If ever there was a time for Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, it’s now. The Netflix film (out June 12) opens on a clip of Muhammad Ali’s famous refusal to serve in a war he opposes, especially while there is lynching of his people in his own country; seconds later, a clip of Kwame Ture from 1968 declares “America has declared war on black people.”
But for all its prescience, Da 5 Bloods—which stars Tony nominee Norm Lewis, Chadwick Boseman, Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. as the titular quintet—is a story about brotherhood. Having served together in Vietnam, four of the five reunite in Ho Chin Minh City in present day to retrieve the remains of their fifth brother—and some extra reparations for their service. The five men have led very different lives and hold disparate beliefs, but Eddie, played by Lewis, is the glue of the group. He brings the joy and the love, as Lewis himself always does.
Here, we catch up with Lewis to talk about the film, working with Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods' ties to Miss Saigon and the Black Lives Matter movement:
How did you come to the project? Did Spike Lee give you a call?
Norm Lewis: I know Spike; we're not like besties, but we know each other. I actually got a chance to work with him on She's Gotta Have It. From that relationship, he called me out of the blue and he said, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ ‘Nothing?’ And he said, ‘I'm sending you a script. I want you to read it.’ And that was it. He called me and hung up and I read it that night. I thought it was fantastic. We met for dinner. I didn't know what this was leading to. He asked me what I thought about each character and then he asked me what I thought about Eddie.
Was Eddie the character you felt most drawn to initially, or were you surprised that he asked you to play that role?
I was drawn to all of them, you know? I feel like I could have played all of them in a capacity. But when he specifically said it I was like, "I can see myself bringing that character to life."
There’s a moment when the Bloods are fighting and he's just screaming about the need for love. Do you find yourself taking on that role in life?
I will say this, if I'm going to say anything about myself that is a positive thing without sounding narcissistic is: I'm a nice guy. I do tend to have people gravitate towards me because of that kindness. I try to do as much as I can too, with outreach and mentorship or whatever the case may be. I like to have fun. I like to get things done. Maybe that was something that Spike saw in me to portray this character.
What was it like to see the film cut together with the added historical footage?
For me, it was more about learning this history that I had never known about the Vietnam War—you know, Apocalypse Now and all these other war movies and hearing stories from one of my cousins who actually went there to fight, but it was very broad. It was “everybody was involved in this.” And so hearing these stories about these African Americans, specifically, and the culture that was developed over there was very eye-opening. This is a lesson, this movie. It's not only entertainment value, showing Spike's brilliant artistry, but it's a lesson and a history that was not told.
At that time African Americans were 11 percent of the United States and 32 percent of the military over there fighting. So it was a disproportionate amount of people over there fighting for a country that we still were fighting for civil rights over here. This was the first war that was fought where the army was not a [separate] black and white army, but there was segregation that did happen.
You mentioned your cousin who fought. Did that help inform your work on the movie?
Unfortunately, he no longer is with us. I did speak with him a couple of years ago in reference to [when I did] Miss Saigon back in the early ’90s. I did a lot of research in regards to Vietnam and the war then, but it was on a very macro level. It was mostly about soldiers and the PTSD and leaving. My plight in that story was to make aware that there were these women there... we fathered some kids and we left them there. And because the culture is very proud, they saw these “half-breed” children as lower than dirt. They call them bui doi. So I modeled my character after my cousin because he actually did marry a Vietnamese woman, brought her back to the United States and he fathered three kids. So I have three cousins who are biracial in that regard.
You have a long résumé on Broadway, notably becoming the first Black actor to play the Phantom on Broadway. We’ve witnessed statements and conversations in the community this week. Would you like to speak on your experience or offer what tangible things you hope can change?
Obviously people have stories and they've held them in, and now they felt like this was the perfect time to get those stories out. There's a Pandora's box that's been opened by the death of George Floyd. I will say this: I'm going to be working on some things to help have the conversation move forward. Me and a few other black Broadway leaders are [speaking]. I'll wait for those things to come out first before I make any major statement, but just know that there's a conversation that is getting ready to start with this particular group of people.
In addition to Da 5 Bloods, Lewis will perform June 12 as part of the lineup during onePULSE Foundation's Virtual Annual Remembrance Ceremony, four years after the Orlando LGBTQ+ nightclub shooting. Click here to watch it on YouTube.