Native Kansan and University of Kansas professor Kevin Willmott continues to communicate to the world about important issues, this time through the newly released film “Da 5 Bloods.”
Even before he had picked up an Academy Award in 2019 for his adapted screenplay of “BlacKkKlansman,” KU film and media studies professor Willmott was hard at work on his latest collaboration with filmmaker Spike Lee, a project that drew upon his childhood in Junction City, next door to Fort Riley.
“Da 5 Bloods,” released earlier this month by Netflix, tells a wild tale about four Black veterans of the Vietnam War who return to the scene of battle to retrieve the remains of a fallen comrade, as well as to seek a treasure they left hidden during the war. Lee and Willmott wove into the script commentary on a host of social issues. Some of the commentary was made more poignant post-filming by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police on May 25 in Minneapolis.
The method and timing of the release was determined by COVID-19, and was made before Floyd’s death, Willmott said.
“It was going to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival (scheduled for mid-May), then go into theaters,” Willmott said. “When that had to be canceled because of the pandemic, Netflix decided on a date to release it when they thought it would be well received. The fact that it came right after the George Floyd murder happened, and people became focused on (racial issues), was just a coincidence.”
The timing may have been providential, but the messages in “Da 5 Bloods” were intentionally inserted into a previously written script called “The Last Tour,” which was originally about white soldiers.
“(The initial scriptwriters) are really great writers also, so they gave us a really great blueprint to start with,” Willmott said. “Spike and I just brought our ideas to it.”
While Willmott previously made a name for himself through several of his own productions, he said he enjoys collaborating on films with Lee, as well as on rewriting previously written scripts, as he did for “BlacKkKlansman.”
“Typically someone will approach (Lee) with something and he’ll give me a call, and then we have to come up with our take on it,” Willmott said. “When it’s a rewrite, he’ll bring me out to his studio in Brooklyn and we’ll go through the original script and find what we like, what we don’t like, and then start inserting our ideas. We’ll map out the whole movie, and then I’ll come back to Lawrence and write the first draft and send it back to Spike. Then we’ll just write back and forth developing it from there.”
“Da 5 Bloods” was written more than two years ago, and filming has been completed for months. But Willmott is pleased that the film can help contribute to the national conversation about racial issues.
“You always want your work to really speak to audiences and to society,” Willmott said. “And this film in particular because it really is about African American patriotism and about how black soldiers have always sacrificed for the country without having the rights they were fighting for. Vietnam was a particularly difficult situation for them because they were fighting for rights they didn’t have at home, but back home there was a fight going on for those rights. So they were very torn because of that.
“That duality is a big part of Black life, and it really speaks to what’s going on today. The George Floyd murder brings it all back full circle.”
Willmott drew from his youth in Junction City in developing the script. Growing up during the Vietnam War years, Willmott’s proximity to Fort Riley gave him a unique window into the lives of soldiers.
“I remember as a teenager going to the movies with a lot of the Black soldiers,” Willmott said. “I saw their camaraderie, and I heard them call each other ‘bloods.’ That was a really beautiful time, seeing that brotherhood that they had. The fact that they loved each other and were so proud of each other was a big influence on a kid.
“In the movie we mentioned ‘Operation Junction City,’ which was an actual operation in Vietnam. Remember, soldiers from around the country were going through Fort Riley on their way to Vietnam. One of the last places they saw before they went to Vietnam was Junction City.”