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How a War Never Ends: Spike Lee Fights the Old New Fight in Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods (photo: David Lee/Netflix © 2020)

In the opening montage of the new Spike Lee Joint, Da 5 Bloods, Neil Armstrong—sporting his white A7-L spacesuit, Old Glory patch on the left shoulder—descends from Apollo 11’s lunar module, cast into relief by the black shadow of the spacecraft on the moon. From there, Lee cuts to a black-and-white photo of Reverend Ralph Abernathy protesting the Apollo 11 launch on the steps of a lunar module mockup with a sign that reads: “$12 a day to feed an astronaut. We could feed a starving child for $8.” Not shown in the film: the 500 or so predominantly Black protestors at the site and the two mules and wooden wagon they brought to contrast with the gleaming white Saturn V. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”: a ballistic flight with an American flag planted 240,000 miles away from troubles at home.

During the draft, African Americans comprised 11 percent of the U.S. population but made up 32 percent of the troops deployed in Vietnam. Following the news of King’s assassination and the ensuing Holy Week Uprisings “a new Black soldier had appeared,” wrote Wallace Terry in Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans. More militant and fury-filled than their predecessors, trapped in a White man’s war far from their fight at home, they called themselves “Bloods.” Upon their return, there was no welcome home parade; instead, they were subject to violent harassment from the public. Because demobilization was staggered, servicemen returned alone, not with their military units. The nation was divided. Benefits from the G.I. Bill helped White veterans, but its potential was carefully sealed off from G.I.s of color. The promise of recompense for serving one’s nation was only an illusion for Black soldiers, just as the 40 acres and a mule (also the name of Lee’s production company since She’s Gotta Have It) issued to them after the Civil War in the spring of 1865 were reneged on in the fall by Andrew Johnson, and the land returned to its pre-war owners.

Lee maintains that history repeats itself—a history of repeated oppression but also a history of relentless Black heroism. In Da 5 Bloods, he cuts between five Black G.I.s in the jungles of Vietnam and the four who remain alive in the present day. Their squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), was killed in action protecting the precious payload—payroll for the native Lahu people’s help against the Viet Cong—of a crashed C-47 CIA plane. Some 40 years later, the old vets return to Ho Chi Minh City to retrieve their mentor’s bones and the stash of gold bars they had retrieved from the crash site and buried for themselves. Before Norman died, he convinced his Bloods that the gold was not for the Lahus but for Black liberation. These were the reparations owed them, and they wouldn’t come any other way than falling from the sky. But the Bloods have different ideas about what using the gold for Black liberation means. In the present, MAGA cap–sporting Paul (Delroy Lindo) and obstinate Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) think it means keeping it for themselves. Conversely, Otis (Clarke Peters) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) believe they should donate it directly to the cause, assuming they make it back through thickets of “wait a minute” vines and whatever deadly surprises may await them.

Every Spike Lee joint is a rare opportunity for a Black master filmmaker to correct years of onscreen historical distortion, misrepresentation and underrepresentation. There’s a lot of catching up to do, so Lee packs each film full of ideas, styles and experiences that have never been recorded and that stretch the barriers of the form. Da 5 Bloods has narrative footage in four different aspect ratios (if you count the occasional Super 8mm that Eddie shoots), shot in digital, Super 8, Super 16mm and even Super 35mm film, depending on the period, playing beside archival footage and stills, sometimes superimposing documentary over fiction and Marvin Gaye playing alongside Terence Blanchard’s original score. Never have Lee’s documentary techniques pervaded his narrative so directly or his “then” sit so uncomfortably close to his “now.” 

Just hours after our interview, news would break that George Floyd was murdered by the White Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Floyd would cry out, “I can’t breathe,” repeatedly as Chauvin kneeled into his windpipe, six years after Eric Garner uttered the same phrase 11 times, was ignored and smothered until he died on camera. “I can’t breathe” now circulates as a rally cry across the internet and in nationwide and international protests urging justice for Floyd and the officer’s conviction. That’s so that the same Black cries ignored in the past as well as today might finally be heard—the worst of history repeating itself again alongside the best of the Black community’s ability to pull strength, light and reform from the iniquities of institutionalized racism.

(“I dedicate this next record to the soul brother” Emmet Hunt, who served two tours in Vietnam—one in the First Special Forces Group B Company from 1962 to 1963 in Pleiku, South Vietnam, and the second among the 51st Air Commandos from 1966 to 1967—who had it too hard there and upon his return to have turned out so good, and who I always have and will only call “Grandaddy.”)

Spike dials in. “Calling from the epicenter!”

Filmmaker: I want to say, right off the bat, that I’m grateful for this film. My grandaddy is a Black Vietnam War veteran; he served in the Special Forces, Air Force. I think the importance of a Black Vietnam War movie finally being made after almost 50 years, in the way it has been made, should not be underestimated. 

Lee: Thank you very much. Special Forces! Is your grandfather still with us?

Filmmaker: Alive and well.

Lee: Well, tell your grandfather I salute him the day after Memorial Day. Now, let me ask you a question. Did you grow up with your grandfather talking about Vietnam, or did he never talk about it?

Filmmaker: He didn’t talk about it.

Lee: I think that’s often the case, not just with the Vietnam War but wars in general: The guys who come back, they don’t talk about it. They saw too much.

Filmmaker: I showed him the trailer to Da 5 Bloods and—

Lee: You showed him the trailer to Da 5 Bloods?! What’d he say? Is he gonna see it?

Filmmaker: It brought back a lot of memories. I know he’d say, “I don’t need to see it, I lived it,” if I asked him, which I understand and respect. But I do think Stormin’ Norman’s guidance of the Bloods, stemming from his grasp of Black history—which vets like my grandfather didn’t have—is something Black Vietnam War veterans will find some relief in. He’s the kind of Black leader real veterans probably wish they had when they served—a real movie hero. There’s something about him existing on screen beside footage and stills of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Kwame Ture, Angela Davis, etc., that feels curative. Do you think the cultural importance of a fictional movie hero is distinct from the inspiration of our real-life ones?

Lee: There’s that saying that “History is written by the victors.” Far too often our stories are not being told, so why would our representation in war films be any different? Chadwick’s character Stormin’ Norman even tells the guys that the first person who ever died for this country was Crispus Attucks. We’ve been fightin’ and dyin’ and bein’ heroic from the get-go! From the get! [laughs] But how often do we see depictions of those people in films and television? One of the gratifying things to me about this whole process was that after we came from shooting in the jungle in Thailand and Vietnam, we had four screenings for Black Vietnam vets. These guys are middle-aged now, but when they went to ’Nam they were 16, 18 years old, real young. They went as bored young men and came back changed forever. Every one of those brothers, every one of those Bloods gave me a big hug with tears and laughter and said, “Thank you for making this film.” And the smart guys would say, “Goddamn, Spike, what took you so fuckin’ long?” [laughs] But I understood that they were saying it out of love. It’s all love. I made this film for them! And that’s not to exclude anyone else, but if you weigh the content, the number of films that have been made about Vietnam, I don’t think we’ve seen this story. And, right now, I’m not makin’ any films that have been done before. There are two homages to Apocalypse Now in this film, though.

Filmmaker: Your documentary elements—archival footage and stills—are becoming more prevalent and interacting more directly with the fiction, or the narrative, in your films.

Lee: Well, I made documentary films. I think it’s that other documentary brain I have, and my brain is not set up with barriers. I like to say, and this is a new phrase that’s been coming up in interviews: A Spike Lee Joint, now, is like gumbo—without red meat or pork, ’cuz I don’t eat that. [laughs] I’m putting all this stuff in there: It’s a cross between N’awlins and Da People’s Republic of Brooklyn gumbo. You got narrative, documentary; you got the source music; you got Marvin Gaye, Terence Blanchard’s magnificent score; the actors; Tom Sigel’s cinematography; Wynn Thomas, the production designer. It’s a gumbo! And Wynn was the production designer for She’s Gotta Have It, so we’re going way back! 

Filmmaker: I have to bring up the fact that when Crooklyn came out, movie theaters had to put signs up to explain that the unsqueezed anamorphic footage for those scenes in the south was not a projection mistake.   

Lee: [laughs] Black people were mad at me! What the hell is Spike doin’? They were bangin’ on the projector’s booth like, “What the fuck is this?”

Filmmaker: You’ve always managed to break rules like that in the studio system. 

Lee: I know you know the battle [to get] Malcolm X made. For decades, it has not been all smooth sailin’. But we had a great relationship with Netflix, and I thank them for doing it because every other studio we gave the script to didn’t wanna do it. 

Filmmaker: As you’re bringing in history that’s new to the screen, you’re also bringing new language to it—rewriting it? 

Lee: I don’t know about rewriting, but I’m just doing my thing, man. When I went to NYU with my fellow classmates Ernest Dickerson and Ang Lee, all I really wanted was the equipment. The faculty helped me use a light meter and this and that, but as far as telling a story, that was on me. Even today, as I teach at NYU, I tell the students, “Just because I stand in front of you and tell you how I did something doesn’t mean it’s going to be right for you. ’Well, I heard you can’t do this and you can’t do that.’ Who told you that? Where are these laws from the bible of cinema that say you can’t do X, Y and Z? It’s the execution of X, Y and Z that matters.” So, I never tried to put handcuffs on myself or a straitjacket as far as my creativity or as far as form goes. Mix that shit up! 

Filmmaker: I’ll tiptoe spoilers, but I wanted to talk about when you cut to a still of Milton Olive [the first Black Medal of Honor recipient of the Vietnam War] and later—

Lee: Spoilers! No! Ask another question.

Filmmaker: OK, I’ll avoid them. Historic heroes alluded to in the film, like Olive and Edwin Moses [gold medal–winning track and field Olympian and reformer of Olympic eligibility and drug testing], pave the way for the fictional, present tense heroes, bridging your fiction and non-fiction elements in the process.

Lee: I was not a very studious student, but history was one of my favorite subjects, and that was in elementary school. So, I don’t find it surprising that I’ve taken that interest in history into a lot of my films. 

Filmmaker: Is it difficult to gather archival footage like this? What is that process like? Is that an advantage of having Netflix money?

Lee: No, that has nothing to do with budget. When you think of the Vietnam War, you know it’s rich with archival footage, photographs, books, picture books. We did a lot of research. We especially looked at the Wallace Terry book, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans. 

Filmmaker: There’s a scene near the end of 4 Little Girls that describes a symbolic war. The Ku Klux Klan burned crosses to suggest the 16th Street Baptist church was the first of more to come. The riposte became to build churches stronger and faster. The damage of symbolic attacks like these, or when (as he’s called in Da 5 Bloods) President Fake Bone Spurs refuses to unveil Obama’s portrait in the White House, breaking a 40-year tradition, might be underestimated. It wasn’t treated as big news. Similarly, people might underestimate the damage caused by the misrepresentation of the Vietnam War in films and other mediums. Da 5 Bloods feels like a rebuttal to a lot of unchallenged attacks on the right side of history.

Lee: For the most part, I feel, for my films to be more effective, if I can place them some way somehow in the present, in a way that doesn’t just make them a total period piece, it becomes easier to connect the same shit that was being done then that’s being done now. “Make America Great Again”: President Agent Orange did not come up with that phrase. “Keep America great”: the Klan was saying that way back. 

Filmmaker: I love the Hanoi Hannah “Black G.I.” sequence 

Lee: Did you know she really existed?

Filmmaker: I recognized some of her real lines here. Was this from one of her actual broadcasts?

Lee: Most of that is from an actual broadcast. It’s on YouTube. Look it up! But also, I did a film called Miracle at St. Anna, and we had Axis Sally in that. She was on the radio for Nazi Germany, and then, for the same war but in the South Pacific you had Tokyo Rose [what Allied Troops called any female, English-speaking radio broadcaster of Japanese propaganda]. 

Filmmaker: You give the power of your signature double dolly to Otis and his half Black, half Vietnamese daughter Michon, bringing power to what they represent.

Lee: I don’t want to explain that. I like to talk and engage, but some things I’d rather audiences figure out for themselves.

Filmmaker: What was it like shooting Thailand as Vietnam?

Lee: We shot the bulk of the film in Thailand and finished in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Language was not a problem. I don’t speak Thai or Vietnamese, but the crews were amazing. I had been to Japan, but I hadn’t been anywhere else in Asia. When I got to Bangkok, my department heads had been there three to four weeks ahead of time, so as soon I landed, no pun intended, I hit the ground running. We had to finish before the monsoon season came, so we shot six-day weeks in this jungle, where it was almost 100 degrees every day, to do what we had to do. 

Filmmaker: I’m a fan of the sort of legendary Thai gaffer you had on Da 5 Bloods, Chesda “Pop” Smithsuth [who gaffs nearly every Hollywood production that comes through Thailand].

Lee: Oh, he’s great! 

Filmmaker: But I thought it was ironic that he’d worked on all of these Vietnam War movies from the past like Rambo [which Da 5 Bloods explicitly calls out as an example of “Hollyweird’s” distortion of the Vietnam War]—

Lee: He worked on Rambo!? 

Filmmaker: Yeah.

Lee: I didn’t know that!

Filmmaker: Maybe he’s made amends now.

Lee: Nah, Pop was the man! He was doing his thing.

Filmmaker: You reworked this from a script that was originally written for white characters.

Lee: It was written by Danny Bilson and the late Paul De Meo. They wrote a great script, but my writer Kevin Willmott and I decided it was not up to snuff. They laid down the foundation, came up with the treasure of the Sierra Madre, but we decided we were going to make this about Black Vietnam vets. It was a great script. In fact, Oliver Stone had it for two years, but something happened and they didn’t do it. 

Filmmaker: Were you always going to shoot the Vietnam War sequences with the same cast who plays the Bloods in the present day without making them look younger? 

Lee: I always knew I was going to do that. I knew, number one, that this was going to be a very hard film to make, that we had a limited budget and that we weren’t going to get a hundred million dollars from anybody to do [de-aging] visual effects. And I don’t really like when people get younger versions of the actors. For me, it’s always obvious that there’s somebody else playing the other guy. I also believe the audience is very intelligent and that they’ll understand what we did. I know that’s the case.

Filmmaker: You’re shooting in three different aspect ratios and a medley of formats.

Lee: Newton Thomas Sigel and I both saw the Vietnam War televised in our homes and that footage was shot on Super 16mm. So, we felt that it would be dope to make the Vietnam War look how it did on our TVs. We got Super 16, we got Super 8, archival footage, photos, a whole mix.

Filmmaker: A gumbo.

Lee: If it works, it works. 

Filmmaker: In Kathleen Collins’s 1982 film Losing Ground, a Black painter named Victor [Bill Gunn, whose script for Ganja & Hess was the basis for Lee’s Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus] visits his friend, a White painter, in his studio. His friend paints an abstract free of allusions and Victor, envious, wishes he could relieve his own paintings from the burden of reference. He can’t separate his art from the weight of Black history and experience. But that burden is embraced in Da 5 Bloods. Is it superfluous to make films without it?

Lee: I’m not going to make any broad statements like that, sir. It depends on who the filmmaker is and what the subject matter is. Speaking for myself, I base my subject matter on the truth. The truth has been the experience of living in this country, which we built. Fast forward to 2020, the brother Ahmaud Arbery is shot down jogging by two guys right out of Deliverance, Georgia crackers. And then they arrested the guy that did the videotape.

Filmmaker: That’s all of our time.

Lee: Hey, you keep it safe over there in Bushwick, all right? And please, give my regards to your grandfather.

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