Journey into the Past: Stephen Nakamura on Spike Lee’s New Epic

June 12, 2020 Jun. 12, 2020

Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods, premiering on Netflix to strongly positive reviews, is something of an epic, something of a buddy pic, something of a heist pic, but it also looks at the rarely-portrayed subject of African American soldiers who served in Vietnam. The story concerns Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Eddie (Norm Lewis) Otis (Clarke Peters), Paul (Delroy Lindo), and Paul’s son (Jonathan Majors) returning to the jungle to attend to some unfinished business regarding missing comrade, Norman (Chadwick Boseman).

Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel made use of multiple formats and aspect ratios to create different looks for various portions of the film — from the old school 1.33:1 for flashback portions the DP shot on 16mm reversal stock to widescreen 2.39:1 captured with ARRI Alexa LF (Large Format) cameras for the contemporary sections. There is also a significant portion of actual stock footage of the war era shot in a multitude of formats that appears throughout.

Colorist Stephen Nakamura, who has collaborated with Sigel on most of the cinematographers digitally-graded films going back to 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, devoted much of his creative energies on this project to bringing the diverse types of imagery into a space where they all feel like they belong in the same movie while also retaining their own visual attributes.

“Ektachrome,” he says, “has a unique way of capturing saturation and contrast and it has to be shot in a very exacting way because it’s very easy to lose important detail. Obviously, Tom [Sigel] is up to the task. Then there were a few portions that were shot with the Alexa that needed to look like the Ektachrome, which was possible to do but it took a lot of work. If you really want that look and you have someone with the skill and experience to shoot it, there’s nothing like the real thing.”

Meanwhile, the film also follows the men’s lives as they experience difficult conditions, including PTSD and money issues, in the US before following the group deep in the jungles of Vietnam (shot in Thailand), and anyone familiar with Lee’s work will not be surprised to learn that he often likes his films to offer a variety of different visual approaches. In this case Nakamura refined these all in Resolve.

“It was a profound project to work on,” says Nakamura, who had followed Lee’s work closely since watching She’s Gotta Have It while attending film school in Los Angeles. “And then he did Do the Right Thing, which looked at race relations in America in such a powerful way. That film had a real effect on me. As an Asian American from Hawaii I could relate to some elements personally, but it really has something important to say to everyone, no matter who you are.

“And now,” he sums up, “Da 5 Bloods couldn’t have come out at a more perfect time. There are elements of the story that touch on how African American soldiers served disproportionately in the Vietnam War, especially on the front lines, and the fact that so many people didn’t care or even know about that. In fact, there are hardly any other movies that deal with that at all. He’s telling a story in the film that looks at why that was the case and how so many years — centuries — of history have affected why the country is in the situation we are in now. It’s also very entertaining and the performances are excellent, but it’s more. Joe Morgenstern from the Wall Street Journal is a critic I like and I think his review says it more succinctly than I could: “Never has a movie matched its moment more remarkably than Da 5 Bloods, an explosive, eloquent cry of black anguish and anger for this seismic season.”