Spike Lee hopes 'Da 5 Bloods' sparks conversations around 'post-slavery stress syndrome'

Leonie Wagner talks to the acclaimed director about family, racism and his latest film, which highlights the role of African-American soldiers in the Vietnam War

07 June 2020 - 00:13 By Leonie Wagner
Acclaimed film director Spike Lee.
Acclaimed film director Spike Lee.
Image: Getty Images/Christopher Pearce/Fairfax Media

It's mid-morning in New York and Spike Lee is calling from his Upper East Side home, where he's been in quarantine since March. Lee, 63, has a lot to talk about, and though we get cut off a few times, no second-rate cellphone network can stop him.

In the week that we speak, the peerless filmmaker is celebrating the 30th anniversary of his third feature film, Do the Right Thing. This month he also releases his latest "Spike Lee joint" (as his films are typically known) on Netflix, Da 5 Bloods. It's a Netflix original that highlights the role of African-American soldiers in the Vietnam War. Four African-American war veterans travel back to Vietnam to retrieve the remains of their squad leader and bring home buried treasure.

"I wasn't a very studious student but one of my favourite subjects was history. Growing up, I'd watch World War 2 films on television with my brother Chris," says Lee. "We loved those films. My father would tell us that black folks also fought in World War 2."

A motivating factor for making the film was to pay tribute to his uncles and to the many other black American soldiers who fought in the war. With a fascination for war stories, Lee recalls how he was glued to the evening news as a 10-year-old, watching updates on the Vietnam War.

With his latest film he also pays homage to key black American figures, whose stories are carefully woven into the film using cutaways from historical moments — people like Aretha Franklin, Dr Martin Luther King jnr, Muhammad Ali, Milton Olive III (the first African-American to be awarded the Purple Heart in Vietnam) and Crispus Attucks (the first American killed in the American Revolution).

WATCH | 'Da 5 Bloods' trailer.

"There are a lot of people who don't know about the Vietnam War. They don't know about how horrible it was, or that black people fought in that war. Also, there are people who fought in that war who are still alive. This is going to be a remembrance piece, whether they were there fighting, or whether they lost loved ones during the Vietnam War. They'll get it both ways," says Lee.

The war drama is deeply profound, effortlessly switching between heartbreak, horror and humour. This is a signature trait of a "Spike Lee joint", which he says he's carefully developed over nearly four decades of making films. But it was only with Do The Right Thing that Lee says he started coming into his own as a filmmaker.

His first offering, She's Gotta Have It (1986), was an 84-minute black and white film made on a shoestring budget, largely funded with seed money from his grandmother. Two years later, he gave the world School Daze (1988), but it was his third film that would be pivotal. "With Do The Right Thing I was more comfortable dealing with actors than with my first films so my confidence grew a lot," says Lee.

The film was snubbed by the Academy Awards in 1990 even though it had cost $6.5m to make and raked in over $37m across box offices worldwide. It was nominated for best supporting actor and best original screenplay but won neither. The losses at the Academy Awards taught Lee an important lesson about valuing his own work. He made a vow to himself not to let critics determine its value.

Thirty years later, he won his first Academy Award for BlacKkKlansman. The film was nominated for six awards and won for best adapted screenplay. Lee accepted the award in a purple suit and matching purple glasses and thanked his gran for her support. Her savings had put him through college as well as funding his first film.

His love of film came from his mother, an art and black literature teacher. His father, a jazz musician and composer, was more into sports. As the eldest of four children, Lee, who was nicknamed "Spike" by his mom, spent a lot of time with her and her love for film rubbed off on him.

"Sometimes we forget that there were people in our lives who had a great impact on how we turned out, for good, indifferent or bad. I wouldn't be who I am without my parents. My mother was a cinephile and my father hated movies. Since I was the eldest, I was my mother's movie date," says Lee.

Those movie dates paid off. This year, Lee became the first African-American to head the Cannes Film Festival jury in its 73-year history. He's had many career highlights, including filming all over the world. He filmed Da 5 Bloods in Thailand and Vietnam, his first trip to these countries. But, he says, nothing compares to his trip to SA.

"One of my most joyous moments ever was when I came back to the motherland and filmed the final sequence of Malcolm X with the great Nelson Mandela. It's a highlight of my life," he says.

Like many of his favourite activities, the Cannes festival has been postponed. The long-time New York Knicks fan has also had to contend with not being able to sit courtside at basketball games. But the restrictions on daily life haven't stopped him from doing what he does best. He recently created a short film titled New York New York. The emotional three-minute film is a "love letter" to the city, with Frank Sinatra's classic song as the soundtrack.

Finding the balance between art and politics is tricky. You’re on a
tightrope and you find the balance in the editing room
Spike Lee

Lee prides himself on his use of nuanced characters to create drama that resonates with a variety of people, and he references the past as effortlessly as he channels the Zeitgeist. He is openly critical of US President Donald Trump, a topic that comes up in our interview and in the film. Aside from Twitter wars with Trump, Lee says finding the balance between art and politics is tricky.

"You're on a tightrope and you find the balance in the editing room," says Lee. "The juxtaposition of humour and serious subject matter is another delicate balancing act. You have to have different characters that don't agree. It's boring if there's no conflict. It's more dramatic to have conversations between people with different views."

Lee also tackles mental health and the stigma attached to seeking help in the black community. With Da 5 Bloods he wants to start conversations around what he calls "post-slavery stress syndrome", which he believes many black people suffer from.

But for Lee, the internal war facing black people around the world is nothing compared to the daily war many still face today. He cites the example of the gunning down of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery while he was jogging in Brunswick, Georgia, in February.

"We're at war right here," says Lee. "Black men and women are still being shot down in the streets for jogging. We don't need to go back to Vietnam to deal with the racism that's still rampant."

'Da 5 Bloods' is directed by Lee, who co-wrote it with Kevin Willmott, Danny Bilson and Paul de Meo. It releases on Netflix on June 12.