Clarke Peters on Spike Lee's new Vietnam War film, and how little has changed for African Americans

Da 5 Bloods exposes the racism Black soldiers faced in the military — and back home.

Da 5 Bloods exposes the racism Black soldiers faced in the military — and back home

Da 5 Bloods revolves around four African American Vietnam veterans who return to the battleground half a century later to recover the body of their fallen comrade — and the buried gold they left behind. Left to right: Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Melvin, Norm Lewis as Eddie, Clarke Peters as Otis, Delroy Lindo as Paul, Jonathan Majors as David. (David Lee/Netflix)

When African American soldiers were sent to fight in Vietnam, they not only found themselves facing the brutality of war: they also encountered the brutality of racism within their own ranks — and when they returned home.

Spike Lee captures some of their experience in Da 5 Bloods, a film that tells the story of four veterans who, five decades later, return to the battleground to recover the body of their fifth comrade, their fallen squad leader, played by Chadwick Boseman.

But their mission gets complicated by a second task: to recover the buried treasure they'd left behind all those years ago.

It's a story about their lifelong bond, their trauma, and how that trauma undermines their quest.

Q caught up with Clarke Peters, who is one of the stars of Da 5 Bloods, and the actor who played Detective Lester Freaman on the legendary show The Wire

Peters spoke about the added hardships African American soldiers faced, about his own arrest at an anti-Vietnam protest, and about how little has changed to this day.

This new film Da 5 Bloods follows these four war vets returning to Vietnam. How do you describe the bond they share?

The bond they share is just pure love. When a group of people has a traumatic experience together and they come through it together, something knits their hearts and their spirits together. And these men went through the Vietnam War and they survived, to a certain degree. They're all damaged in their own way, as most men and women are coming back from war, and even that is played out. But we also see the love and the support between them that helps them get through even that post-traumatic shock.

That's what stands out to me, that this film talks about how trauma isn't just one thing. Tell me about how the various types of trauma are explored in this film.

Well, the first is just the loss of identity. If you have a nationalistic point of view, you can't help but identify with the country you're coming from — but on returning to the country that you have been fighting for, if you find that you are still a second, third or non-existent entity, that can be a shock to the psyche. The other one is that you think you're ready to get on and get into the world, and you find that the colour of your skin is prohibitive.

The other way that it manifests itself is a car backfiring and you cannot help but to hit the ground because you've had those sounds in your head in the formative times of your life. These men were in their teens, adolescents when they went there. The other way it manifests itself is that it never leaves you. You are constantly revisited by ghosts of the past.

Can you give me a sense of the toll the Vietnam War had on African American soldiers?

We were 33 per cent of the troops in Vietnam. We only made up maybe 11 per cent of the American population at the time. So we were basically cannon fodder, always on the front-line. The other thing that was damaging was that it was supposed to be an integrated army, but it wasn't because people still had to find their own community, and that led to natural segregation within the armed forces.

And just as African Americans occupy the majority of people incarcerated in prisons today, it was the same thing in Vietnam — not only for being insubordinate, but just saying hello to your brother, raising the fist and going, "Hey, right on, right on," could get you thrown into the brig. So the pain and the humiliation and the dehumanizing methods that were imposed on African Americans in Vietnam was enormous.

Director Spike Lee with the stars of his latest film Da 5 Bloods. 'There's a lot that African American military men have had to endure from the '70s until today,' says actor Clarke Peters, in photo at centre. 'When you see George Floyd with that knee on his neck, believe me, those brothers and sisters who fought in Vietnam have had the knee on the neck ever since.' (David Lee/Netflix)

And then you get back to America and the people called the Black Panthers who are starting to do something positive for their communities are also criminalized, demonized. So you come back not as a first-class citizen, having done your duty for the for the country; you come back as a non-entity. And not only are you a non-entity, you are traumatized by the war. So you go to the V.A. [Veterans Affairs] for some help. They don't give you anything. So you've got to find your drugs on the street. You can't work or function in this environment, so you wind up homeless.

So there's a lot that African American military men have had to endure from the '70s until today. When you see George Floyd with that knee on his neck, believe me, those brothers and sisters who fought in Vietnam have had the knee on the neck ever since.

Only tell me as much as you feel comfortable telling me, but you were arrested for protesting the Vietnam War, right?

You saw that [recent] peaceful protest that was happening in front of the White House before that man decided he wanted to take a photo op? Those people were just standing there very peacefully. And the police and the military moved on them and then they were told that they were the thugs.

Back in 1971 I believe it was, it might have been '70, a bunch of students from Boston University went down to support the moratorium. I was there as a first aid medic, which only meant that I had saline solution and first-aid bandages in case of any altercations. And our brief was basically that if a police officer got hurt, look after him. If a civilian got hurt, look after them. We had big red crosses on our backs, and we were all registered with the organizers.

Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Paul’s son (Jonathan Majors), and Otis (Clarke Peters) on a quest to recover the remains of their squad leader (Chadwick Boseman, not pictured). (David Lee/Netflix)

And on a particular day when about 6,000 people were protesting in front of the Department of Justice, John Mitchell comes on top of the Department of Justice and announces that we had 20 minutes to move from in front of this building; otherwise we would be arrested. And he gave explicit directions on where to go. That was our cue to exit, which is exactly what we did, only to be met by the National Guard with their guns in our faces, telling us that we had to go out the other end of the street. By that time, 6,000 people had sat down, or laid down. So we had to wade through these people after arguing with these military, saying that we'd been instructed to go out here.

By the time we got to the other end, another 10 minutes had passed and we were pushed onto buses and taken to a police jail in Maryland somewhere, as political prisoners. Just ridiculous. They put about 13 or more of us into one cell. The cell is only eight by eight, left us there for 24 hours before they even processed us. I think I was about 18 or 19 at the time.  

How did that experience shape how you went into doing this film?

At that time as a young man, I didn't understand what war was about. I didn't understand what those men were going through. And part of that for me was a cathartic kind of experience, trying to understand and feel what these men had gone through with gratitude that they went through it.

Clarke Peters at the U.K. Premiere of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri on Oct. 15, 2017 in London, England. (John Phillips/Getty Images for BFI)

I have the deepest, deepest, deepest respect and love for all of the veterans — for all of them — and particularly for those who've been kicked to the curb, whether they're Black, white, Native American, Indian, Latino, it doesn't matter. For all of them, because of what they went through in Vietnam, in an environment that doesn't exist in America, for months on end, fighting an enemy that they could not see, being told "We are not the enemy. America is the enemy." To put your foot in those shoes for just a second and allow yourself to be marinated in that experience.

What's the most important message you took away from telling this story?

The most important thing I've taken away is that nothing has changed. I haven't taken away anything that I didn't know before. It just confirmed everything that I suspected. Looking at George on the ground as he was, you know, African American people mean nothing to this government.

And this isn't totally racial. This is more about class. This is about the haves, the have-nots and the haves too much. And those who have too much don't know what the hell to do with their time, besides use those people below them as fodder to get whatever they need to continue to have more than they need, for greed. And in doing so, they've pitted people against each other.

For myself, it was the realization that this has been my life, from Emmett Till to last week. There hasn't been a year, if not months, that I haven't been rocked by the news of yet another senseless murder. Senseless, senseless.- Clarke Peters

I'm fighting for those of African descent. I'm also fighting for those whose land we live on. Our fight might be the loudest voice right now. But those who have suffered the most are those who are the most diminished in population in America whose land it was, and we really have to take a look at them. Not only in America, also in Canada.

You talked about a conversation you had with your kids, and you told them occurrences of brutality against African Americans have been your life, that nothing has changed since Emmett Till. What was that conversation like?

It was somber. It was something I had sent them online. For myself, it was the realization that this has been my life, from Emmett Till to last week. There hasn't been a year, if not months, that I haven't been rocked by the news of yet another senseless murder. Senseless, senseless.

Poster for Spike Lee's new Netflix Original film, Da 5 Bloods. (Netflix)

Whether it's been a child, whether it's been a woman, whether it's been a man sitting on their porch, whether it's been what people would like to call "Black on Black" crimes. All of that. It's all part of the same conversation, the same mindset, the same propaganda, the same intention, of those who have too much and who have manipulated those who don't have anything — Black and white or brown and pink. Let's go there. Brown and pink. Because it's really not about Black and white. It's Brown and pink, brother.

Do you have anything that has allowed you to make sense of something that's so horrific and so unjust, that's been happening so long and never seems to end?

The only thing I have to keep me grounded is my sense of spirituality, the laws that govern the universe. You know, 30 or 40 years ago, the word "karma" was not part of our everyday conversation. That's something that's happened recently. So I'll use that as a way into answering that question. Take a look at what "karma" really means. Take a look at where you have seen it before in various guises in the Western world. Some sense of that is the only thing that keeps me grounded — a sense of something greater than myself that will balance things.

And it's not expecting me to just sit back quietly waiting for that moment. But it is giving me an opportunity right now to speak with you, and hopefully somebody else will listen and will carry on and be bolstered and empowered by this conversation and maybe will turn to their spirituality and find some solace, some strength in that as well, to move us into a next era.

Edited by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview produced by Tyrone Callender. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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