Spike Lee: “My path in life is to speak the truth – I’m not gonna run from it”

In the midst of historic anti-racism protests, Hollywood's most political filmmaker has released yet another timely epic, 'Da 5 Bloods'. We ask him how he always sees what's coming

For a long time, Spike Lee has had his finger on the pulse of America. In 1992, he screened Malcolm X for studio execs on the same day that four white cops who brutally beat unarmed Black construction worker Rodney King were acquitted of assault. Two years ago, he ended BlacKkKlansman with footage of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which saw a white supremacist murder peaceful counter-protester Heather Heyer. Fast-forward to 2020, and the 63-year-old filmmaker is up to his usual tricks again. Vietnam War thriller Da 5 Bloods, arriving on Netflix in the midst of historic anti-racism protests, is yet another history lesson wrapped up in an adventure.

When NME asks Lee – speaking via Zoom from his New York apartment – about his premonitory powers, he pauses, before pointing a finger to the ceiling. “I had nothing to do with it,” he says. “It’s the spirit. It’s kismet [fate]. Call it what you will – it’s out of my control. But I’m not complaining.”

“The very first scene we shot was the Black Lives Matter scene… We didn’t just scramble after all of this kicked off”

By luck or design, Lee’s latest is one of his best. Opening with famous speeches from Muhammad Ali and closing on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – two Black icons who opposed the Vietnam War – Lee makes clear his views on a conflict which claimed 7,243 African American lives. Set many decades after the war ended, Da 5 Bloods focuses on four Black veterans – cool-headed Otis (Clarke Peters), warmhearted Eddie (Norm Lewis), witty Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and tormented Paul (Delroy Lindo) – who return to Vietnam in search of the remains of their fallen leader, Stormin’ Norman (played in flashbacks by Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman). That’s what they tell people, anyway. There’s also the matter of some gold bars they stashed on the battlefield…

Part war movie, part heist, part buddy comedy, part documentary, Da 5 Bloods is a rich tapestry that only Lee could thread together. “It’s not until the editing that you put all those ingredients into the pot”, he says. “And then once you get the ingredients in the pot, that’s when you turn the stove on, and that’s when it starts to cook.”

Spike Lee
Credit: Jason Bell

Lee has been stirring that creative pot for 34 years – ever since he burst onto the scene in 1986 with She’s Gotta Have It. Universally acclaimed hits like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X followed, but less-talked-about films such as School Daze, He Got Game, and Inside Man showcased Lee’s ability to nail any genre. Last year, BlacKkKlansman became his first title to win an Oscar, but Spike didn’t take much time to celebrate. He was back to work the next day, on a plane bound for Thailand to shoot Da 5 Bloods.

It’s a rare war movie because it’s told from the Black perspective, but that wasn’t always meant to be the case. The original script focused on four white soldiers looking for buried treasure and was set to be directed by Oliver Stone (Platoon, Natural Born Killers). However, once Lee and regular co-writer Kevin Wilmott came on board they made the main characters African American and altered the story. The result is an indictment of America’s treatment of Black people but also a searing critique of US military interventionism which aims to correct films that celebrate white heroes like Rambo. In one scene, the Bloods slam Sly Stallone’s violent exploits as propaganda in which the “Holly-weird [people] try to go back and win the Vietnam War.”

Da 5 Bloods
‘Da 5 Bloods’ is Spike Lee’s 31st feature-length film. Credit: Netflix

It helps that the shared brotherhood between our four protagonists is immediately and powerfully felt. Filming in Thailand and Ho Chi Minh City, the stars “had a lot of fun together”, says Whitlock Jr. “We had time [in Thailand] before we started shooting to get to know one another, and we all pretty much got along and just took that right into the film”.

Part of that connection meant learning several different “daps”, a gesture that was originated by Black G.I.s during the war. More than just an expression of cultural unity, certain daps could also tell you where men had served. “There were about four or five different daps”, says Whitlock Jr. “We really had to learn it because we didn’t want somebody to see it and say, ‘No, you got it wrong!’ You never knew when Spike was gonna spring it on us and say ‘I wanna put the dap in here.’ Working with Spike, you always gotta be ready.”

“Working with Spike, you always gotta be ready”
– Isiah Whitlock Jr.

Working with Spike is also something that Lindo is familiar with: “There’s this trust that he has in me as a fellow creative worker and collaborator”, he says. “That goes all the way back to Malcolm X”. Lindo would go on to have major roles in two other Lee films that decade – Crooklyn and Clockers – but would have to wait 25 years to get another call. When it finally arrived, the ex-soldier Spike had in mind for him came with one big caveat – he was a proud, MAGA hat-wearing Trump supporter. “I remember saying to Spike, ‘Hey man, I’m a father!” remembers Lindo. “I don’t want my son to see me do this.”

At first glance, a Black person playing a Trump supporter in a Spike Lee film seems odd. Few filmmakers have been as outspoken against America’s 45th president as Lee, and there are multiple shots fired at the White House’s current occupant during the movie (at one point, Trump is captioned as President Fake Bone Spurs). But Lee is also keenly aware that Black people are not a monolith – in fact, 8% of Black American voters gave Trump their support at the 2016 presidential election. Luckily, after rereading the script two more times, Lindo agreed: “I was able to create a narrative inside of me that would result in Paul casting that vote back in 2016. He is a Shakespearean, tragic character. Once I had made that internal adjustment for myself, I was ready to dive in and do the work”. It’s a good thing too – Lindo’s visceral turn as a veteran still wrestling with decades-old trauma is a career best, and there are already calls for him to win an Oscar.

Da 5 Bloods
(L-R) Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters, Delroy Lindo and Jonathan Majors in Spike Lee’s ‘Da 5 Bloods’. Credit: Netflix

As brilliant as Da 5 Bloods’ cast is, there’s an equally important emphasis on music. Backed up by another rousing score from long-time collaborator Terence Blanchard (BlacKkKlansman), Lee makes use of Marvin Gaye’s classic 1971 track ‘What’s Going On’, albeit in a haunting, stripped-back format. “I just have an ability to know and understand the power of music with images”, Lee says. “Think about that great scene in Malcolm X [which uses] Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ when Malcolm is [about to be assassinated]. Think about that great scene in Jungle Fever, using Stevie Wonder’s song ‘Living for the City’ as Wesley Snipes’ character goes into the Taj Mahal to find his crackhead brother, brilliantly played by my Moorhouse [College] brother Samuel L. Jackson. I can go on and on.”

Indeed, there’s much about Da 5 Bloods that’s vintage Spike Lee, but the lead up to the movie’s release has been anything but. First, COVID-19 prevented the film from premiering at Cannes, where he would have been the first Black person to head up the festival jury. For a film with so many cinematic flourishes, it’s a shame fans can’t see Lee’s Netflix epic on the big screen.

“I think cinemas and streaming can coexist”

Still, the filmmaker has been enjoying Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance (on Netflix outside of the US) while in lockdown – “I told MJ I liked it very much and he said to me: ‘Thank God it’s over!’” – and has nothing but good things to say about his partnership with the streaming giant. “I’ve never been of the mindset that it has to be either [theatrical] or [streaming]. I think both can coexist”, Lee says. “A lot of the studios that don’t have access to streaming… they’re scrambling right now. Summer films cost so much that they can’t make their money back by streaming and also put them out theatrically when theatres are saying they’re only going to be at 20% [seating] capacity. It’s dicey.”

Of course, the other major incident to have preceded Da 5 Bloods’ release is the murder of unarmed Black man George Floyd at the hands of the police. Racism is a pandemic that’s been part of our lives for much longer than three months, and America’s sordid relationship with Black people – a history which Lee has spent his career highlighting – is something the filmmaker is continuing to document in his newer projects. In fact, the Atlanta native recently released a short film on social media called 3 Brothers. In it, he powerfully connects the deaths of Radio Raheem from Do The Right Thing, George Floyd and Eric Garner, who died after an NYPD cop put him in a chokehold.

For the most part though, Lee’s films aren’t made in response to specific news stories. Often, they strike a chord on a particular topic even though the script was written long before the thing actually happened. Da 5 Bloods is a perfect example. “The very first scene we shot in March 2019 was the Black Lives Matter scene [in the film’s final moments]”, Lee recalls. “We didn’t just scramble and do it after all of this kicked off.” In BlacKkKlansman, Spike chose to add the Heather Heyer clip at the end, but the idea of a George Floyd coda in Da 5 Bloods never crossed his mind. “People on the streets… they don’t need that,” he says. “People have already made the connection. It would have been a disservice to his family. That would’ve been very disrespectful and the wrong thing to do.”

This time, the reaction to the injustice feels different. Lee has been waking up audiences for decades now – and with Black Lives Matter protests raging worldwide, it seems like more people than ever have stopped hitting the snooze button. “Look at what’s happening in London. You guys are tearing down the statues of slave traders,” says Lee, referring to recently toppled monuments such as that of Edward Colston in Bristol. “People marching in Madrid, Barcelona, Copenhagen, South Korea, Helsinki, all over the United States… this is a movement.”

“People are marching all over the world… this is a movement”

Whether or not real change is finally on the horizon, it’s a safe bet that Lee will continue to make vital and relevant work in the years to come. He is the right man – and the right filmmaker – for the right time. “This is my path in life, so I’m not gonna run from it,” he says. “I’m just gonna speak the power of the truth, and continue to tell our stories.”

‘Da 5 Bloods’ is available to stream on Netflix now