The art created by Spike Lee cannot be described using a single word. Neither can the man. He is a film maker who is aptly able to transcend history as he freely unhinges himself as an artist.
If it ever comes up that you were privileged enough to have had a conversation with one of Hollywood’s biggest enigmas, then questions about the experience of the man soon follow.
While it’s difficult to answer or to describe one’s encounter with a person who is surprisingly thoughtful and brutally honest as an interviewee and perhaps burdened with the expectation that he wouldn’t be, the Oscar-winning director’s most “typical” attribute is that he’s attentive to the truth of each person having an encounter with him, be it with the man himself or by engaging with the characters in his film, and the moral dilemmas they face.
“For me, as a film maker, I love [to make the] audiences decide. To this day, people will stop me on the street and ask – and not just in New York City, all over the world – ‘Spike, who did the right thing?’ And I tell them, ‘You tell me.’”
His new work, a Netflix original Vietnam war film, Da 5 Bloods, is a unique look at the immortality of the Vietnam War.
One of the most powerful moments is watching the five young African-American soldiers listening to the radio in the jungle of Vietnam when they learn of the death of Martin Luther King Jr – not by a Viet Cong bullet but by a white racist’s rifle all the way outin Tennessee, US.
At the end of that broadcast, the enemy propagandist asks a piercing question of each of them. “Black American soldiers, what are you fighting for?”
About the limited stories told about the experience of black Vietnam soldiers – something the surviving Bloods talk about, too, Lee says: “African-Americans have fought for this country from the very beginning.
“I show Milton L Olive the third at 18 years old, the first African-American to be awarded the Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam. I show Crispus Attucks, the first American, not just a black person, the first American to die for the US in the Boston Massacre in the American Revolution.”
Co-written by Lee, Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo and Kevin Willmott, and directed by Lee, Da 5 Bloods will be released on the streaming platform on June 12. It is a testament to Lee’s – albeit not intentional this time – impeccable timing.
The visionary film maker has a special knack for understanding the cultural scene of the moment and then going on to produce a perfect moment in time.
During the interview, the name Ahmaud Arbery made global headlines after he was fatally shot – an unarmed black man attacked by two white men while jogging.
“What happened to my brother jogging in that small town in Georgia and got murdered – that’s wrong. And the fact that it took 10 weeks before that father and son were arrested, that’s just wrong. With black and brown people still being killed in this country while doing nothing but just living in the skin they were born in.”
Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) are four of Da 5 Bloods who survived the war and are returning to find the remains of their fallen squad leader Norman, played by Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman.
This film is a war drama, a treasure hunt and a grumpy old man’s comedy that takes you on a roller coaster ride, switching between despair, humour and horror in a heartbeat.
“War is brutal, but we were very careful on how we depicted the violence. We wanted it to be brutal but there’s a difference between showing what’s real and then gratuitous violence.”
Lee says Da 5 Bloods is in honour of the black Vietnam vets who have not had a film that has told their story. “I’m not saying there haven’t been black people in other war films – we have two great homages, one of them by my good friend Francis Coppola called Apocalypse Now.
“I had a very wonderful experience,” Lee says excitedly. “Before we locked the picture, I had four screenings for black Vietnam vets who are here in the Tristate area [New York, New Jersey and Connecticut]. They were very moved by the film. Crying, laughing; it brought back good and also bad memories for them.
“Every one told me, ‘Spike, we’ve been waiting for this film; Spike, thank you for doing this film.’ And these are older men now, but they were boys when they were drafted – 16 and 17 years old – sent halfway around the world to kill other brown people. It ended in a moral war.”
Throughout the film, images and music are used in the traditional Spike Lee documentary style.
“A definition of a Spike Lee joint is a pictorial and sound montage. In this film, we see archival footage and photos, different aspect ratios as far as the frame of the screen [is concerned], different types of music – it’s not just one thing. It’s not just a war film,” he says.
US President Donald Trump plays a background role in the film. Lindo’s character, the argumentative and domineering Paul, shocks his old friends when he reveals that he’s a supporter.
“This film talks about present-day issues. Number one … the president of the United States of America. Agent Orange. And one of the characters is an Agent Orange supporter.
“When Agent Orange talks about, ‘If you don’t like America, you can leave.’ We built this motherf**ker! I mean, we’ve been nothing but patriotic!
“I had to show some type of diversity among these African-American men. They can’t all be alike. To make him more dramatic, Paul is a MAGA-hat- [Make America Great Again] wearing motherf**ker.
“When soldiers came back from Vietnam there wasn’t a medical term for their mental state, and war affects people differently. In this film, Paul is the most affected. He’s a tragic, twisted character who is haunted by demons and ghosts.”
As the veterans reunite, all changed immeasurably, the question still remains: “Black American soldiers, what are you fighting for?”
Lee says: “We have to speak truth to power and understand that the struggle still continues. Did South Africans think once Nelson Mandela became president everything was going to be okay forever?
“When you have corrupt presidents and corrupt politicians who put money over people, people continue to suffer. When you have politicians and a president who says let’s open the country, let’s get the economy going against what all the scientists are saying – those are people who get on bended knee and pray before the altar of the almighty dollar.
“They put money before human beings, so if people got to die, that’s the price to do with business. And that’s very sad.”
- Da 5 Bloods releases globally on Netflix on June 12