From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject Spike Lee and the Battlefield of American History
Date May 27, 2020 12:00 AM
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[Spike Lee has spent nearly four decades and more than 30 films
reckoning with the jagged and brutal course of history. Now, in the
middle of a global calamity, and with a new film, “Da 5 Bloods", he
revisits the Vietnam War.] [[link removed]]

PORTSIDE CULTURE

SPIKE LEE AND THE BATTLEFIELD OF AMERICAN HISTORY  
[[link removed]]


 

Regie Ugwu
May 21, 2020
The New York Times
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_ Spike Lee has spent nearly four decades and more than 30 films
reckoning with the jagged and brutal course of history. Now, in the
middle of a global calamity, and with a new film, “Da 5 Bloods", he
revisits the Vietnam War. _

“It’s patriotic to speak out about the injustices in this
country,” he said., Andre D. Wagner for The New YorkTimes

 

It’s a funny thing, Zooming with Spike Lee
[[link removed]]. He’s remote,
confined within a box within a box on your computer screen, and yet
somehow undiminished.

Maybe it’s the look — the ball cap and the glasses — or maybe
it’s the way he looks at you. Lee has been staring directly into
cameras for more than 30 years. Think of his most famous characters
— Mars Blackmon [[link removed]], from
his 1986 feature “She’s Gotta Have It,” and a series of Nike
commercials with Michael Jordan; or Mookie from “Do the Right
Thing” [[link removed]] — and
they’re confronting you head-on. This is Lee’s preferred stance:
undaunted, in your face, eye-to-eye. And it works. Even on a
stuttering videoconference, the man is unmistakable.

He’s been isolating at his home on the Upper East Side since March,
when the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of New York City. His
only regular contact with the outside world comes via his bike — a
gift, custom-painted orange and blue in honor of his beloved New York
Knicks — which he rides alone for three to five miles each morning,
wearing a mask and helmet. At night, he has family dinners with his
wife, Tonya, and two children, Satchel and Jackson, just as the
neighbors begin cheering and banging pots and pans as part of citywide
tributes to beleaguered health care workers.

As a 63-year-old African-American, Lee is in a high-risk group for
mortality from the virus. Is he afraid? “Hell yeah, I’m afraid!”
he said, sitting on a sofa beneath an oversized, vintage poster for
the 1950 biopic “The Jackie Robinson Story
[[link removed]].” “That’s why
I’m keeping my black ass in the house!”

WITH HIS NEW FILM, THE PEERLESS AMERICAN FILMMAKER — SELF-ISOLATING
AND REFLECTIVE IN NEW YORK — UNSETTLES PAST AND PRESENT CONFLICTS.

This is Lee at a strange and singular moment in his career. He has
spent nearly four decades and more than 30 films reckoning with the
jagged and brutal course of history. Now, in the middle of a global
calamity, and with a new film, “Da 5 Bloods
[[link removed]],” that revisits the
Vietnam War, he is its witness once again — older, more
contemplative and as insatiable as ever, despite a legacy as solid as
exists in American cinema.

“The idea that the past is not just the past but has a connection to
today” is a consistent theme for Lee, said his co-writer, Kevin
Willmott.Credit...Andre D. Wagner for The New York Times

“The morning after I got the Oscar, I got on a plane and headed to
Thailand,” he said, referring to a shooting location for “Da 5
Bloods,” which will premiere June 12 on Netflix. Tonya brought home
the award — his first competitive Oscar win
[[link removed]],
in the best adapted screenplay category for “BlacKkKlansman
[[link removed]]” (2018) — where it
now sits in their library next to the honorary Oscar he received in
2015
[[link removed]].
“For me, it was right back to work.”

But lately, he has tended more than usual to think about the past,
ruminating on his early triumphs and bruising failures. In the early
days of the pandemic, Lee self-published the screenplay
[[link removed]] for
a dream project that never came to fruition — his own biopic about
Robinson that he had hoped would star Denzel Washington.

“When everything stops, you have a lot of time to think,” he said.
“Not getting that film made was one of my biggest
disappointments.”

One thing Lee’s not doing, though, is worrying about “returning to
normal.” And he has a lot he could return to. “Da 5 Bloods”
would be enjoying an advance theatrical run, if there were theaters to
screen it. The Yankees, his favorite baseball team, are benched until
at least July. And the Cannes Film Festival, where he launched his
career, and where he was to preside this year as the first black jury
head, has been canceled. (Lee will lead the jury in 2021 instead).

It’s not hard imagine a younger Lee, the guy who locked horns with
everyone from Reggie Miller
[[link removed]] to the membership of
the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, feeling anguished and
impatient about the interruptions. But the gravity of the pandemic has
put everything else into perspective. “I’m not sitting around
wishing for this or that,” he said. “People are losing their lives
to this thing, their loved ones. So I give thanks to God that I’m
alive and try to take things day by day.”

He is acutely aware that many people don’t have the luxury of
isolating as he has. A healthy majority of his films are set among the
working-class characters like the ones he grew up around in Brooklyn
— pizza delivery men, teachers and hairdressers of color — who he
has argued are as deserving of empathy and valorization as anyone
else. And he has been watching as they risk their lives for the
benefit of the rest of us.

“The people who are doing the dirty work — people in the grocery
store, the bodegas, the mailmen — cannot afford to stay home,” he
said. “They’re putting their lives in peril every day just to get
to work. My hope is that those who have looked down upon and dismissed
those people will change their thinking, because these are the people
who kept this thing going.”

As his own tribute to the essential workers of New York, Lee made a
short film, “New York, New York,” that premiered on CNN earlier
this month. Filmed over a month and using Frank Sinatra’s iconic
ballad of the same name as its soundtrack, the film captures the
city’s eerily empty landmarks. But it ends on an optimistic note:
hospital workers in personal protective gear who arrive like the
cavalry.

“There’s going to be great stories about this time — novels,
music, documentaries, poems, feature films, TV shows — it’s going
to be a cottage industry!” he said. “And hopefully people tell the
truth. There are plenty of real heroes,” he continued, adding,
“just tell the truth, and it will be captivating.”

If front-line workers are the heroes of this story, it’s clear who
Lee thinks is the villain. The director, an outspoken antagonist of
Donald J. Trump since the 1980s, lamented the president’s
“pathetic lack of leadership,” singling out his widely condemned
public musings on crackpot treatments for the virus.

“Telling people to use ultraviolet lights? Drinking bleach and
whatnot?” Lee said, leaning into a chuckle. He squinted, as if he
still couldn’t believe it himself. “People will go to the hospital
because they believe” that stuff, he said. “Get out of here with
that!”

Trump is a significant figure in “Da 5 Bloods,” an
action-adventure tale about four black veterans who return to Vietnam
more than 40 years after the war. A central character, Paul, played by
the longtime Lee collaborator Delroy Lindo, is an avowed Trump
supporter and spends much of the film in a red “Make America Great
Again” hat.

Though Paul’s vocal defense of the president may come as a surprise
to some, Lee has a long track record portraying complicated black
characters without sanitizing them. Exit polls show that while the
vast majority of black voters overall supported Hillary Clinton in the
2016 presidential election, 13 percent of black men supported Trump
[[link removed]].

“My mother taught me at an early age that black folks are not a
monolithic group,” Lee said. “In order to make the story dramatic,
I said, ‘What would be the most extreme thing we could do with one
of the characters?’”

“It was a problem for me at first,” admitted Lindo, who said Trump
was “anathema to everything that I believe in.” He continued, “I
tried to talk Spike out of it: ‘Can we just make him a
conservative?’ But I think there are some black people who are so
deeply disgruntled, because of very real disenfranchisement, that
they’re ready to believe someone like Trump might be able to help
them.”

The four veterans of the film — played by Lindo, Clarke Peters,
Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Norm Lewis — affectionately refer to one
another as “bloods,” a term used by their real-life counterparts
in the war. In a story that pays homage to “The Treasure of the
Sierra Madre” (1948), “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) and
“Apocalypse Now” (1979), the bloods are on a mission to recover
the body of their former squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick
Boseman), which is not incidentally buried near a secret treasure.

The drama that unfolds — among the men, and between the group and
their present-day Vietnamese rivals — is a modern parable about the
enduring depravations of war and the false promises of American
individualism.

"All of us, and humanity as a whole, have to learn to think about more
than just ourselves,” Lee said. “If the pandemic has shown us
anything, it’s that we’ve got to support one another. We can’t
go back to what we were doing in B.C., before corona, with great
inequalities between the have and have-nots.”

Lee, born in 1957 in Atlanta, the eldest of six children, grew up
watching news reports about the Vietnam War on television. His most
indelible memories are of his heroes denouncing the conflict,
including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Muhammad Ali, who
was stripped of his world heavyweight boxing title for refusing to be
drafted into the armed forces.

The film incorporates documentary footage of both men. An opening
montage also features clips of several other activists, including
Angela Davis, Malcolm X and Kwame Ture, whose ascendant Black Power
movement in the late 1960s coincided with the most contentious years
of the war.

The blurring of where history ends and the story begins is vintage
Lee. His last film, “BlacKkKlansman
[[link removed]],”
ended with footage of the racist violence in Charlottesville, Va., in
2017, crashing the fictionalized horror into a factual one. Lee used a
similar technique in the opening of his 1992 epic “Malcolm X,”
[[link removed]] which overlaid vocals
of an incendiary Denzel Washington, speaking in character as X, onto
video of the police beating of Rodney King.

“The thing that’s been consistent with him is the idea that the
past is not just the past but has a connection to today,” said Kevin
Willmott, who co-wrote both “BlacKkKlansman” and “Da 5 Bloods”
with Lee. “I think he believes that our country has been damaged by
films that misconstrue history, and that we, especially as minorities,
have a responsibility to tell the truth as we see it.”

Lee first grappled with film’s power to shape history as student at
New York University in the 1980s. While attending the graduate film
program there (he has since become a tenured professor at the school),
Lee was appalled by what he has described as his instructors’
sympathetic portrayal of D.W. Griffith’s white supremacist epic,
“The Birth of a Nation” — considered the first major motion
picture. His early student film, “The Answer,” about a black
screenwriter tasked with remaking “Birth of a Nation,” was a
defiant rebuttal to Griffith. A similar impulse has invigorated his
movies ever since.

“Novels, movies, TV, they’ve all pushed a false narrative: the
white mythic hero,” Lee said. “Look at the films John Ford made
with John Wayne, which dehumanize Native Americans as savages,
animals, monsters. It’s been the same story with black people,
women, gay people — we’ve all been dehumanized.”

With “Da 5 Bloods,” Lee saw an opportunity to explore a side of
the black experience of Vietnam that hadn’t been shown in cinema,
despite the many classic films that have been made about the war. The
original script, titled “The Last Tour” and written by Danny
Bilson and Paul De Meo, was about white soldiers. Lee and Willmott
began rewriting it in 2017, after the original director, Oliver Stone,
reportedly dropped out.

The two were particularly interested in the psychology of black
soldiers who fought for freedoms abroad that they’d been denied at
home, a subject Lee previously explored in his World War II film
“Miracle at St. Anna
[[link removed]]” (2008). In
“Da 5 Bloods,” we see how that cognitive dissonance has refracted
over time, as the bloods, among a disproportionately high percentage
of African-Americans who served in the war, look back at their lives
and try to assess the damage.

“All they had was each other, and there was a real unity and
brotherhood that came from that,” Willmott said.

Lee added flashbacks, including one in which Stormin’ Norman gives a
speech about Crispus Attucks
[[link removed]], a black
man who became the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War.
Another, inspired by real stories told by black veterans, shows the
moment when the bloods learn that Martin Luther King Jr. has been
assassinated.

“The black soldiers weren't having it,” Lee said. “They were
about to be firing some guns, and it wasn't going to be at the Viet
Cong, either!”

Notably, the actors, all over 50, play themselves in the flashback
sequences, without any de-aging makeup or digital effects. According
to notes about the film sent to the press, this was meant to
illustrate the bloods’ “living memories,” how “current
dilemmas and even ailments color recollections of their former
selves.”

Lee was more pragmatic about the choice. “I was not getting $100
million to de-age our guys,” he said, alluding to the reported $160
million budget for last year’s Netflix drama about old men
reconciling with their former selves, Martin Scorsese’s “The
Irishman.”
[[link removed]] Netflix,
which does not disclose its budgets, also produced two seasons of
Lee’s series based on “She’s Gotta Have It,”
[[link removed]] and the director said that
he had loved working with the company overall. “I think we were able
to turn a negative into a positive,” he said.

“Da 5 Bloods,” which, in addition to footage of antiwar protests,
is intercut with some extremely graphic documentary images of the war,
including a haunting photo from the My Lai massacre, reaffirms Lee’s
capacity for outrage at his country. That capacity was tested again
recently, when footage showing the killing of Ahmaud Arbery
[[link removed]] was
released earlier this month.

“It’s 2020, and black and brown people are being shot like
animals,” Lee said, his voice climbing to a new register. “Tell me
in what world can two brothers with a handgun and a shotgun follow a
white jogger in a pickup truck, kill him, and it takes two months for
them to get arrested?”

But outrage is a complex emotion. And Lee’s, as is generally the
case, may be best understood as masking a deeper feeling, one less
often associated with the iconoclastic filmmaker: heartbreak.

Turning to the example of Attucks, who confronted British soldiers at
the Boston Massacre, Lee began to think out loud about the definition
of patriotism.

“We’ve always believed in the promise of what this country could
be; we’re very patriotic,” he said. “But I think that patriotism
is when you speak truth to power. It’s patriotic to speak out about
the injustices in this country. That is being an American patriot.”

_REGGIE UGWU is a pop culture reporter covering a range of subjects,
including film, television, music and internet culture. Before joining
The Times in 2017, he was a reporter for BuzzFeed News and Billboard
magazine. [email protected]_u [[link removed]]

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