“Why fight for a country when they lynch you?” Spike Lee on Da 5 Bloods and American lies

Lee’s new action-adventure tale Da 5 Bloods negotiates landmines, snakes and a stash of buried loot as it reflects on the legacy of the Vietnam War. Here he talks about the experience of black American soldiers during the conflict and his determination to humanise the traditional demons of Hollywood cinema, the North Vietnamese.

Christina Newland

Spike Lee

Spike Lee
Credit: Jason Bell

In Spike Lee’s latest joint, war epic Da 5 Bloods, a group of black Vietnam veterans return to the country in the present day to find the remains of their late commander, Norman (Chadwick Boseman). As the men (played by Delroy Lindo, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis) venture deep into a jungle that’s still littered with dangers, the story of their fraught experience during the war is told in flashbacks. These sequences are signposted by a change in aspect ratio that mirrors the television footage of the era, appropriate for what was the first truly televised war. By switching between the scarring camaraderie of the late 1960s and the trauma-wracked modern world, the film explicitly links activism past and present through the unjust deaths of young black men.

Shooting partly on location in Vietnam and Thailand, with finance from Netflix (with which Lee had previously worked on two series based on his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It), Lee utilises the streaming giant’s large coffers to make a sweeping adventure story that attempts to take stock of the black American experience of the war. Topics range from the peace movement to the discriminatory drafting policy that saw African Americans make up a far higher proportion of frontline troops in Vietnam than their demographic size in America should have warranted. The film’s opening montage – featuring footage of Ho Chi Minh, the shooting of demonstrators at Kent State University, and Muhammad Ali’s vociferous refusal to join the war effort – is a historical taster session offering context to the era, which Lee provides throughout. Whether it’s a reference to forgotten black war hero Milton Olive or a jokey comment about the Rambo movies trying to “go back and win Vietnam” on screen, the film is discursive, offering a sly running commentary on the events.

Just as notable is Lee’s desire to reassert the humanity of the North Vietnamese – in sharp contrast to their demonic portrayal in most films on the subject – reminding us of the devastation that was visited on the small nation. This is brought home in particularly poignant fashion in a scene in the present day, when a Vietnamese man tries to sell Delroy Lindo’s character some poultry – the resulting explosion reveals decades-old volatility and the rage festering on both sides.

Still, this is not to deny that Da 5 Bloods is an action-adventure story at heart. With its inclusion of mercenaries, firefights, snakes, landmines and some lost wartime treasure, its pace doesn’t often flag. As greed, tension and old trauma begins to bear down on the group of friends, Lee makes every effort to show the paradigm-shifting effects of the Vietnam War on the black American psyche; and how the domestic response to that war laid the groundwork for activism we can still see today.

Spike Lee spent three months on location for Da 5 Bloods, shooting mostly in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, with a further two weeks in Ho Chi Minh City formerly Saigon – in Vietnam

Spike Lee spent three months on location for Da 5 Bloods, shooting mostly in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, with a further two weeks in Ho Chi Minh City formerly Saigon – in Vietnam

You were a young teenager at the height of the Vietnam War. What do you remember about that time? What stuck with you?

Thank God! I was born in 1957. Even ’55, ’54, that could have been me [going to fight].

I tell people all the time: you’re born when you’re born. I grew up in a very socially conscious household. I’m the first of five. My parents made sure that their children knew what was happening in the world. Growing up in New York, we could see the protests, the marches; see people like Nixon and Johnson on the news, and [CBS Evening News anchor] Walter Cronkite. And they lied to the American public again and again and again.

What led you to make a film about the era?

After I graduated from Morehouse [College, in Atlanta, Georgia] in 1979, I had a scholarship at Columbia Pictures. So this is somewhere between me finishing undergrad at Morehouse and going to NYU [New York University] to do grad film in the fall.

I was at the first screening of Apocalypse Now. It was on a Friday and I took that day off. I’ve told this story to Francis [Ford Coppola] probably too many times, but I was there! Twelve noon, a screening of Apocalypse Now at the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard, with the great Walter Murch’s sound design, those helicopters going over my head like: “Where did that sound come from?”

I say that just to get to my point, which is, doing this film, I realised that there is a heritage of Vietnam films. [The co-writer of Da 5 Bloods] Kevin Willmott and I took over a script written by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo. It was optioned by a producer Lloyd Levin, who then took it to Oliver Stone. But it’s different now. Then it wasn’t black soldiers.

I’ve grown up watching war films – it’s one of my favourite genres, particularly World War II. And I had previously done a war film, Miracle at St. Anna [2008], about the black Buffalo Soldiers who fought in Italy against Mussolini’s fascists and Hitler’s Nazis. And hopefully, maybe one day, I can do something with the American Civil War.

So this is where it all comes from. I’m a cinephile. My mother started taking me to movies when I was a mere lad. And that was where the bug was planted, but I didn’t know that it would lead me to wanting to be a filmmaker.

There are several references to Apocalypse Now in Da 5 Bloods – the use of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, for instance.

I got love for my brother, my neighbour, Martin Scorsese around the corner. But Francis [Ford Coppola] is my guy too. The club you see in Da 5 Bloods is a real club – the Apocalypse Now one. In Saigon. That’s not a set, the film was shot in Thailand and Vietnam. I knew about that club before we shot the film, and said: “We gotta shoot there. We gotta have a scene there.”

And then you have one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history: the helicopter raid, Robert Duvall and Ride of the Valkyries playing. So it’s a tip of the hat and a homage to my brother Francis Ford Coppola: I love him, I love him, I love him. But let me ask you a question: when you saw them on the boat [in Da 5 Bloods] with that music, did you start to laugh?

I did. Especially with the overhead shot of the river.

It’s kind of humorous too. But again, it’s respect. It’s respect for Francis. It’s homage.

Da 5 Bloods (2020)

Da 5 Bloods (2020)

The Vietnam War era – and the Nixon administration and that whole period of American moviemaking – is such a rich time, politically, culturally. The opening montage of Da 5 Bloods nods to a lot of the stuff that was going on in that era. How do you decide what to include in a film that’s set during this time?

If you see my films, you know that I pay very important attention to the opening credits sequence. And there’s a lot of people who will see this film who were born after the Vietnam War and might not know some of the historical figures.

So I wanted to use the great Marvin Gaye album What’s Going On [1971]. That album came about because of the Vietnam War. Marvin Gaye had a brother who did three tours and was writing Marvin back home in Detroit about the horrors of the war. Those letters really gave the impetus for Marvin to make one of the greatest albums of all time. So when Kevin and I agreed to rewrite the script, I knew I wanted to use those songs.

And in the version you use, Marvin Gaye’s voice is separated from the music. I’ve never heard it like that before.

Oh, the a capella? Yeah. It was very organic. Marvin is talking about war. He’s talking about equality, talking about love. He’s talking about black soldiers – Inner City Blues is about black soldiers coming back from Vietnam, where they can’t find a job, or coming back hooked on heroin, unable to find employment, being called baby-killers.

One of the things I hope people understand is that African Americans at the height of the Vietnam War were ten per cent of the American population, but they made up a third of the fighting forces in Vietnam. Our black asses were sent straight to the front line. We’ve always had this dynamic of black people fighting in wars for this country at times when we’re still not considered to have all our rights. And that’s why there were a lot of historical points I wanted to make, like when Chadwick Boseman’s character tells the Bloods: “Do you know that the first person that died in an American war was a black man. His name was Crispus Attucks. He died in the Boston Massacre.”

And this current president – Agent Orange – accuses African Americans of being unpatriotic? He’s the last person who should call anybody unpatriotic, because not everybody had a doctor to write him a note about some fake bone spurs, so he didn’t have to go to the Vietnam War.

You show a brief clip of Donald Trump when you’re referencing the one character who is a supporter of his. You refer to him as ‘President Fake Bone Spurs’, which I love.

Of course, we have the advantage of doing this film many years after the war when a lot more stuff has come out. But I wanted to do this film to show – and again I’m giving credit to Francis and [his Apocalypse Now co-screenwriter] John Milius – “the horror, the horror” of the Vietnam War, where Americans died in a war that was immoral and the leaders of this country were lying left and right.

And Americans today once again are being sold a bill of goods which is fake. I always use my three S’s: shenanigans, skulduggery and subterfuge.

Da 5 Bloods (2020)

Something that struck me about the film is that it still feels radical now with the Radio Hanoi stuff – the Vietcong propaganda broadcast meant to discourage American soldiers by talking about how badly African Americans were treated by their government. Hanoi Hannah gets on the radio and talks about how Dr Martin Luther King had been shot and how fighting for the US government was a mistake. I imagine there are some people who would still be offended by that now in America, even.

Offended how?

Well, equating any American’s struggle with that of a foreign enemy.

Those were her words! We may have changed a couple, but for the most part those were exact words. Hanoi Hannah was real, and another woman called Tokyo Rose, who did this in Japan. So here’s the trip: play rock and roll, Motown – American soldiers will wanna hear that. In between the records, slip in this stuff.

When you think about what Hanoi Hannah was saying, her words were true, particularly when they were addressing the black troops. Why fight for a country when they lynch you, they kill you? And the soldiers had to put up with that if they wanted to hear The Beatles or Motown.

But the oppression of the Vietnamese people going back to French Indochina – there are parallels being made in this film as if to say that there’s a commonality here between this and the treatment of African Americans. That’s really striking. I think still there are people who will say, “Oh my God, how could they say that?”, because to this day people have a very skewed vision of what the Vietnam War was.

Well, I hope you’re wrong. A lot of time has passed and we’re in a new century. But I did not want to demonise Vietnamese people. I cannot do that. When you go to Vietnam, they call it the American war. They call it the French war. That’s why it was key to bring in French characters played by Mélanie Thierry and Jean Reno. Because France has a deep history in Vietnam. And so it would have been remiss of me to do a film of Vietnam and not include the presence that France had.

Is there any significance to the Delroy Lindo character wearing a Make America Great Again hat and supporting Trump?

Well, believe it or not, there are a few African Americans who love this guy (laughs). I’m not naming no names.

And I thought that was just very dramatic. This is something I tell my students – I’m a professor and artistic director at NYU graduate film school. I use African Americans specifically as an example. All black people do not think alike. Nor look alike. Nor talk alike. We’re not one monolithic group.

So I thought that’d be dramatic, and maybe add some tension. You have these four men who grew up together, came out of high school and went straight to war. Boys became men. And many would tell you, there’s no greater bond you could possibly have than the people you go to war with. And then after the war, everybody goes away. But then they come together after many years and find his character is a card-carrying Trump supporter. Surprise! It just opened up a lot of possibilities. That’s why I did it.

Delroy Lindo teaches his character’s son, played by Jonathan Major, an old veteran’s trick in the Vietnamese jungle

Delroy Lindo teaches his character’s son, played by Jonathan Major, an old veteran’s trick in the Vietnamese jungle

Can you tell me about casting Lindo, who has been in a lot of your films. Why was he right for this role?

The way I cast a film is really unchanged since [grad school at] NYU – try to find the best person for the role. I’ve had the honour of working with Delroy before: first Malcolm X [1992], then Crooklyn [1994]. So I know what he can do. But I really had to think hard because it can’t just be an all-star team. I have to think about what guys are going to fit the role. I think that – as I hope the film demonstrates – we definitely had a great team effort, where everybody knew what they had to do and did it. Everybody was committed.

We were gone for three months in Thailand and Vietnam. The morning after I won my Oscar [for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman in 2019], I was on a plane to Bangkok. My wife would say that was good – I couldn’t talk about Green Book [winning Best Picture] no more! (Laughs).

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We shot most of the film in Chiang Mai [in northern Thailand]. And in the final two weeks, we went to Vietnam – to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh city [as it’s now called]. It was one of the most wonderful experiences for me.

I always do like, if I can, to go to where the film is set. We had a great time in Italy shooting Miracle of St. Anna. We shot at Fellini’s studio, Cinecittà. We shot at the place where the Nazis massacred a whole small town. If you can go to a place where actual events happened, you pick up the spirits, definitely.

To go back to what you were saying about not wanting to demonise the Vietnamese people in the film, I felt this film very consciously undercuts a movie like The Deer Hunter [1978], for instance, which many feel does do that.

I mean, Robert De Niro is my guy. That’s my guy. I got an Italian-American crew. Scorsese, Coppola, Turturro, De Niro, Pacino. All those my guys. But, respectfully, the Russian roulette thing? The Vietcong never ever, ever, ever did that.

But I will say the guy that they cast was good, the ringleader. I think I was in college when I saw The Deer Hunter. It’s hard coming out that film thinking the Vietcong are human beings. Again, no disrespect to my brother Robert De Niro, I love you, you know I do. But there are no documented cases where the Vietcong made American POWs play Russian roulette.

Spike Lee with some of the actors of Da 5 Bloods (2020)

Spike Lee with some of the actors of Da 5 Bloods (2020)

You also run subtitles over a scene in which Vietnamese characters are talking, just before a firefight. In some Vietnam War films, it would have just sounded like the faceless enemy in a language we can’t understand. But here we understand: “Oh, they’re just talking about their daily lives.”

Let’s be honest. All the slanted eyes, Charlie, and so on. Those terms go with that type of thinking.

It’s dehumanising. I’m getting off track here, but the behaviour of some of the US soldiers in the war…

No, you’re on track.

…It’s not a stretch to imagine that some of the behaviour was linked to that dehumanisation. Have you seen the 1971 documentary Winter Soldier?

No.

It was a war crimes hearing that was held and filmed by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, made by a collective of documentarians. They invited a bunch of vets to come and talk about their experience of war crimes. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s pretty shocking about the kind of atrocities that were allowed to go on.

I’m gonna check it out. During the editing process, we actually had several research screenings for black Vietnam vets. We hooked up with the National Black Association of Vietnam Vets – there’s a large number of those vets here in the New York City area. It was one of the most amazing things for me, to listen to these men who were now past their middle age, who’d been in high school and went straight to Vietnam. Almost any war is hard for people to talk about. These guys were crying, laughing. Several guys had to walk out of a screening and come back to recompose themselves.

And to me that was a litmus test. I hope you hear what I’m saying: and it is no disrespect to you, but audiences and critics can write what they want. I screened this film for the guys who went to Vietnam, fresh out of school, 17, 18 years old, boys who were trained to kill. And they all gave me hugs and said, “Spike, we’ve been waiting for this film for a long time.”

I’m not trying to say this is the first film that has had African Americans in the Vietnam War. We’ve had characters – of course, my man Laurence Fishburne [in Apocalypse Now] – but we take it up a level because I don’t think there’s a feature film that deals with the African-American experience in the war. There’s a great book called The Bloods, which is an oral history of the Vietnam War. People should check that out.

Spike Lee on location with the cast of Da 5 Bloods (2020)

Spike Lee on location with the cast of Da 5 Bloods (2020)

Were there any other war films you looked at when making the film?

Here’s the thing that I think makes this film hip: thought. We have this great tragedy of the Vietnam War played out. But also we got a touch of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1947] in there. I’ve always been a proponent of mixing stuff up. Why should things be only one way? So we have this adventure story in there to be novel.

And I wanted to add the adventure thing. I grew up watching these films on television: The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957], The Guns of Navarone [1960], stuff like that. So when we took over that script, we wanted to have that Sierra Madre gold element. We all know how human beings can react to gold. It changes people. We have a lot of different elements working on this film, because we wanted it to be entertaining and always gotta have some laughs in there.

Another thing I’d like to add. The film has a prologue and epilogue, with two of the biggest Americans who came out against the war before everyone else. They were attacked viciously for it, and called unAmerican. We have Muhammad Ali in the prologue and Dr Martin Luther King for the epilogue. Yeah. Those are two very important bookcases, because we had to frame this.

It’s been documented that LBJ [president Lyndon Baines Johnson] felt betrayed by Dr King. He felt that Dr King owed him because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And when King went public against the war, that was it for LBJ.

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Many historians have made the case that – even though there were attempts on his life – it was only after Dr King came out against the war that he was assassinated. Because when he came out against the war, that’s when you’re talking about big business. Dow [Chemical Company, which produced napalm and Agent Orange], and all the companies that made money off the war. When he started to fuck with the money, he had to go.

There’s a lot of things in this film like that. I hope people google Crispus Attucks. I think Spike’s lying? Google it! I want people to google! Why do we have a shot of LBJ with the poster saying war criminal? Google Ho Chi Minh.

Da 5 Bloods (2020)

I was curious about [commanding officer] Norman’s activism and his teaching the soldiers about black history – you extend a line from him through to Black Lives Matter. There’s similar imagery around BLM, with mothers holding a photo of their child and crying. What do you think activists from the time of the Vietnam War have to teach us today?

Activism is activism. No matter when you were born, there’s gonna be struggles, and in any era, hopefully, some people and some leaders will speak truth to power. It’s the job of the current activists to pass on what they’ve learned to the next generation. Because a lot of times – and I include myself when I was younger in this – people will say: “Oh, you think you’re the first one? No, motherfucker! We were doing this shit before you were born!” You gotta pass the legacy.

And another thing, there’s always the problem when you come out of the film – you don’t want to stereotype – but a lot of the times young people don’t know what happened before them. Movies, music, history. So there’s certain things we can put in the film that will make them click. That’s why the film takes place in the present day. This film isn’t a period piece. There are flashbacks, but it takes place today. So we have, as you just mentioned, Black Lives Matter coming up in the film at the very end, when we tie everything up.

You mentioned Muhammad Ali earlier. At one stage you were developing a project on the boxer Joe Louis. Is that something you’re still planning to do?

Yes, I co-wrote it with Budd Schulberg [the novelist, and screenwriter of On the Waterfront, 1954]. Budd and I became good friends. Budd was at the two Joe Louis fights [with German world heavyweight rival Max Schmeling]. FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Sugar Ray Robinson, Hitler, Goebbels – all these people are in this film.

I made a promise to Budd before he passed away that I’d get this film made. And I’m gonna keep that promise. The title is Save Us Joe Louis, screenplay by Budd Schulberg and Spike Lee. It could be a miniseries. I don’t think Budd would be mad at me if it were a miniseries.

 

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