Kansas Oscar-winner-in-residence Kevin Willmott collaborated with director Spike Lee on the script for “BlacKkKlansman” in 2018, and now the two are returning for an action-war-heist movie that puts the spotlight on Black Vietnam veterans.

“Da 5 Bloods” premieres June 12 on Netflix.

“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,” said Willmott, a professor of film and media studies at the University of Kansas.

The old soldiers (including Delroy Lindo) 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 with him. The plot unfolds along two time lines to show both the war’s immediate consequences and its long-term effects on the men, whose problems now include addiction, illness, and bankruptcy. The older actors also play their younger selves without any movie magic for age regression.

The movie echoes such classics as “Kelly’s Heroes” and “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” which both Willmott and Lee grew up watching.

“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?’”

For “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee and Willmott won Academy Awards for best adapted screenplay. “Da 5 Bloods” is also adapted, this time from an existing screenplay by the writers of 1991’s “The Rocketeer.” The original story explored the experience of White Vietnam veterans, but Willmott and Lee worked to reshape it to their own vision.

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.”

“Da 5 Bloods” was to have had a theatrical release to qualify for Academy Award consideration, but the coronavirus pandemic has closed theaters.

– Contributing: Rick Hellman, KU News Service

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