabulary that a lot of the men had back then and the motion as far as being in the jungle. But then learning about the culture that was part of and understanding what these men went through: fighting a war, fighting a war within their own army, and then knowing that they’re fighting for Civil Rights at home.
There were so many interesting characters of the Black soldier in Vietnam that I had totally overlooked as well.
Norm Lewis: Well, I don’t think it’s overlooked. It just was never told. This is the first time it’s ever been told.
Yeah, that’s definitely a better way to put it. But all this being said, that historic regurgitating means nothing unless it’s pointed at the now, at ourselves as people or peoples. BlacKkKlansman ended with the very real reality that David Duke supports Donald Trump. Flash forward a few years later, and now, Spike Lee has made one of his main characters a Black Trump supporter. What do you think that alternate perspective, a very polarizing perspective, added to the dynamic of the older Bloods?
Norm Lewis: It’s showing that Black people are not a monolith. We do think individually and we choose people who we think are right for us individually. Now, as a collective, you have to have a discussion about what this person can do for me and for the betterment of my people. That has to be an interpersonal perspective.
But, I think it needed to show that dynamic because we do have Black Trump supporters out there. We do have people who are seeing a system that has been in play for a long time, and yet, hasn’t done anything for them. Or they want a difference, or whatever. But it’s good to have that dialogue, it’s good to show both sides so that we can have a discussion. You know, I just was having a discussion this morning about someone who was a Black Trump supporter who was pointing out some reasons why we shouldn’t be praising George Floyd. And I had to go, “wow, now that discussion is open.”
Right now I feel that even though we didn’t know this was going to happen – we didn’t know that this pandemic was going to happen or these race protests were going to happen – it’s almost like the perfect storm because this movie depicts the differences in what people are thinking. And it also shows a brotherhood. It shows these Black men sharing a love for each other without it being a romantic thing – it’s a brother thing.
And it’s showing something that we’ve never seen. Like I was just saying before, we did not know about this. All of us, while we were there, we were reading books and watching DVDs on Black culture [in Vietnam] and learning as we were going.
That dynamic and that culture you guys established in the movie is so strong, and credit to the six of you, including Chadwick, for really solidifying that bond in both the modern-day and during the Vietnam service. And between all of your characters, there’s enough action, history, and tragedy to fill up 12 lifetimes. But how does that chemistry develop between actors?
Norm Lewis: What’s so interesting about what you just said is that we basically just hit the tip of the iceberg when it comes to these stories. There’s a book called Bloods that this is based on – but it’s just called Bloods – and you should read it because it will tell you a lot more.
But it was interesting how Spike cast this movie because we are all so dynamically different from one another and yet, still have a lot of the same things. But we have different personalities and what you saw on film basically was our personality off-set.
That doesn’t surprise me at all. [laughs] I’m actually really happy to hear that. But going back to the characters, I did want to talk about Eddie. Now the pitfalls of greed and money are all over the place in this movie, and yet, your character resists that urge at every turn, dedicated solely to helping fund the voice of the voiceless. Of course, that idea of sharing and helping was ingrained in their bond from the start by Stormin’ Norman. Why do you think it was so important for Eddie in the movie to stick to what all of them once believed?
Norm Lewis: I think because he did admire Norman so much. I think he did look up to him with all the stories and the wisdom Norman would tell us and give us. And for me, I just tried to go deeper into the script, look into some contextual stuff and try to add a backstory. But that was only a personal thing for me to help develop [the character].
Eddie was someone who had success. He had money, and he had it for a while. And he realized it’s not [money] that will make you happy. So he went back to the old philosophies and teachings that Norman had ingrained in him as a young man in the Army, and [remembered] that helping people and uplifting causes is the right way.
I think it was just the fact that he couldn’t find happiness making money, having a car dealership, or with his three wives that he realized helping people is the goal.
I’ll take a step back here because I called them “the voice of the voiceless,” and you called it a cause, but Spike Lee goes out of his way to show that it is the Black Lives Matter Movement specifically which represents the values the Bloods and Stormin’ Norman once shared. What do you think that specific representation adds to the message of the film?
Norm Lewis: Black Lives Matter is basically just Civil Rights; it’s a different name. We’ve been saying “Black Lives Matter” for so long it’s now a matter of semantics. And now it’s a hashtag and a way to get across social media. But people have been screaming “Black Lives Matter” since the turn of many centuries ago. [laughs] It’s just now a catchier phrase; you’re seeing people in Japan who are saying “Black Lives Matter” now.
I think that it’s just resonating differently right now. And we have people from all different cultures who are seeing that this is wrong, seeing that there needs to be a conversation, seeing that there needs to be something done to make this a different world.
That’s what Spike does. He wants to uplift Black people. He wants to show that we are just as viable as anyone else, and that’s in all of his films.
Film Inquiry thanks Norm Lewis for taking the time to speak with us.
Da 5 Bloods will be available on Netflix June 12.
Watch Da 5 Bloods
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.