LOS ANGELES, June 12 (UPI) -- Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee's new film about black soldiers in the Vietnam War, premieres Friday on Netflix amid two weeks of worldwide protests against the death of George Floyd and police violence toward black people.
Isiah Whitlock Jr. plays Melvin, one of four Vietnam veterans who return there in the present. Although Da 5 Bloods staked its premiere date many months ago, Whitlock said it can complement the conversations the protests have sparked.
"I wonder where we go next," Whitlock told UPI in a phone interview on Tuesday. "If this film helps drive the narrative, so be it."
Norm Lewis plays Eddie, one of the four veterans. Delroy Lindo and Clarke Peters round out the cast, with Chadwick Boseman as Norman, their squad leader who didn't survive the war and appears in flashbacks. Lindo's character also brings his son (Jonathan Majors) along.
Lewis said he believes the protests will bring change and the coincidental release of Da 5 Bloods can only contribute to that.
"This movie will be one of the keys in opening up people's minds and their hearts to learning more about the history of black culture in America," Lewis told UPI in a phone interview Wednesday.
The film highlights the statistic that during the Vietnam War, 11 percent of the United States was black while 33 percent of the U.S. forces in Vietnam were black. That was educational for the stars of the film.
Lewis said his family sheltered him from news of the Vietnam War when he was younger. When one of his cousins fought in Vietnam and married a Vietnamese woman, Lewis learned of the war. Lewis hopes the statistics on black soldiers will fuel more discussions about sacrifices black Americans have made for their country.
"I didn't know about it until last year," Lewis said. "Now the world will know."
Whitlock said many of his high school classmates were sent to Vietnam. He went on to college and feared he would be drafted, but never was.
Filming Da 5 Bloods in Vietnam and the jungles of Thailand gave him new perspective on their experiences. If it was difficult for him to film a movie there, Whitlock couldn't imagine seeing combat like his classmates.
"I had a hard enough time just shooting the film, let alone being in the war and really being shot at in those conditions and the elements," Whitlock said.
Spike Lee's vision
In the movie, the four veterans seek to find a stash of gold they buried during the war but a napalm drop destroyed their landmarks. With new information about its location, they hope to recover the gold and the remains of Norman.
Whitlock and Lewis said Lee offered them the roles. Whitlock had worked with Lee in the films 25th Hour, She Hate Me, Red Hook Summer, Chi-Raq, BlacKkKlansman and Lee's Netflix series She's Gotta Have It. Lewis also appeared in She's Gotta Have It.
"He was very specific as far as what he wanted and who he wanted to do it," Whitlock said.
Lewis had the same experience when Lee asked him to play Eddie. With five lead roles, Lee never toyed with casting the actors as different characters. Lewis said Lee sent him the script and then invited him to dinner to offer the role.
"He probably knew that that was my personality," Lewis said. "Or, he probably wanted my personality to fulfill that character."
Eddie is the first person to question the mission. Melvin is the one who operates the metal detector to find the gold. Whitlock also continued a tradition he has with Lee in Da 5 Bloods to express Melvin's frustration with the mission.
In every movie with Lee, Whitlock exclaims an expletive in which he lingers on the vowel for a few seconds. He also said it on the HBO series The Wire, but now only says it in Lee's movies.
"He always lets me just find a spot to put it in and make it work," Whitlock said. "Usually there's about maybe three or four spots in the film that I could probably have that expression, good or bad."
Whitlock, Lewis, Peters and Lindo play their characters in flashbacks to the Vietnam War, as well. Lee made a decision not to use makeup or visual effects to make them appear younger.
"Spike said, 'No, you're not going to be younger' and boom," Whitlock said. "We just went about our business."
Lewis felt playing both young and present-day versions of Eddie emphasized that they were the same people, defined by their experiences in Vietnam.
"We were living these same memories even in today's world," Lewis said. "I thought it brought an artistic sort of nuance to the film."
Whitlock felt seeing older men in the Vietnam War was less distracting than if Lee had tried to make them appear younger. He mentioned The Irishman, which was criticized for distracting computer-generated imagery to make Robert De Niro and Al Pacino appear younger.
"Trying to do the CGI and all that kind of stuff would've just been kind of hokey," Whitlock said. "I just thought it was best to leave things like that alone."
Real history part of this fiction
Lee bookends Da 5 Bloods with historical footage. The film begins with speeches by Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X speaking out against the war, along with footage of the war and the Kent State shooting, in which the Ohio National Guard shot 13 unarmed war protesters.
The film ends with more recent footage of Black Lives Matter protests. Given the film's release into a climate with all new protests, Whitlock said Lee was prescient.
"It sometimes feels like the film was shot last week in preparation for all of this," Whitlock said. "The film could not be opening at a better time."
That Lee could find footage of protests in every generation shows the battle for equality is ongoing. Lewis, however, does not feel these protests are cyclical. He believes they are moving forward for change.
"It's not history repeating itself," Lewis said. "It's always been there. I feel like the mud that we're going through is going to create some amazing, amazing flowers, amazing roses."
The footage Lee assembled resembles the protests people are watching in real time on the news and social media. Whitlock feels that similarity is what makes the powerful point that something needs to change.
"If you're making this a year ago, and all of a sudden today it's playing out, to me it makes it much more powerful," Whitlock said.