November 8, 2020
Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Lee checks in and shares a behind-the-lens look at his latest release.
A killer soundtrack, a star-studded cast and a powerful political message—this is the secret sauce of legendary filmmaker Spike Lee’s winning recipe (see BlacKkKlansman, Jungle Fever, Do the Right Thing). The New York-based icon hits his target yet again with the Netflix release Da 5 Bloods. Celebrating the African American veterans often excluded from war films, the story centers on four African American vets—played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr.—who return to Vietnam to search for the remains of their fallen squad leader (Chadwick Boseman). The insidious nature of PTSD, greed and the immortality of war seeps through the tale—and the story’s visceral messages of racial inequality resonate like painful, rapid-fire rounds of an M-60 machine gun. As our ever-unflinching oracle, Lee shares why we must heed these societal wounds now more than ever.
You recently stepped out to participate in the Black Lives Matter protests around New York City and Brooklyn. Why does this movement sparked by the death of George Floyd feel so different? Something I’ve seen on television, I wanted to see with my own eyes, and what has given me strength is my fellow white brothers and sisters out there. Strong! And they have joined their Black and brown sisters, locked arms, step-in-step... and what’s really giving me more hype, the number of young white brothers and sisters [protesting]. That’s given me hope!
How has it been for you amid the pandemic? Well, what we talk about is BC—not before Christ, but before corona. The whole world has changed. Everyone has plans, and everybody’s plans have been changed. I was supposed to be the president of the jury in Cannes; the world premiere of Da 5 Bloods was in Cannes. I was also supposed to be in preproduction for a film called Prince of Cats, but I am just trying to roll with the punches. A hundred thousand people die here in America, so I am not complaining how that stuff seems trivial compared to the loss of life.
Da 5 Bloods centers on the journey of four Vietnam vets—played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr.
This film was such a huge passion project for you. Why a war film? My brother Chris and I, we grew up in Brooklyn watching World War II films on television. Growing up, my father would be looking at his sons’ films saying, ‘I had two brothers in World War II, and my father’s two brothers, they were in the Red Ball Express.’ Those were the trucks that supplied Patton’s army through France all the way into Germany. And those trucks were driven by Black soldiers in my film Miracle at St. Anna, which was about the Buffalo Soldiers in the 92nd infantry division—Black soldiers that fought in Italy against fascists and Hitler’s Nazis. As we touch upon in this film, even Black folks were fighting for this country from the beginning. Crispus Attucks was the first person to die for this country in the Boston Massacre. These are things that aren’t taught a lot. Then you look at the Vietnam War, where at the height of the war Black soldiers were almost a third of the fighting forces—yet at the same time, we’re only 10% of the American population—and they sent our Black asses straight to the front line. I know there’s a difference between disease and war, but we endured more casualties and death mortalities—same where Black people are dying in higher numbers with the coronavirus.
This film is being released in such an unprecedented and unexpected time. How do you think it has taken on new meaning given the global crisis? Well, I try to stay away from fortunetelling—you know, some of my friends call me Negrodamus. Here’s the thing—this film, BC (before corona), was gonna get its actual release, then go to Netflix. The world has changed; now, it will be streamed all over God’s earth, so we’ll see. I just think, like artists, we do our thing, and once it’s done it’s like giving birth and it goes out into the world. I try not to predict how audiences are going to react.
“At the height of the Vietnam War, Black soldiers were almost a third of the fighting forces,” says Lee.
This film explores the lasting ravages of war and PTSD. That also feels more relevant than ever. Do you feel that maybe we’re about to come upon the second wave of PTSD from a different kind of war? I don’t think war is a wrong term. It’s just a war; there’s lots of wars. The common denominator is that people get killed in wars, but this killer you can’t beat.
My first reaction to the film was that I wanted to see it again. Like a great book, as soon as you finish you want to start it over to understand it more deeply. I take that as a compliment, thank you very much. The film is dense, and it’s something I can be criticized for, but I don’t give a fuck, you know. The movies I love, On The Waterfront... I can’t even remember how many times I’ve seen it... and that’s the great thing about art. In this case, for example, this film has the songs from one of the greatest albums ever made [by] Marvin Gaye. I can listen to those songs a million times. I’m not going to get tired of it. And there’s a reason behind that. Marvin Gaye’s brother, Frankie, did three tours of Vietnam. And he would write to his brother. So Marvin is deeply affected by the letters and his brother’s firsthand account during the tours. Marvin was also seeing the war that was happening in America with the antiwar movement. Marvin was seeing the brothers come back from ‘Nam. I’m just glad that we’re able to get those Marvin Gaye songs into the movie.
The filmmaker and cast on set.
The soundtrack is amazing. It really seemed like the film was such a conversation starter. Where do you hope that conversation will go? I can’t predict that. Here’s the thing about art. People are coming to a movie, a book, a play, a concert, art museums as a blank canvas. So everybody is going to look at stuff differently, and I find that exciting. People have different reactions, so I do not want to predict how people are gonna react to this film.
What do you hope the world learns from this current war? It’s our obligation, our duty, our life’s work to turn this shit around AC (after corona). We have to work on the disparity between the haves and have-nots. Black and brown people kept this shit going, had to work, and delivered services, duties, transportation—we go on and on with the list. But knowing, by doing this, their life was in peril; but they did it because they knew it was the right thing to do. They knew that was the righteous thing to do—and that has to be appreciated.
Spike Lee portrait by Satchel Lee; film photos courtesy of Netflix