As his 25th feature premieres June 12, the never-shy director takes on studio rejections, Trump (aka "Agent Orange") and Black voters: “We don't all think alike."
On May 31, as protests over police violence roiled nationwide, Spike Lee released a 94-second movie called 3 Brothers on his social media feeds. The short film intercuts disturbing footage of three Black men who died after being choked by police — George Floyd, Eric Garner and Radio Raheem, the fictional, boombox-toting Brooklynite played by Bill Nunn in Lee's Oscar-nominated 1989 film, Do the Right Thing. "Will History Stop Repeating Itself?" reads a title card.
That's a question the 63-year-old writer-director has been puzzling over for much of his 40-year filmmaking career. Lee tackles the question anew in his latest movie, Da 5 Bloods, a genre-straddling tale of four Black Vietnam veterans (Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who return to their old battle site decades later to retrieve their squad leader's remains and a buried treasure (the fifth blood is the dead comrade, played in flashback sequences by Chadwick Boseman). Da 5 Bloods, which premieres June 12 on Netflix, interweaves news footage of the war and civil unrest in the U.S. during the Vietnam era with the men's contemporary journey. Once again, Lee has made a movie that meets the moment.
"That war had America divided," Lee says, speaking from the Fort Greene, Brooklyn, office of his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, on May 21, four days before Floyd's death. Despite having spent 10 weeks in seclusion at home in Manhattan with his wife, Tonya Lewis, at the time of the interview, Lee was his usual, politically blunt, verbally adroit self. "You can fast-forward to today, and we still see this divisiveness. That's the biggest parallel. Another: People lie. LBJ, Tricky Dick, the Pentagon, Kissinger, all those people lied to the American public. And today we got this guy in the White House, Agent Orange … who is doing the same thing. Lies, bald-faced lies. I mean, it's amazing to see this stuff on CNN, where with your own eyes, you could see him say something, and then a day later, he says he never said this bullshit he said."
By June 1, Lee himself was on CNN, talking with Don Lemon. "How can people not understand why people are reacting the way they are?" Lee said of the protests and unrest that by then had spread to at least 75 cities throughout the U.S. "This is history again and again and again. This is not new. We saw it with the riots in the '60s, with the assassination of Dr. King. … People are reacting the way they feel they have to, to be heard. … People are fed up, and people are tired of the debasing, the killing of Black bodies. And now we have cameras. But the attack on Black bodies has been here from the get-go."
Da 5 Bloods began as a film about white men. In 2017, as Lee was preparing to shoot BlacKkKlansman, his Oscar-winning true-life tale of a Black police detective who infiltrates the KKK, producer Lloyd Levin contacted him with a spec script by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo called The Last Tour, about four aging white vets who were heading back to Vietnam. Oliver Stone had been attached to direct and had moved on; when Levin read in an interview that Lee's favorite film is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Huston's 1948 adventure about men driven mad while prospecting for gold, he thought Lee would appreciate similar elements in The Last Tour, in which the vets are crazily searching for a treasure from the war. Lee liked the premise, and he and his co-writer, Kevin Willmott, rewrote the script for Black soldiers. "We flipped it," Lee says. "Put our flavor on it, some barbecue sauce, some funk, some Marvin Gaye. And there you have it."
Among their flourishes was to make one of the vets, a PTSD sufferer played by Delroy Lindo, a MAGA hat-wearer who is among the 8 percent of African Americans who voted for Trump. "As my late mother told me very early on, 'Spikey, Black people are not one monolithic group,' " Lee says. "We don't all look alike, think alike, et cetera. And so, even though these guys form a bond in Vietnam, they still went their merry ways, different paths in life. This is the first time they're getting back together since they left 'Nam. So what could be more extreme than having one of these characters be an Agent Orange supporter? And there is a very, very small percentage of Negroes who did vote for Agent Orange. Negroes, that's spelled K-N-E-E hyphen G-R-O-W-S."
Jonathan Majors, who plays the son of Lindo's character in Da 5 Bloods, draws a straight line from the present protest movement to Lee's latest feature. "This film is for now," Majors says. "It hits on things that have always been around." But Lee and Willmott's spin on the script — part war epic, part buddy comedy, part quest for treasure, part social justice lesson — found no takers at traditional studios when it was shopped two years ago.
"We barely got this film made," Lee says. "We had gone to every studio, and they all turned it down. I've had many, many projects turned down, and in my history, they don't say they hate it, they just say, 'No, it's just not for us.' I'm in this game a long time. So when someone doesn't want to do it, I'm not going to say, 'But why? Why don't you want to make this film?' I just say, 'Thank you.' And keep stepping. Like Jay-Z. On to the next one. And that is why I've been able to amass a body of work. I'm not going to sit around and cry. Keep it moving." Though Lee is frank, "There was nowhere to go after Netflix."
It may seem surprising that the prolific director, now on his 25th feature, had trouble setting up Da 5 Bloods. His most recent film, Focus' BlacKkKlansman, was both a critical and a commercial success. Nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture and best director, the movie won Lee his first competitive Oscar, for best adapted screenplay (he won an honorary Oscar in 2015); made for $15 million, it grossed $96.4 million worldwide. But, like David Fincher, Alfonso Cuarón and Martin Scorsese — who made his most recent film for Netflix and will make his next for Apple — when Lee wanted to make a financially riskier project, it was ultimately a streaming service that was willing to back it.
Part of Lee's deal with Netflix was to include a theatrical release for the film, which the streamer views as an awards contender, although the release for Da 5 Bloods, along with every studio movie due this spring, was impacted by COVID-19. Lee also was to have helmed the jury of this year's canceled Cannes Film Festival — festival director Thierry Frémaux has invited him to fill the role next year instead.
"Look, I'm not complaining," Lee says. "On June 12, a new Spike Lee Joint will be streamed all across the world. And people are looking for content, going through that third month. So hopefully, God willing, lots of people will check it out." Asked if Netflix eventually will put Da 5 Bloods in theaters, Lee says: "I hope so, but me personally, I hope only when it's safe. There are theaters open now, but I would not go see a movie now. But I do hope that somewhere down the line, people could see this film on a big screen because going into it, the whole thing was, 'We have to make this film on an epic scale.' And I don't care how big your widescreen is at home. It's not bigger than a movie theater. Unless you got a big-ass house."
Lee shot on location in Thailand and Vietnam in spring 2019 with Oscar-winning cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, whom he chose for Sigel's experience shooting documentaries in Central American combat zones. One of Lee's more provocative filmmaking decisions is to shoot the flashback sequences with the 50- and 60- something actors appearing at their current ages, a choice born as much of practicality as art. "I knew we weren't going to get an additional $100 million-plus for the de-aging process," Lee says. "And prosthetics? Well, we were shooting in the jungle. It was 100 degrees every single day. That shit would've melted. We understood that these guys were going back in time, and they were seeing themselves as the age they were. I had confidence in the intelligence of the audience that after seeing for the first time, they'd get it quick, and it would not be a problem." Gatorade and potato chips kept cast and crew fueled and hydrated as they shot in the heat, often on the side of a mountain.
Many of the actors in Da 5 Bloods have worked with Lee before — Lindo in Malcolm X, Crooklyn and Clockers; Whitlock in She Hate Me, Red Hook Summer and BlacKkKlansman. But in casting one key role, Lee recruited a newcomer, The Last Black Man in San Francisco's Jonathan Majors, who plays Lindo's character's son, a millennial African American studies teacher who accompanies the men on their journey and grapples with his fraught relationship with his father. Majors' audition — if you could call it that — consisted of him watching some news clips Lee was assembling in his office. One piece, footage of the border wall in Texas, where Majors is from, brought the actor to tears. "Spike said, 'Oh, you like that, huh? You like that one,' " Majors says. "And I said, 'Yes. It's all right.' And then we stepped out, and the next thing he said was, 'Do you have a passport?' He asks me, do I know who Delroy Lindo is, and I was like, 'Yes, sir, I do, and yes, sir, I do have a passport.' And he said, 'OK, we shoot in Thailand.' And then he vanished." Lee returned with a book for Majors to read, Bloods, an oral history of Black veterans of Vietnam by Wallace Terry. "I had traveled from Harlem on my bicycle, about 14 miles," Majors says. "And then left Brooklyn with a job with Spike Lee." On set, Lee would call Majors "Morehouse," for the historically Black Atlanta college that both the actor's character and Lee himself attended.
Da 5 Bloods in many ways is an homage to Apocalypse Now, which Lee saw its opening day in 1979 at Hollywood's Cinerama Dome while interning at Columbia Pictures the summer between the year he graduated from Morehouse and the year he started film school at NYU. Lee's film uses a piece of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," Apocalypse Now's signature score moment, and one scene is set in a bar that's actually called Apocalypse Now. Another callout to the Francis Ford Coppola film ended up on the cutting-room floor — when the men are hanging out in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnamese surfers pass by and a character says, "I guess Charlie does surf." Lee also relies on the 1971 Marvin Gaye album What's Going On — which was told from the point of view of a Vietnam vet returning home to witness injustice — to establish the film's tone, weaving tracks from the album in with a score from his longtime composer, Terence Blanchard. Asked if rights to the seminal music were hard to procure, Lee says, "We got it done. Let's leave it like that."
Lee's filmography is rich with historical films that depict racism in a way that is infuriatingly current, including his 1992 Malcolm X biopic; his 2008 film about Black soldiers during World War II, Miracle at St. Anna; and his documentaries, such as 1997's 4 Little Girls, about the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, and 2006's When the Levees Broke, about Hurricane Katrina. Jon Kilik, who has been producing for Lee since Do the Right Thing, says the filmmaker's work always has been infused with a sense of urgency, including his long-standing commitment to hiring crews from underrepresented groups. "The movies that we've done always have both eyes wide open in terms of looking to incorporate the current situation," Kilik says. "We try to make movies about the present. It's something that Spike has always deeply cared about. What is happening now? What's happening now that we can reflect in front of the camera and what is happening now that we can help improve behind the camera? Spike is fearless and not only has the guts and courage to go forward and do it, he's not going to do it any other way." For Majors, who is 30, Malcolm X was the original Black superhero movie. "This is way before we had Black Panther or the Marvel movies," Majors says. "Very much like Malcolm X, now we'll see, in a summer where there are no superhero movies, we're giving them a superhero movie with this group of buds. With this group of soldiers. And you watch them grow. You see the turmoil they experienced as young men. And you see where they end up in adulthood."
Lee had finished making Da 5 Bloods by Christmas 2019 and had held four screenings for veterans of color in New York City when the pandemic set in. "Everyone was sharing their stories," Lee says of conversations after the screenings. "Their nightmares they've had, all these cats, all these beautiful Black and brown brothers were boys when they went to war, when they shipped halfway around the world. After the film, they said, 'Thanks, Spike. What took you so goddamn long? We were waiting on you to do this film.' They were not going to lie. If this wasn't up to snuff, these guys are going to tell me, like, 'We love you, Spike, but that's some bullshit.' They would tell me."
Own the Narrative: Spike Lee's Political Joints
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Exploring Brooklyn's racial tension, the film culminates in the murder of a Black man by police. Pundits opined that the film would spark riots. Instead, it ended up with two Oscar nominations and was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress.
Malcolm X (1992)
With Denzel Washington in an Oscar-nominated role as the activist, the biopic covered Malcolm X’s incarceration, conversion to Islam, marriage and assassination. The film drew connections between Malcolm X’s and Nelson Mandela’s anti-apartheid struggles.
4 Little Girls (1997)
Lee first wanted to make a scripted film about the 1963 murder of the four African American girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. After meeting with the families, he decided on an HBO documentary, which was nominated for an Oscar.
When the Levees Broke (2006)
Lee's HBO documentary about the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, based on news footage interspersed with interviews, showed that the disaster was compounded by government failures; it won three Emmys and a Peabody.
Based on the true story of a Black detective who infiltrates the KKK, the film ends with footage of the 2017 far right rally in Charlottesville and Trump's "very fine people on both sides" comments. Nominated for six Oscars, it won Lee his first competitive Oscar for screenplay.
This story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.