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Spike Lee and the battlefield of American history
Director Spike Lee near his home in New York, May 14, 2020. With his new film, the peerless American filmmaker — self-isolating and reflective in New York — unsettles past and present conflicts. Andre D. Wagner/The New York Times.

by Reggie Ugwu

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It’s a funny thing, Zooming with Spike Lee. He’s remote, confined within a box within a box on your computer screen, 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, 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” — 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 Manhattan home 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 3 to 5 miles each morning, wearing a mask and helmet. At night, he has dinner 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 oversize vintage poster for the 1950 biopic “The Jackie Robinson Story.” “That’s why I’m keeping my black ass in the house!”

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,” 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 U.S. cinema.

“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, in the best adapted screenplay category for “BlacKkKlansman” (2018) — where it now sits in their library next to the honorary Oscar he received in 2015. “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 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 to imagine a younger Lee, the guy who locked horns with everyone from Reggie Miller 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 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 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. “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 longtime Lee collaborator Delroy Lindo, is an avowed Trump supporter and spends much of the film in a red “Make America Great Again” hat.

Although 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 supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, 13% of black men supported Trump.

“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 haves 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. 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 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. “BlacKkKlansman” ended with footage of the racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, crashing the fictionalized horror into a factual one. Lee used a similar technique in the opening of his 1992 epic, “Malcolm X,” 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 a 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 explored in his World War II film “Miracle at St. Anna” (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, a black man who became the first U.S. 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. had 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.” Netflix, which does not disclose its budgets, also produced two seasons of Lee’s series based on “She’s Gotta Have It,” and the director said 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 anti-war 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 was released 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.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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