The streets on Manhattan’s Upper East Side are eerily free of cars and pedestrians on a lovely Sunday afternoon. The few locals you see are mostly middle-aged and white-haired. It’s a stark contrast to the scene just a few miles away in lower Manhattan, where the first weekend of youth-led George Floyd police brutality marches is underway. In the middle of a pandemic and the stirrings of global revolution, it feels appropriate to be sitting down with Spike Lee, an artist whose work and public statements have been part of the cultural conversation since the ’80s.
I’ve known Spike since 1983; I was an investor in his feature debut, 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It. Though he’s obviously evolved since we were both young men living in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, and in 2019 finally added a long-overdue Oscar to his shelf for his screenplay of BlacKkKlansman, Spike’s personality has been remarkably consistent — a mix of boyish exuberance and artistic aspiration that inspires his corny jokes, empathy for the abused, contempt for power brokers, and tenacious work ethic. His slight, wiry body camouflages a coiled intensity that underlines his best work.
When I walk up, the man is chilling on the stoop of his Manhattan brownstone wearing a matching white track jacket and baseball cap, black sweats, and stylish black kicks. In classic Spike-promotional fashion, the cap bears the logo of his newest film, Da 5 Bloods. His neighbors, mostly White — this is the Upper East Side, after all — greet him with waves and smiles. He acknowledges them all with a nod or a word. Drivers honk their horns and shout out “What’s up, Spike!” as they cruise by. It’s been 31 years since Do the Right Thing and we’re a river away from Fort Greene and Bed-Stuy, but wherever Spike hangs in his hometown he’s still Da Mayor.
Yet, Da 5 Bloods takes him far from his regular turf. Debuting on Netflix on June 12, the film follows four Black veterans of the Vietnam War, who return to the country on a dual mission: recovering the remains of a fallen comrade and a cache of buried gold. Like any Spike joint, though, the story is only part of the experience. The film is filled with music from Marvin Gaye’s landmark What’s Goin’ On, clips of 1960s Black militancy and despair, and the character’s meditations on memory and middle age.
The Black experience in Vietnam has been a subtext of many of the great films made about that war. Young Laurence Fishburne’s “Clean” was on the boat with Charlie Sheen in Francis Ford Coppola’ s Apocalypse Now, Black soldiers played by Forest Whitaker and Keith David were part of Oliver Stone’s ensemble in Platoon, and the war partially defined the action in the Hughes Brothers’ Dead Presidents. But cinema has never grappled with it head-on until now; the most detailed literary work on the subject is Wallace Terry’s 1987 book Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War — which Spike read and which influenced the film’s title.
Spike and I both were in high school at the tail end of the war, a time when the military draft was still in effect and the possibility of service in Southeast Asia hovered over the lives of all working-class kids. The war scarred the young men just a few years older, while igniting protest marches and civil disobedience similar to the spring of 2020. Being men of a certain age, we can’t help but see the present turmoil through the prism of the past.
LEVEL: Let’s start by talking about how 2020’s social and political environment has become so reminiscent of the chaotic year of 1968. We were both about 10 years old then.
Lee: We were born in that pocket where we were old enough to see what was jumping off, but you weren’t old enough to be drafted exactly. What year were you born?
We were old enough to see the civil rights movement. The seed of the women’s movement. The sexual revolution. The anti-war movement. The Black Panther movement. And then, as you know, Vietnam was the first war to be televised so we could watch on the news. At six was the local news and then at seven, it was David Brinkley on NBC and Walter Cronkite on CBS bringing the war into American homes.
At the same time, you had Vietnam veterans coming back. I remember a lot of the Black veterans I’d see were strung out on heroin, which they’d gotten hooked on over in Vietnam.
Yeah. And so that’s a nice segue, Nelson, ’cause that gets us to Marvin Gaye and the What’s Goin’ On album that came out in ’71. That album is one of the greatest albums ever made.
Marvin had an older brother, Franklin, who did three tours in Vietnam and was writing Marvin letters from there. It’s a theory that Marvin read these letters from his brother, who’s in the thick of it, and boom, the album reflects it. There was no medical term for post-traumatic stress syndrome, but his brother was deeply affected. That’s why Da 5 Bloods starts with “Inner City Blues.” That’s why that album plays such a big role in the film. Marvin’s music is what Hanoi Hannah was playing on the radio when she was asking Black soldiers why they were in Vietnam shooting yellow men when they were being treated so badly in the States. It may have been propaganda, but she wasn’t lying.
There’s a scene in the movie where the soldiers find out that Dr. King was assassinated three days after the fact and that Black folks back home are tearing shit up, and Clark says, “It’s time to kill some crackers.” That was a real feeling for a lot of the soldiers. We had four screenings in the New York area for brothers who fought in ’Nam. Men from Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and they all co-signed. There were a lot of tears at those screenings. Sometimes men had to leave the room because of certain scenes. They told me it was about time I made this movie. I made a movie about Black soldiers in World War II [Miracle at St. Ann’s in 2008], but they wanted theirs.
“I’m not going to say young people don’t know shit anymore. If that’s the case, then it’s because we didn’t teach them.”
When you were conceiving the story did you ever consider pushing that thread of near-rebellion harder? I know there were instances of Black soldiers shooting at White commanding officers during this period.
I didn’t have to do that because we had cutaways to documentary footage of the uprisings in 120 cities that followed King’s assassination. We have the procession with a donkey that is pulling Dr. King’s wooden casket and then we had the funeral, so we deal with the rage in that way.
It is interesting in your recent filmmaking, including the TV adaptation of She’s Gotta Have It for Netflix, that you tapped into Goddard with the way you’re cutting in different images — album covers, images of paintings, other movies, and lots of documentary footage — that exist outside the narrative. Why have you decided to do that?
I’m 63 years old. You’re basically the same age, so you’ll get this: I’m not going to say young people don’t know shit anymore. If that’s the case, then it’s because we didn’t teach them. So, for example, in She’s Gotta Have It, I’ll have a song and a young person will be like, “Oh, that song is dope. Who is it?” Boom, at the end of the song here’s the album cover. Download it. Now you know who made the song. Or someone will hear a song and say, “That’s a sample.” Naw. That’s where the sample came from. That’s the real deal.
So you’re overtly using your feature films as an educational tool?
I mean, it’s been like that for me since the beginning, but now it really has to be. A lot of people don’t read, right? I’m sad to say it, and I’m not blaming anybody. A lot of people don’t know that Crispus Attucks was the first person to die for this country and that Milton Olive died diving on a hand grenade. Or when I use Aretha’s music, in all its glory, I wanna make sure people know who they’re hearing. So these films have to be teaching. I’m not saying everyone has to do that. But this is what I wanna do. I’ve been teaching film at NYU for 18 years. I’m a tenured professor and the artistic director. I come from a long line of educators.
I know your mother taught at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn.
My grandmother taught art for 50 years at schools in the Jim Crow South. Never had one White student in 50 years. So I hope and pray that when people go home they’re gonna Google these names. I got tired of saying people were dumb motherfuckers. It’s on me. If I’m a teacher, I need to be providing the information. I try not to get mad when students don’t know things. But I still get mad when a film student at NYU tells me they haven’t seen On the Waterfront! [Laughs]
Despite all the information at people’s fingertips, you can’t underestimate the lack of basic historical knowledge among Americans.
I had some guy ask me if Miles Davis played piano. [Laughs] I mean, he might’ve wrote a bit on piano but...
So I’m not gonna assume anything. But Da 5 Bloods is also an action film.
Yeah, it’s got a Treasure of the Sierra Madre vibe. It’s also a story about a group of Black middle-aged men — not a group that there are many films about.
I’m 63. You’re 61. I mean we’re middle-aged, ready for AARP, right? [Laughs]
“When you find out that you come from a people of kings and queens, it gives you so much power. We were stripped of our religion and history. That was not by happenstance. That shit was systematic.”
I’ve had a lot of men close to me die in the last couple of months. People who were mentors in various ways. Your film hit me hard in that it is about the memory of a mentor that still unites these men years after his death.
That’s because Stormin’ Norman [played by Chadwick Boseman] was breaking it and, as another character says, “He’s teaching us Black history that which we don’t even know.” When you find out that you come from a people of kings and queens, it gives you so much power. We were stripped of our religion and history. That was not by happenstance. That shit was systematic.
Tell me about your experience visiting Vietnam.
We saw a lot of American tourists. A lot of GIs who came back to visit the war memorial. We still call it the Vietnam War. They educated us. They call it the American War. We forget that they kicked the French’s ass before us. That’s why we have French military characters and Jean Reno in the film. Before the French, they kicked China’s ass. They have defeated world powers. They are people of great strength.
You were about to shoot another film this summer until the pandemic stalled all production. Do you think about retirement at all? Do you think about a point when you’re done?
How old was Kurosawa when he made his last film?
I believe in his eighties. [Japanese director Akira Kurosaw made Dreams when he was 80.]
I’m like Cal Ripken, Jr. when he wouldn’t come off the field until he passed that milestone [of most consecutive major league baseball games played]. I’m just gonna keep working.
If you go back to Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop, your student film at NYU, I would bet that you’ve made more films, documentaries, videos, commercials, and short films than any filmmaker of your generation. It’s a tremendously large body of work. Don’t you get tired?
No. You know why? Doing what you love is not a job. I know I’m blessed. I know I’m lucky. Because I never thought of the odds, you know. You can’t think of the odds against you. I had people behind me.
She’s Gotta Have It was make or break.
Make or break.
You had another film that fell apart just before it.
Oh, yeah. So it was like make or break looking back. You know with this pandemic, this is the first time, if you don’t count vacations, in decades where, as my mother used to say, “You sit your skinny, rusty Black ass down!” I’ve had time to think and reflect. I’ve been blessed. I mean Nelson, there are so many times with a misstep things could have gone left.
What’s life been like for you during the lockdown?
I had to shut it down. But how many movies can you watch? How many books can you read? I did a Zoom class at NYU with Jim Jarmusch and with Sam Mendes, and none of us have written a word. I thought I was gonna write five scripts. I’ve been reading autobiographies of Willie Mays, Yogi Berra, Paul Newman, and Roberto Clemente. The National League all-star outfield used to be Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente!
“I was always the smallest guy, right? I’m not gonna say I had a Napoleon complex, but you have to be strong. Like Michael Jordan, you gotta use the slights. You have to turn negative energy into positive energy.”
You posted your unmade Jackie Robinson script on Instagram during the lockdown. What other unproduced scripts do you still have hopes of getting made?
Joe Louis. I made a promise to the late Budd Schulberg, who I co-wrote it with, that I would get it made. It’s an epic story — Hitler, Goebbles, Sugar Ray Robinson. Bud was at both of Louis’ fights with Schmeling. The crazy story is that I went to L.A. on September 9, 2001 for a meeting with Arnold Schwarzenegger to play Max Schmeling. Well, [my wife] Tonya woke me up the morning of September 11 in time to see the second plane. But I’m still gonna get that film made.
It’s your white whale.
And I’m Captain Ahab. [Laughs]
One of your films that was criticized when released, Bamboozled, has had a real comeback in terms of critical attention in the last few years.
The Criterion Collection releasing it has had a lot to do with that.
But the reaction to Bamboozled speaks to a deeper issue in your career. You have been defamed, dissed, and dismissed as much as any contemporary artist. Yet you’ve kept going. I’ve always wondered how you processed the criticism.
You do what you do and then it comes a time when it goes out to the world. Sometimes it hits. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes people discover it later, but we don’t have control of that. You just gotta give it up.
You’ve taken a lot of brickbats, Spike.
Yeah, sometimes I feel like Faye Dunaway getting hit by Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. [Spike swings his head from side to side as if being slapped.]
So how have you retained the confidence to go on?
I was always the smallest guy, right? I’m not gonna say I had a Napoleon complex, but you have to be strong. Like Michael Jordan, you gotta use the slights. You have to turn negative energy into positive energy. I heard that shit at Morehouse: “That short motherfucker from New York talking about being a goddamn filmmaker. You better get a business major and get a good job.”
I was asthmatic growing up. We lived in Cobble Hill before we bought the brownstone in Fort Greene, so I was around nothing but tough Italian Americans. So I’ve been underrated way before I made a movie. I tell my students, “This ain’t no popularity contest.” If you get all bent out of shape and you wanna call it quits because somebody didn’t like what you made, then maybe you should study film criticism, not filmmaking. I’m not gonna front like I’m a shield of armor, but you gotta roll with the punches.