Since Spike Lee burst onto the scene in 1986, the timeliness of his movies has been the filmmaker’s calling card — with Lee assembling a body of work that meditates on world events in a way that seems almost prescient. So, with his latest joint, “Da 5 Bloods” debuting on Netflix amid a groundswell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement after the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade at the hands of police, the filmmaker feels there’s no better moment for his film to debut.
“I cannot take any credit for this. The film was shot when it was shot; it was ready to come out when it was ready to come out. And then the world changed for everybody,” Lee tells Variety about the timing of the film’s release. “When something is repeated all the time it becomes a cliché … but that doesn’t mean it’s not the truth. And the truth I’m talking about is timing is everything. This film’s coming out at the right time for the world we live in.”
In “Da 5 Bloods,” the Oscar-winning filmmaker mediates on the internal and external war fought by the Black veterans of the Vietnam War, both while they were in-country and once they returned home to the United States. The story follows four Black veterans — Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) — and Paul’s estranged son (Jonathan Majors) as they return to Vietnam to recover the body of their fallen leader (Chadwick Boseman) and the gold they discovered and buried decades ago. But time hasn’t been kind to these war heroes and audiences begin to notice the cracks in the friendship and in the men themselves, after battling racial inequality, PTSD, money woes and family troubles after the war.
“I did a film about World War II — “Miracle at St. Anna” about our heroes, Black brothers, the Buffalo Soldiers, the 92nd Division who fought against Mussolini’s Fascists and Hitler’s Nazis in Italy. That war ended in ‘45; I was born in ‘57,” Lee says. “The Vietnam War was the first war televised into American homes. So, I was watching it on the news. I was also seeing what’s happening in America with the anti-war movement. And I knew friends who had older brothers that came back messed up — didn’t come back at all.”
Noting his own love of history and the power of filmmaking to tell it, he adds, “And I understand that there are generations of people who were not born at the Vietnam War and might not know anything about it.”
“I come from a long line of educators. And as an educator, I can’t be one of these people saying that the young generation is ignorant because they will know something. If the younger generation doesn’t know something, it’s because the older generation did not teach them — and when I say younger generation, I mean Black, white, brown, everybody,” Lee says. “But I’m guessing they never heard of Crispus Attucks [so] I’m going to show you two paintings of what he looks like and also a painting of where he was killed. Crispus Attucks was the first person to die for the United States of America at the Boston Massacre during the American Revolutionary War. I wasn’t taught that; I know they’re not being taught that.”
After working with Lee on “Crooklyn,” “Clockers,” and “Malcolm X,” before reuniting 25 years later for “Da 5 Bloods” — Lindo also sees the filmmaker’s value as an educator, noting Lee’s unique perspective on what’s happening in the world around him and its historical context.
“Broadly speaking, he tries to work from the center of the culture, investigating things that are germane, pertinent to the most challenging, the most, quote unquote controversial, but the most challenging aspects of the culture of what it means to be Black in America,” Lindo says. “But even if George Floyd had not happened — and we all wish it had not happened — [this movie] still would have a relevance from the standpoint of the place that Spike works from and compelling the culture to look at itself and its issues.”
Though Majors is a newcomer to Lee’s troupe of actors — mimicking his character’s inclusion in the fraternity of soldiers — he concurs.
“When we were coming up and we were watching, ‘Malcolm X’ and ‘Crooklyn’ and ‘Do the Right Thing,’ you watch them because they were the spine that was so pure and so honest and so authentic that went through it,” And so to hear about it, to watch it, and then to be in the middle of it. I was very quickly jolted. I was like, ‘Okay, this this is authentic,’” Majors says. “What he was doing then is what he’s doing now. And I think that’s why he’s stood the test of time, which is why I was so privileged and so honored to be a part of this.”