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Spike Lee talks ‘Da 5 Bloods,’ his role as an artist in tumultuous times

Director Spike Lee's new film, "Da 5 Bloods," is about four African-American vets battling the forces of man and nature when they return to Vietnam seeking the remains of their fallen squad leader and the fortune in gold he helped them hide.

KIRK MCKOY, LOS ANGLES TIMES/TNS

By ANN HORNADAY | The Washington Post | Published: June 12, 2020

When Spike Lee phoned in for an interview last week, New York was still in the throes of demonstrations against police brutality, a lockdown brought on by COVID-19 and the civic unrest and economic crisis that have ensued.

But Lee, who was calling from his home on the Upper East Side, was in a surprisingly exuberant mood. “Wednesday [June 3] was the first day nobody died from corona,” he said, citing data regarding confirmed deaths published by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. What’s more, he had taken a bike ride to mayoral residence Gracie Mansion a few days earlier that considerably raised his spirits.

“I had a mask on, trying to be in-cog-negro,” he recalls with a wry laugh. “And it was a great sight for my sore eyes to see my fellow New Yorkers — white, brown, red and black — unified and speaking up against the powers that be.”

He was even more heartened by what he saw on CNN all week. “It happened all across the United States of America, not just New York,” he says excitedly. “It’s all over ... Baltimore, D.C. — I mean, even places where there are no black people! Salt Lake City, Utah. Des Moines, Iowa. ... Many more places that don’t have a large minority population. But they’re out there, too. I haven’t seen this since I was a kid growing up in the ’60s.”

Having a conversation with Lee is akin to a dance: He is as sharply observant and coruscatingly critical as the films he’s been making since his groundbreaking debut in 1986 with “She’s Gotta Have It.” But, like most of his movies, he possesses an underlying current of humor that can instantly disarm even his harshest detractors. His new movie, “Da 5 Bloods,” which begins streaming on Netflix on Friday, exemplifies what makes him so distinctive as a director: He’s one of a handful of filmmakers who have refined their own, instantly recognizable cinematic language (those rack-focus dolly shots, those double-edit hugs).

Lee has also been fearless about making polemical work, and speaking out about politics off-screen, regardless of the blowback he might receive in Hollywood or from his audience. Given the huge and diverse turnouts at the nationwide demonstrations over the past two weeks, is he optimistic that systemic change is at hand?

The answer, he says, is all about follow-through. “Let’s not get (ahead of) ourselves,” he warns. “Let’s see what’s happened when we wake up on Nov. 4. Because regardless of what’s happening now, if Agent Orange gets reelected, then it’s been in vain.”

“Agent Orange,” as Lee’s fans know, is the filmmaker’s preferred name for President Donald Trump. It’s also a deadly chemical that was used as an herbicide and defoliant in Vietnam, where “Da 5 Bloods” takes place. The movie stars Delroy Lindo, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Clarke Peters and Norm Lewis as veterans who return to the country to recover the remains of their fallen squad leader (played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman). Along the way, they embark on a scheme reminiscent of John Huston’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” one of Lee’s all-time favorites.

Although it obeys the conventions of war films and caper flicks, “Da 5 Bloods” also recognizes the disproportionate sacrifice of black soldiers in Vietnam, who were drafted, sent to the front lines, killed and court-martialed far more often than their white peers. Lee, who with Kevin Willmott retooled Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo’s script that had originally been about white characters, first heard about the project as he was preparing to direct “BlacKkKlansman” in 2017. Although he couldn’t have known then that the themes of “Da 5 Bloods” would be so germane in 2020, he says, “It doesn’t take a great leap to make a correlation between what happened to black and brown boys in Vietnam and what’s happened to black and brown communities with corona. You can tie that together without having to work.”

Inimitable Spike Lee touches abound throughout “Da 5 Bloods,” which features one of his most familiar stylistic flourishes: a stirring prologue and epilogue, in this case featuring Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. — both of whom criticized the Vietnam War, both of whom were reviled for doing so at the time, and both of whom have been sanitized into sentimental heroes over the ensuing decades.

The decision to include King in “Da 5 Bloods” was particularly personal for Lee. The civil rights leader was a senior at Atlanta’s Morehouse College when Lee’s father was a freshman; Lee graduated from Morehouse in 1979 with Martin Luther King III. “Dr. King wasn’t just talking about how immoral the Vietnam War was,” Lee insists. “He was talking about Dow Chemical and all the other people who were profiting off the war, who were making napalm and Agent Orange. And I think that’s why he got assassinated. Not because he was trying to desegregate counters or all that other stuff. When he started speaking against the war, they were like, ‘This guy gotta go.’ ”

Film fans will recognize more than a few shoutouts to “Apocalypse Now” in “Da 5 Bloods,” which features at least two straight-up homages to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film. Lee had just graduated from Morehouse and was preparing to attend film school at New York University when that film came out. He was working as an intern at Columbia Pictures in Los Angeles.

“I was at the first screening,” he recalls fondly, trying to find the ticket stub while he talks. “Twelve noon, the Cinerama Dome, Sunset Boulevard. Every time I see Francis he says, ‘Spike, you’ve told me this story a million times already!’ But it’s true! That was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve ever seen in film.”

Lee says that he cast Laurence Fishburne and Albert Hall in “School Daze” and “Malcolm X” on the strength of their supporting performances in “Apocalypse Now.” He gives credit to Coppola and Oliver Stone for casting actors of color in their Vietnam movies, which were breakthroughs compared with John Wayne’s “Green Berets” and other whitewashed histories of the war. He says he has “nothing but love” for both directors, especially Stone, who served in Vietnam. Speculating that Stone may not have felt qualified to tell the black soldiers’ story, Lee compares him to Norman Jewison, who had intended to direct “Malcolm X” before Lee took on the project.

“ ‘Malcolm X’ was Norman Jewison’s film. And he gracefully bowed out. He didn’t have to do that,” Lee says, adding that, to this day, their conversation has remained private. “Without saying exactly what he said, you know, he kind of acknowledged that maybe he was not the person to direct that film.”

Far from being despondent about coronavirus and political unrest, Lee says, he feels he was “built for this.” Since New York went into shutdown, he has been isolating at home with his wife, Tonya; their grown children, Satchel and Jackson; and their Yorkshire terrier, Ginger.

When the video emerged of George Floyd dying under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis, he responded almost days later with a breathtaking 94-second short film called “3 Brothers — Radio Raheem, Eric Garner and George Floyd,” in which he intercut the deaths of Garner and Floyd with footage from the 1989 film “Do the Right Thing,” in which Radio Raheem, played by Bill Nunn, dies while in a police chokehold.

Reflecting on the devastating parallels of fact and fiction in “3 Brothers,” Lee takes a moment to clear up what he says has been a 30-year misunderstanding about “Do the Right Thing,” which ends with two quotes about violence, one from Martin Luther King and one from Malcolm X.

“There were some people who were saying that Spike put these quotes in the movie for the audience member to make a choice,” Lee says. “That was not the intent at all. Before Malcolm X got assassinated, (he and) Dr. King were trying to find a common ground, where they could unite their different points of view. But they were united in the freedom of black folks. So the end of ‘Do the Right Thing’ was not saying to the audience, ‘Pick one or the other.’ I felt that you could put both of them together.”

Does Lee feel compelled to make a particular movie in light of these extraordinary times? “No,” he says flatly, although he suggests he might be inspired to make another short film. The position of individual artists and their proper creative response, he says, is a private decision.

“As I’ve gotten older and more mature, I can understand that every artist has their own path,” he says. “And there are some artists — and I’m not making any judgments — they think that their gift to God is their talent and to entertain people, and they make a conscious decision to leave politics out of it. And that’s their choice.

“But I do think that history has showed us that when times have been rough, they’ve produced some of the greatest music, movies, plays and whatnot from artists who feel that it’s their duty to comment or hold up a window to the evil that’s going on.”

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