KU professor Willmott’s latest film with Spike Lee to premiere on Netflix in June
photo by: Associated Press
Story updated at 2:52 p.m. Wednesday
Kevin Willmott hopes his latest film with Spike Lee will help people understand the experience of black soldiers during the Vietnam War.
The University of Kansas professor shared an Academy Award with Lee for their adapted screenplay of 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman” and also worked with him on 2015’s “Chi-Raq.” Now, the pair’s latest collaboration, “Da 5 Bloods,” will premiere on Netflix on June 12.
“I think it’s probably the first major film to deal specifically with black soldiers in Vietnam,” said Willmott, a KU film and media studies professor who co-wrote the script with Lee. “A lot of Vietnam films have black characters in them but there has not been a major film that was really about the black veteran experience in Vietnam.”
“Da 5 Bloods” follows four African American Vietnam War veterans who return to Vietnam decades later to search for the body of their fallen squad leader and retrieve the stolen gold they buried with him. When the characters, who in the present day are in their 60s and 70s, return to Vietnam, they relive much of what they went through.
Willmott hopes that people who watch the movie will come to understand the complicated issues that faced black soldiers in Vietnam.
“They were fighting for rights they didn’t have back home,” Willmott said. “Back home people were saying, ‘Why are you fighting in Vietnam when we’re involved in a fight for our own rights here?'”
Willmott and Lee, who also directed the movie, reshaped the original script for “Da 5 Bloods,” as they did for “BlacKkKlansman.” But unlike the previous film, the main characters were not black in the original “Da 5 Bloods” script, written by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo.
“I think Spike immediately kind of saw the potential of it being a black veteran story and a black Vietnam story and that allowed us to deal with a lot of issues that were going on in the ’60s and ’70s that are still going on today,” Willmott said. “I think Spike is still always trying to connect things to today as much as possible.”
Some of these issues, Willmott said, include inequality, racism, post-traumatic stress disorder and an unjust government.
Willmott said two of the major themes of the film are brotherhood and the consequences of the pursuit of money, specifically “how the pursuit of money has really made it so much harder to be brothers and sisters.”
As divided as the ’60s and ’70s were, Willmott said that there was “a real brotherhood and unity.” Young people were largely united for the anti-war movement, and black people were largely united for the civil rights movement, he said.
“That created a unity and in this case a brotherhood that I don’t think people get to experience as much today,” Willmott said. “Today, we can’t even get together during the pandemic.”
Not only are humans physically separated because of the pandemic, Willmott said, they are also politically divided.
As a child growing up in Junction City, near Fort Riley, at the time of the war, Willmott was able to see firsthand the brotherhood among black soldiers. He recalls the soldiers doing dap handshakes and calling out to him with “Hey, little brother” and “Hey, blood.”
“You got to see that unity that they had among them,” Willmott said. “It was really a great thing to see as a kid, and we tried to weave some of that into the film.”
“Da 5 Bloods” was originally supposed to premiere in theaters before being released on Netflix in order to qualify it for Academy Award consideration. Because of COVID-19, however, the film will debut online, and the academy has said that the film will still be eligible for awards, Willmott said.
When Willmott was honored with an Oscar in 2019, he called it a “great” moment, one that “you kind of fantasize about as a kid.”
“It was just a really terrific moment and you know, it has changed my life in various ways,” he said. “More than anything it was one of those really great moments that you treasure.”
Willmott has been working on several other upcoming projects, including “The 24th,” a film that he wrote and directed, which should be coming out later this year. It is the story of the all-black 24th United States Infantry Regiment and the Houston Riot of 1917. Willmott is also in the early stages of a documentary he is working on about Langston Hughes.