For actor Clarke Peters, a standout star of The Wire and Treme, the new Netflix movie Da 5 Bloods was a reunion with writer-director Spike Lee — the two men previously worked together on Lee’s Red Hook Summer, where Peters played the charismatic Brooklyn bishop Enoch Rouse. But it was also a chance to visit Vietnam for the first time, after protesting the Vietnam war in his youth, and being arrested for his participation. Peters was born in New York City, but has spent most of his life living and working abroad, which caused him some problems in the early 1970s when he was accused of (and acquitted of) evading the draft. As a former soul-band singer, a playwright, and a Broadway performer, he’s had a widely varied career even outside of his extensive film and TV work.
Da 5 Bloods gives him a familiar kind of role: the lone warm, reasonable, parental voice in a group of prickly misfits. Peters co-stars as Otis, one of four Vietnam War vets returning to the country to retrieve the remains of their former commander — and the gold he took from the U.S. government, planning to donate it to the cause of black liberation. As one member of the group, Paul, played by Delroy Lindo, becomes more unstable and violent, Otis is the one trying to hold the group together. Lee references the paranoia of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the violence of Apocalypse Now, and many other films along the way, as Paul, Otis, and their friends (played by Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr) navigate their return to Vietnam.
Polygon recently spoke to Peters about why the film’s scathing commentary about America’s relationship with its black citizens reminds him of endless cycles of past protests, what it was like to visit Vietnam for the first time, and how Spike Lee put the cast through boot camp to prepare for their roles.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.
You’ve repeatedly said Da 5 Bloods is the perfect film for this era of protests and backlash against racism and violent policing. Why specifically?
Clarke Peters: For the older generation, it will be a reminder of the past. For most of us, it just feels like Groundhog Day. The younger generation can look at the historical footage [of protests and racist violence] in this film and compare it with what you have seen over the past 10 years, during your short lives here. I think it’s important in that respect. I also think it’s an important film, because you’ll see a group of black men who love each other and care of each other. Hopefully that’ll be a subliminal message to those young gun-toting men who want to defend the territory of their streets, instead of using the largest territory of the world to defend against racism, sexism, and classism, and all the other negative -isms. I think it’s pretty important in that respect.
At the end of the film, there are two people, one African-American and one Vietnamese, who want to be really good friends. As far as the American political landscape goes, these people were our enemy, so why should we be with them? But resolutions lead to healing, healing leads to the resolution. Somewhere in the protests happening today — a friend of mine was saying, “What is this all about? Why are you martyring George [Floyd]?” I’m not martyring him. His death is part of my Groundhog Day — I’ve seen this all before. The only thing different today is that now it’s being seen by the world. It’s encouraging that the world is responding. By small increments, there has been greater discussion. There’s a need to listen to each other, and to respond with compassion, in a positive way.
You had your own past as a protestor, being arrested in a Vietnam War protest, and later being accused of draft-dodging. Do the current protests, or playing out the war in the film, bring those memories back?
I’m glad you posed it like that. I was arrested not for being a draft-dodger, but because I was accused of obstructing police lines during a demonstration at which I was a medic. Five years later is when I was asked to come to the States on charges of dodging the draft, which was ridiculous, because I wasn’t dodging anything except the bullets that were being shot at me. They were definitely two separate events, but most people try to merge them into one.
In the first case, my protestations were well-founded. It turned out to be a bad war, like all wars are. In the protests, my role was first aid, and my brief was to look after and take care of anyone who had was injured, if there was an altercation. And if there was an altercation or confrontation, my job was to stand to the side and not involve myself. I was there just to make sure things went along smoothly, like a marshal. I was arrested because [former Attorney General] John Mitchell demanded that everyone leave the front of the Justice Department within 20 minutes. That was my cue to get out. And as I left, I was arrested. It was within five minutes, not the 20 minutes he had given us. Did that leave a bad taste in my mouth? Yes.
When I came back to the States to sit before the FBI about the draft evasion, there was no case. Dodging the draft means you’re trying to hide someplace. The time I’d had been outside of the United States, I’d been at the American embassy on a number of occasions. I received my mail from the American Express in England and then in Paris. I knew people at the embassy, so if anyone was hiding, I don’t think it was me.
What’s it like to to go to Vietnam all this time later, to make a film about people reliving that era and their traumatic experiences?
As a person who did not go to the war, I had a lot of mixed emotions about going to Vietnam. There was a little bit of trepidation. I was a little fearful. I didn’t know how we would be taken there. And on arriving, it wasn’t the country or the people I was told they were. We were in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City. You could see remnants of the French there, in the café culture and the architecture. And you can see the Americana that was left behind, in the form of McDonald’s and KFC and stuff like that. I didn’t quite let myself go there, not for a while. If anyone confronted me, I wanted to be able to say, “Listen, I was fighting for you guys not to be persecuted by imperialism. The Vietnamese have had 400 years of fighting in the bush, there is no way somebody from Kansas is gonna wind up in Oz and think that they’re gonna take over.”
I’m making light of it, but I was nervous about how we’d be received. And I wound up really enjoying the city, and I made a couple of really good friends there that I would like to go back and see. What is telling about the experience is that there are there are men and women from the Vietnam War, Americans, who have chosen to stay there. Now, that’s something worth investigating. Why would you stay there, after you’ve had a gun in your hand 50 years ago, shooting these people? So there’s something up about war, and how we deal with that. It’s very interesting. I liked Vietnam, I just wish I’d had a chance to travel around more.
How did you prepare to play Otis?
Otis was not a really big stretch for me, because I’m a compassionate person to begin with, as I was saying earlier, with me already acting as a medic, trying to do the right thing. My research for this film was more in the vein of looking at the different ways these brothers communicated with each other, with the dap, the handshake. My research was more about how to deal with boot camp — what is it like to be in that environment? I didn’t have to look into PTSD, because that wasn’t my track, but having said that, I have been involved with men who have come back from the most recent wars who have PTSD, and have dealt with and comforted them when I was in Baltimore, you know. As far as what type of actor I am normally in preparation, sometimes Method, sometimes Meisner, sometimes just letting the character envelop me. Sometimes just putting on the costume and seeing what comes.
What kind of conversations did you have with Spike leading up to the film, about your character or the ideas he wanted to bring across?
In short, he said, “Clarke, you are the conscience of the piece.” I had to maintain my humanity, and express that as often and as much as possible. The other conversation we had was, “Get fit. Make sure that you are fit for this environment.” So there was preparing myself before I got to Vietnam. Then when we were there, we had two weeks of boot camp, as well. Like most grunts. [Laughs] Which is what we were. That encapsulated most of my conversations with him.
The thing about Spike is, you get cast because of what you naturally have to offer. We do know that 90% of directing is in the casting. I’m not saying Delroy [Lindo] is a psychopath suffering from PTSD, not at all. His journey on this film was far more grueling than I think any of ours were. But there is a certain danger in Delroy that he can bring to the fore, which is read easily on the screen. Isiah is always funny, off screen and on screen, that’s just who he is. Norman Lewis is just a solid cat who’s a stage actor first, and he certainly pulled off the character wonderfully. It was easy express losing him in the movie, because I like all these brothers so much, really?
The shoot looked particularly grueling. What stood out about the physical aspect of the experience?
Just the intensity of the heat, not only during the day, but during the night shoots. When the sun went down, it was still stifling, it was just 85 degrees rather than 105 degrees, and we were running around in the dark, rather than shooting day for night. It was more about the environment than anything. The heat at night was intense. But the most grueling day was when we had to walk about a mile to get through a beautiful bamboo forest. My God, if you’ve never seen a bamboo forest, it is really a wonder of nature. We walked through it to get to the top of a waterfall. We found out later that we could have climbed up the side of the waterfall, which is what I did the second time we had to go to this location, but it was just as grueling. Rather than walking around land that was undulating in the most ridiculous way, just climbing straight up this rock face to get to the location. And then that shot wasn’t used! [Laughs]
What’s Spike Lee like on the set? How does he compare with other directors you’ve worked with, in terms of how he approaches actors?
He pretty much just lets you get on with it! What I like about him is that Spike knows how to handle a set. There were a lot of components to negotiate on the set — the environment, the logistics, the health and safety of people, the noise of the geckos and frogs and things in the middle of the night. But as far as the actors go, most of his work with us was done prior to shooting. As well as having boot camp in the field with the military, we had a boot camp around the table, where we dissected characters, where we talked about the lives of these men, where we were introduced to vets. Particularly for those of us who are more theater actors, it was a chance to form a company of actors, so we know what story we’re telling.
Spike, on both occasions that I’ve worked with him, has spent a lot of time in pre-production working with the actors, getting under the characters’ skin, and putting you on track so you can continue to develop that particular character when you’re on the set. There are times when he will just let the camera roll, if you find yourself improvising in a scene, because you’re carried away with the emotion or it feels right. He has an intuitive antenna that says, “Keep it rolling, let him go, keep on going, keep on going, keep on going.” And he will encourage you to do so, which is wonderful, because we don’t get that type of freedom as actors, most of the time. You’re usually restricted to exactly what the text says, or to the limited imagination of some directors. Whereas I find Spike is pretty generous on the set.
At the same time, he runs a really good set. We know what time we’re going to start, we know what time we’re going to end. He knows what shots he wants, and if there’s any problems, he takes the least amount of time in solving them. I hate being on a set where the director’s saying, “Hmm, I wonder if I should shoot it like this or like that?” And I’m thinking, “Did you do a storyboard? Did you think about this last night, knowing this was what we were shooting today?” I hate that. But Spike is two steps ahead. And as an actor, that gives you a chance to liberate yourself from the constraints of it being a job, and go to a place where you can enjoy your craft. Simple as that.
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