Jonathan Majors compares working with Spike Lee on Da 5 Bloods to being in the military—and to being on a professional sports team. The filmmaker “inspires you to be your best artist,” the actor says. “He’s such a coach too that he challenges you to be the most athletic you can be in your craft.”
The film, which started streaming on Netflix Friday, focuses on four black veterans as they return to Vietnam in search of a fallen comrade’s remains as well as buried treasure. They’re joined by David (Majors), the son of a PTSD-inflicted, Donald Trump-supporting veteran (Delroy Lindo). Preparing for the role involved everything from reading up on the Vietnam War to “tactical gun drills.”
“David, my character—he doesn’t do any of that, right? He’s not there for that,” Majors says. “Spike, the scholar that he is, had me do all the training.”
Majors spoke to Fortune about his role in the film, as well as how it highlights the experience of black soldiers in a way that Vietnam War movies like Apocalypse Now and Platoon did not. What follows are his words, edited and condensed for clarity.
How Spike Lee prepared the cast for their roles
The Bible for us was a book called Bloods, and Bloods is a collection of memoirs from Vietnam War vets—particularly and singularly black Vietnam War vets—and it talks about their time. So that was essential reading. I don’t know how [Lee] did it, but he got a lot of war veterans to come to [shooting locations in] Thailand, where we were, or Vietnam—and speak to us directly. So we didn’t only get a one-on-one account from the books—we got an in-person personal recounting of what that experience was like for those fellas. In addition to that, there was the dapping.
You’re running down a street, you see a friend, you see a homie—you high-five or whatever you do—a great deal of that culture originated in the Vietnam War amongst the black vets. And the dap was a way of saying, “hello, how are you,” and also a way of establishing where you’re from. And so there would be a dap. Amongst the guys in the cast, we had multiple daps—we learned six daps. And some of these daps they did in Vietnam at that time. We recreated those and pushed those into the lifeblood of the film. That was really cool. In addition to that, we did a little more than basic training—tactical gun drills to work on the action sequences. We learned it practically, then we applied the actual blocking and camera movements.
Learning untold aspects of Vietnam War history
The story of war and the story of African-Americans does not go hand in hand. We have been divorced from that narrative a great deal. I’ve been blessed to be a son and grandson of war vets, so I have a certain understanding about what that is, but it’s not uncommon knowledge that war vets don’t like to talk about the shit that happened overseas, even to their grandsons, even to their sons. So what I learned a great deal is two-fold: One was that the Vietnam War is just what we call it, right? That’s just our naming of it. There, they call it the American War—and in the American War, all this happened.
Now the other part that became very clear to me is that the brothers that were in this war were fighting two wars, right? The patriarchy is the patriarchy and racial systematic betrayal and injustice is rampant. A lot of them left—my grandfather left Texas because at that time, there was nothing else for him to do. So not only him, but his, I believe three brothers, all went into the armed forces—all joined the Army around the time of the Vietnam War. That struggle is not taught in history books. The other thing that’s not taught in history books is the culture of what it was to be a black soldier. There’s a place called Soul Alley where all the brothers hung out, and those in the black movement—it was moving through the ranks, even there—were growing their Afros out. Some of the brothers were feeling discomfort because some African-American men, because of the way our skin is, can’t shave with a certain type of razor—the razor they give us in the armed forces is not good for our skin. So you’ve got soldiers who are growing beards because they don’t want their face to be all tore up. The culture of that, that’s not something you learn from the history books or from the movies. Apocalypse Now is not dealing with that; Platoon is not dealing with that. They’re too busy with John Wayne in combat boots.
On playing David
There were certain things I knew he had to have. He was a Morehouse [College] man—the motto of Morehouse is “let there be light.” So that’s a metaphor, something to drop in poetically to suggest, “Okay, this is where this man is coming from, and he’s very proud of having graduated from Morehouse.” We also know he’s on the track team, so that informed my body and how I moved, and we also know he’s a teacher, so pedagogy of any sort is very important to him. But I think the most crucial part of it was the father-son dynamic.
Establishing a complicated father-son dynamic
This is a story about a father and a son, and the son is having a very hard time getting to know his father. And he loves his father. The tautness of the relationship, the turbulence of the relationship, is because these men actually love each other. In real life, you don’t know how to love somebody. Everyone loves differently. And in this case, there’s a historical block between them: “I want my father’s love, and I want to be the model son for him.” So if my father was a soldier, I want to behave like a soldier in the best way. I want to be intelligent as a soldier. I want to be as strong as a soldier. I want to have the loyalty and the moral compass of a soldier, which [his character’s father] challenges so much because his flag he’s flying under—the Trump flag… is not what David agrees with. So there’s turmoil and hardship there, but you just go after the love. My [character’s] mission was: Get my father’s love, make my father proud, and in doing that, you can get a whole lot of stories.
The timing of the film’s release
Well, I’d say that it’s not necessarily radical—the [protests against racism and police brutality] that are happening right now.
It’s the most natural thing in the world. If you cage any living thing, right? Let alone a man, right? Something that has a heart, that has a spirit, that has a family, that has needs, wants, desires, dreams? The second you cage that thing, you cage that man, you cage that culture, you cage that race—over time, that man, that race, that group of people will undoubtedly fight back and revolt.
Spike Lee is doing the most natural thing he could do as a filmmaker. He is giving the other side of the narrative. Here in the streets right now, we are giving the patriarchy, the majority, the other side of America. And so the film popping off right now at this time and this moment, is to me—whatever you believe in, whomever you believe in—a very definite and undeniable sign that things have come to an end. Things are stopping now. The film is a part of the movement, a part of the protests. And I mean the things that this film is bringing to light—the unfairness. It’s just unfair: Since 1619, a certain group of folks have not been playing fair and the chicken has come home to roost. That’s all it is. It’s as simple as that.
I’m very pleased that the film is out right now, I think it adds to the conversation, and it adds education.
Audience reactions and the film’s straight-to-Netflix release
People are loving the film. I’ll leave you with this anecdote: I grew up in Texas and I saw my first Broadway show when I was 22 years old. I could never afford a Broadway ticket between birth to that. I think I used college money to buy the ticket. The same thing can be said about streaming. Movie tickets can be tough [for some people to afford]. And I think that certain people who are sick, who are broke, who literally have to spend their money on other things—they would not have had the opportunity to see this film had it not come out on Netflix. So to me, it is again a divine action taken by whoever, by whatever, for the better good.
More must-read entertainment coverage from Fortune:
- How movie theaters can make a comeback after the coronavirus pandemic
- Chris Hemsworth calls Extraction the “most exhausting” shoot of his career
- True History of the Kelly Gang‘s director, stars on their hypnotic outlaw saga
- Meet the vocal coach keeping busy while opera stages are all dark
- When jazz musicians aren’t live-streaming owing to coronavirus, they’re scrambling to rebook lost gigs