By Leslie Eikleberry
LAWRENCE – Kevin Willmott loves “Blazing Saddles” and thinks Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy about racism in the Wild West still holds up. Not that Hollywood would finance or the public would accept such a film from a white man today, he asserts.
That’s why the University of Kansas professor of film & media studies and his fellow African American film professor (New York University) and writing partner Spike Lee make movies like “BlacKkKlansman.” They believe African Americans must tell their own stories.
Willmott, a Junction City native and Marymount College graduate, and Lee shared the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman,” and they are already generating Oscar buzz for their next collaboration, “Da Five Bloods,” a mix of war action and caper that echoes such classics as “Kelly’s Heroes” and “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” It premieres June 12 on Netflix.
In both cases, Lee and Willmott worked to reshape an original script penned by others. For “BlacKkKlansman,” they rewrote a first draft by Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz. For “Da Five Bloods,” it was an original script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo. But whereas the “BlacKkKlansman” was always black, “Da Five Bloods” originally were not.
“The really important thing is that it's a black Vietnam film,” Willmott said. “The main characters are in their 60s and 70s now, but they go back to Vietnam today and kind of relive everything they went through.”
The titular characters have two main motivations: retrieve the body of their fallen squad leader (portrayed in flashbacks by “Black Panther” Chadwick Boseman) and the stolen gold they buried along with him.
“There's been a few small films that dealt with the black Vietnam experience, but nothing like this,” Willmott said. “There are black characters in ‘Platoon’ and other movies, but the black Vietnam experience is very different than these other films. The reality of it is that these guys were fighting a war for rights they didn't have.
“The civil rights movement is going on back home, and people are wondering, ‘Why are you there fighting the war for rights that you don't even have, when we're here at home fighting for our own rights?’
“Muhammad Ali came out against the war during that time. We take it for granted now, but when you look back on that period, it was rich with resistance and conflict and athletes and entertainers and regular folks taking stands about how they felt about the war. KU was in the middle of all that, as well, like every university in the country was.”
Being a Spike Lee Joint, the film makes clear social commentary on today. One of the "bloods," portrayed by Delroy Lindo, supports President Donald Trump.
“They're all very different guys, and what's interesting is I think there was a unity at that time that does not exist today,” Willmott said. “That's indicative of some of the problems we have today, and moving things forward. During the ’60s and early ’70s, black people were really united and had a common understanding of what the problem was and what we should do about it. Obviously, there were internal squabbles. But as a whole, when compared to today, which is so separated and isolated and individualistic, it was really unifying. It's hard to get people into one point of view, and I think you see that in the film.”
While he read accounts and talked to black Vietnam vets in preparation for the rewriting job, Willmott said he also drew on his experience growing up during that time in Junction City, adjacent to Fort Riley. He knew soldiers from the “Big Red One” 1st Infantry Division who had returned from overseas.
“As a kid, it was a very interesting experience, because they would do the dap handshakes, and they would call you 'little brother' and 'blood,' and we picked up all of that kind of vernacular and unity from them,” Willmott said. “It was a really beautiful time, in terms of that unity and consciousness and believing in something bigger than yourself. That had a big influence on me growing up, so it was fun to reflect back on that and then try to put some of that in the film.”
Like Netflix’s “The Irishman” last year, “Da Five Bloods” was to have had a theatrical release to qualify for Academy Award consideration. But with the coronavirus pandemic having shuttered theaters, Willmott hopes the film will still be considered for awards.
More important, though, is what Willmott hopes will be the film’s lasting impact.
“There's just so many different levels of complication that these soldiers had to endure,” he said, “and they have never really been celebrated like they should.
“These movies are always about creating conversations and bringing up things that have been overlooked. This is a vehicle to have some of those discussions.”