Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is a vital work on an overlooked subject in American film: the experience of black veterans in the Vietnam War, a perspective largely lacking from Hollywood’s 50 years of output on that conflict. The movie follows a group of 60-something retirees, still mourning their leader Stormin’ Norman (played by Chadwick Boseman), who died in battle, as they return to Vietnam to recover his body and a cache of gold bars he was buried alongside. Through the lens of this elaborate caper, Lee examines the cycles of violence demanded by American imperialism, and the cruel irony that black soldiers—who called one another Bloods—were forced to fight for freedom in another country while being denied it in their own.
But that wasn’t the original pitch for Da 5 Bloods. The film was intended as more of a straightforward adventure, influenced by Apocalypse Now, following a group of mostly white veterans as they make their way through modern Vietnam in search of their former squad leader, who is very much alive. That pitch was titled The Last Tour and scripted by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo (a writing team best known for the cult classic The Rocketeer), and it was originally going to be directed by Oliver Stone. A Vietnam veteran himself, Stone has made three films about the conflict—Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven & Earth. But when he dropped out, the script found its way to Lee, who transformed it with his writing partner, Kevin Willmott.
It’s the same process that Lee’s prior Oscar-winning film BlacKkKlansman went through—that too was based on an earlier script that Lee and Willmott adapted. But that film was based on true events; the evolution of Da 5 Bloods is even more fascinating, an illustration of Hollywood’s strange collaborative process by which the skeleton of one story becomes the basis of something quite different. De Meo died in 2018, though he did read the first draft of Lee and Willmott’s revised script. The Atlantic gathered the other three writers—Bilson, Lee, and Willmott—to dig into the process of writing Da 5 Bloods, what made it to the screen, and their attempts to subvert the fraught, racist themes of many Vietnam War movies. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
David Sims: I hope you guys can take me through the whole process of how this film came together.
Spike Lee: David, we’re going to hand the baton to Danny, and he’s gonna set the table. Danny, take it away!
Danny Bilson: Paul De Meo and I were best friends and writing partners for 42 years, until he passed away. Going back to the mid-’70s, we met in college at Cal State San Bernardino, which was in the middle of three military bases. We were theater students, and our older brothers in theater stuff were all Vietnam vets. At night, instead of talking about girls or whatever, we were talking about the war, and they were telling us their stories from the ground. So we always wanted to do a Vietnam movie—we were blown away by Apocalypse Now. And the only writing professor Paul and I ever had was John Milius. He gave us the first draft of his Apocalypse Now script, and it was incredibly important.
Lee: Back up, back up! John Milius was your screenwriting teacher?
Bilson: The only one we ever had, Spike! Because we were theater majors!
Lee: Wait, this is crazy! The guy who wrote Apocalypse Now!
Bilson: I would say the first draft of this script [written in 2013] was a little more Milius-influenced. I started feeling this pain for our generation, who may never retire, and the vets, whom we do not take care of. And that’s where this script came from. In the original draft, it was three white guys and one black guy. Melvin [played by Isiah Whitlock Jr. in the film] was always black, and there was racial conflict between him and the character of Paul [played by Delroy Lindo]. Our producer Lloyd Levin took it to Oliver Stone. And he wanted more Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and he also did things with the story like making the character Tiên [played by Lê Y Lan in the film] a more successful woman; in the original draft, she was sort of a war veteran herself. Then Oliver decides at some point that he wasn’t up for making the movie. I can’t give you the reason, but I heard at one point that he wasn’t up for going back to the jungle.
Lee: He wouldn’t really tell me the real answer either. I asked him!
Bilson: So we put the script we liked best back together, and that went to Spike. The thing I love about the movie is that all the values that Paul and I set out to put in the script are 100 percent preserved. And then these guys build on top of it in an amazing way that I am so proud of, and that Paul, God rest his soul, was so proud of. Paul was the biggest Spike Lee fan that I ever met in my life. Before he passed away, he took a photograph of the script cover that had Spike’s and Kevin’s names and ours on it, and he sent it to his kid. Because he was the most proud to be associated with you guys.
Lee: First of all, Kevin and I would not have taken this on if there was no foundation there. We’re latecomers!
Kevin Willmott: We just built on what was all there. The script had a clear sense of attitude. Probably the biggest thing we added was the flashbacks, and bringing out the Stormin’ Norman character a lot more.
Bilson: The relationship between Norman and Paul, and Paul’s friendly fire [the cause of Norman’s death in the film], I mean, [De Meo] and I were slapping our heads, like, why didn’t we think of that?
Lee: But this is a group effort. It’s not like, “We did this, and they did that.” This thing was built upon love. We needed each other.
Willmott: I think a large part of it is that we all share in the same motivation. Spike was the person that took it and turned it into an amazing film, but we all felt the same way about veterans as a whole, and specifically black veterans being treated as second-class citizens when they returned. All veterans got a bad shake, but they got a worse shake.
Lee: War is like Marvin Gaye sang in the song. War is hell. Another thing in the film that’s very unique is that we were not going to demonize or dehumanize the Vietcong, or the Vietnamese people as a whole. We weren’t going to do that.
Sims: In a lot of Vietnam War movies, they are just faceless villains with very little characterization.
Willmott: Yes. We tried hard to put a human face on the Vietnamese, not just on the characters but on their point of view. One of the things that I really loved, that Spike was always very focused on, was how everyone in the film is from an oppressed group. Everyone is coming out of colonialism and slavery; they have more in common than they really have apart. So we always were trying to find those connections.
Sims: How did Delroy Lindo’s character, Paul, evolve during the writing process? Was he always the oppositional member of the group, the guy wrestling with the most demons?
Bilson: Absolutely. The pain was there. But Delroy Lindo took it to another level.
Lee: You know what I’m really happy about? This is my fourth film with Delroy. We first worked together on Malcolm X, he played my real-life father in Crooklyn, then he was in Clockers. This man’s been putting in the work for decades, and I am so happy for him that he is finally getting his light, his acclaim, which is long overdue.
Sims: He could win an Oscar!
Lee: Don’t jinx it, don’t jinx it!
Sims: The conception of Paul as a Trump supporter, who wears a red Make America Great Again baseball cap—was that something you and Kevin brought in?
Lee: It really comes from something that Kevin and I were both told by our parents very early on, that black people are not one monolithic group; we don’t all think alike, look alike. So the bond between anybody in a war, that bond that gets firmed up between brothers and sisters in battle, that can’t be broken. But when these guys came back to America, everybody went their separate ways. So Kevin and I thought about what would be the craziest thing to bring drama and tension into the group. And that hat! If you watch this film, and watch who wears that hat—it doesn’t stay on Paul’s head.
Sims: It goes on a whole journey, through multiple characters.
Willmott: That hat is almost like a horror-movie motif; it’s the transference of evil. The other thing that made us think the Trump supporter part would work was, in the earlier script, where the character was white, he still read as a Trump supporter. He had that grievance attitude, that “I’ve been ripped off, I’ve been left out” attitude. So we really just built upon that.
Lee: It’s not just the hat. Journalists are asking me now, did we go back [after finishing production] to shoot the scene with Black Lives Matter activists? No, that was the first thing we shot! In preproduction! It wasn’t even the official start of print photography!
Willmott: When we’re working together, Spike is always trying to find those connections to today. The Black Lives Matter scene [which is at the conclusion of the film] was a natural choice that came out of how communities support themselves today.
Sims: Right, there’s the big debate where Eddie [played by Norm Lewis] is arguing that the group should give the gold bars to “the cause,” as Stormin’ Norman had demanded at the time.
Lee: Yes, he uses the term black liberation.
Willmott: You know, one of the things that was so unique about that camaraderie and brotherhood that Bloods had back in the day—they were all about serving others and helping the community. When we first wrote the script, the Eddie character complained about that lost brotherhood. It’s unfortunate that it came out of George Floyd’s murder, but we have that back again now. That kind of unity and spirit of change has come back again.
Sims: How did Stormin’ Norman evolve in the script? Was he always imagined as this sort of symbolic, radical hero?
Bilson: No. In the first draft, he was alive at the end and running around with a bunch of bandits getting payback. It was very Milius-esque, almost like Colonel Kurtz [from Apocalypse Now]. Oliver Stone gave us good notes on getting the ending more real and grounded and sad, but there wasn’t the power that Spike and Kevin gave Norman.
Willmott: One of the things that’s important to remember is that there weren’t a lot of black squad leaders. Because the revolution is happening back home, that revolution is influencing soldiers in Vietnam—that’s where the Bloods stuff comes from, that’s where the dap handshakes come from. And they’re influencing people when they come back home—that camaraderie, that point of view—so it’s going back and forth. Norman is kind of an example of black consciousness, being a teacher of black history. And Spike made a great connection between the gold and that consciousness. They’re asking for reparations; they see this gold as for the people back home.
Lee: Here’s the thing for me. This character is heroic; he’s a superhero. Who do we cast? We cast Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and we cast T’Challa [all characters played in prior films by Chadwick Boseman]. Chad is a superhero! That character is Christlike! Notice the way [the cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel] shot him. There’s light from heaven coming down from above on him.
Sims: So as you’re writing this character, rather than that Kurtz-type character that’s been corrupted, you’re imagining Norman as sort of the opposite. He’s angelic.
Lee: That’s the way the other Bloods saw him. They’re speaking about him with reverence. He was their superhero.
Sims: Danny, how was it to see the journey the film had taken from your original story?
Bilson: The biggest moment is that we received Spike and Kevin’s first draft two weeks before Paul died. And we read it, and we were discussing it, and the elevation of Norman, we thought it was amazing. It gave the film a soul that we never found. So when the movie was ready, I went to a screening that Kevin and Spike had in L.A., and I was pretty floored.
Lee: With an audience!
Bilson: Yeah, what I particularly remember is that during the sequence with the mines, the audience was going crazy. That’s the hard thing about COVID, that we’re all watching it alone.
Lee: Look, the world changed, and there are a whole lot of films that weren’t Netflix films, and their studios don’t have a streaming service, so they’re at a disadvantage. But we will have a theatrical release with this, and people will see this film. Because there’s nothing like being in a theater. I remember being there at opening night for Close Encounters, for Jaws, for Alien, shit like that when you’re in a packed theater, and people are vibing and getting into the film? There’s nothing like it! I remember standing in line for three hours, and it was cold as a motherfucker, for The Exorcist.
Sims: How do you feel about the reaction so far, though? We can’t see it in a theater, but the movie is coming out at an incredibly pivotal time for the country.
Lee: We’re addressing stuff that did not just show up overnight.
Willmott: I grew up near the Big Red One [the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas], and grew up around a lot of soldiers coming back and going to Vietnam. I’ve got a cousin that was a veteran, and PTSD really kind of destroyed his life. The thing that makes [black veterans’] experience so different is that there was a revolution going on back home while they were fighting in Vietnam. The black veteran has always been fighting for rights they didn’t have back home. But this was the only time there’s a war going on back home for those rights. That made their struggle so different and so unique.
Lee: What’s been amazing to me is how many people tell me their grandfather, their father, their uncle, their cousin were in Vietnam, and when they came back, they were not the same person. This film has helped them understand why they were the way they were.