The newest Spike Lee joint battles with the past, present, and future.
Spike Lee ranks among the greatest living filmmakers, and now he's taking us to the past in Da 5 Bloods. This Vietnam epic takes a long, hard look at history, race relations, and violence in the 60s, the 70s. It's a movie that talks about how our past echoes into the future.
Things are different in America right now.
We're confronting an open wound. One many wanted to believe was closed. Who better to have a film on the topic than Spike Lee, the man who has never shied away from the truth and taught many of us the sheer power of the cinema.
Lee started June by releasing a short film to Twitter called 3 Brothers, about African American men killed by the police. His themes of social justice, equality, and the damage of past offenses continue in his new feature film.
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Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Lee said, "That war had America divided...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."
These are the themes and stories addressed in his new movie, Da 5 Bloods.
Spike Lee on the Challenges of Making Da 5 Bloods
As any movie goes, Da 5 Bloods started as a spec script, but it was called The Last Tour. It was about aging white vets who return to Vietnam. It was originally going to be a movie directed by Oliver Stone, but when that fell apart, it was sent to Lee.
Spike Lee's favorite movie is John Huston's classic The Treasure of Sierra Madre, a movie about men driven mad by gold. And this seemed to be a good fit.
Lee hired his co-writer on Blackkklansman, Kevin Willmott, and the two got to work, altering the story to be about four African American leads.
One of the massive changes was making one of the PTSD stricken vets a MAGA guy, which seems very interesting for a filmmaker so critical of the president.
"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."
This is certainly a movie for now, but it barely was finished.
"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...There was nowhere to go after Netflix."
And so they set out to shoot this project, a passion with a risky storyline and creativity that Lee has been excited to unload.
The original plan was to have a theatrical release as well, but COVID-19 changed those plans. So they are just playing in homes. But thanks to altered Academy Award rules, the movie will still be eligible.
"Look, I'm not complaining," Lee says. "On June 12th, 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."
But where the movie would play was among the least of his worries while making it. The heat in Thailand and Vietnam, where they shot, was brutal. They were in the jungle, using Gatorade and potato chips to keep cast and crew fueled and hydrated.
They shot on the sides of mountains, in deep valleys, and surrounded by jungle. It was an epic trek for an epic movie.
When it came time to test the movie, Lee got lucky. He had finished making Da 5 Bloods by the end of 2019. So he held four screenings for veterans of color in New York City before 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."
As this country is facing a crisis of how to move forward, Spike Lee's voice is even more necessary.
Let us know what you thought of Da 5 Bloods in the comments.