Spike Lee: Black People Have 'Been Fighting For This Country From Day One' Lee's film, Da 5 Bloods, follows four black veterans who go back to present day Vietnam to bring home the remains of their beloved former squad leader who was killed in combat.
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Spike Lee: Black People Have 'Been Fighting For This Country From Day One'

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Spike Lee: Black People Have 'Been Fighting For This Country From Day One'

Spike Lee: Black People Have 'Been Fighting For This Country From Day One'

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NOEL KING, HOST:

There's some strong language in this next interview. Spike Lee has a new movie out. Like a lot of his movies, the central characters are black Americans who talk honestly - sometimes angrily, sometimes humorously - about racism. Unlike many of Spike Lee's movies, it takes place overseas.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DA 5 BLOODS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Now I know why this mission was so damn important.

KING: "Da 5 Bloods" is about four black veterans who go back to present-day Vietnam to bring home the remains of their beloved former squad leader who was killed in combat. There's also a subplot. During the war, these men found millions of dollars of U.S. government gold. And they buried it in the jungle. Now they're going back to retrieve it. The argument is that it's not stealing, it's reparations.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DA 5 BLOODS")

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As Stormin' Norman) We repossessed this gold for every single black boot that never made it home, every brother and sister stolen from Mother Africa to Jamestown, Va., way back in 1619.

KING: The question at the heart of this movie is, what does it mean for men who have been oppressed by racism at home to become the oppressors in an unjust war? You see Spike Lee's deftness in answering that without disrespecting the service of black Vietnam vets.

SPIKE LEE: At the height of the Vietnam War, almost a third of the fighting force in Vietnam were African Americans. Yet, we were only 11, 12% of the American population.

KING: Spike Lee and I talked a few days before protests over police brutality broke out when Minneapolis police killed a black man, George Floyd. In death, Floyd has become the conscience of a movement. I asked Spike Lee to describe the movie's conscience - the dead squad leader, Stormin' Norman.

LEE: The best damn soldier you ever knew, a very heroic figure.

KING: But it's not just because he's brave. He's also a teacher. Can you talk about what he's taught them?

LEE: What Stormin' Norman is - really tried giving history lesson. History is not taught in schools. Crispus Attucks, he's a black person who is the first person to die for these United States America. He got killed in the Boston Massacre. So we African Americans have been fighting for this country, as he says, from the get.

KING: Did you meet any Vietnam veterans? While you were making this movie, what did you learn from American veterans?

LEE: Oh, yes, there were several. Our military adviser was in Vietnam. And during the editing process, we had four screenings for black Vietnam vets. And all of them thanked me, hugged me and saying, thank you for doing this film. And then when they went out the screening, they said, Spike, why you take so long?

(LAUGHTER)

LEE: Because they wanted to see their story.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DA 5 BLOODS")

VAN VERONICA NGO: (As Hanoi Hannah) Black GI, in Memphis, Tenn., a white man assassinate Dr. Martin Luther King, who heroically opposed the cruel racial discrimination in the U.S.A...

KING: There's a scene in the film where the North Vietnamese broadcaster - this is a woman who was a real person. She was known as Hanoi Hannah. In the movie, she delivers the news that Dr. King has been assassinated.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DA 5 BLOODS")

NGO: (As Hanoi Hannah) Black GI, your government sends 600,000 troops to crush the rebellion. Your soul sister and soul brothers are enraged in over 122 cities. They kill them. Why you fight against us?

KING: There is a sense you get watching that at the moment that happened, the black troops may turn on the white troops.

LEE: Well, that is...

KING: Was that something that really happened?

LEE: Yes. All the black Vietnam vets who saw the film - four different screenings - confirmed that. It's not something that's been talked about. But the black soldiers were about to set it off. And they were going to start firing guns, and it wasn't going to be at the Vietcong.

KING: Did you learn that from the veterans you talked to? That's extraordinary.

LEE: Well, it's in - I did a lot of research. And the black veterans confirmed it. You have to try to understand this - and this is at listeners, too. I mean, how does the film open? The very opening of the film where Muhammad Ali says, no Vietcong has ever called me n*****.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUHAMMAD ALI: My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother or some darker people or some poor, hungry people in the mud.

LEE: We're fighting people who've done nothing against us. And in the middle of all this we hear that Dr. Martin Luther King has been assassinated. And on top of that, their black brothers and sisters are burning stuff to the ground. In over 120 cities, America was in flame.

KING: Did any of them say to you, we wish we hadn't gone, we wish we'd just said, no?

LEE: Well, as my mother taught me, black people not one monolithic group.

KING: Yeah.

LEE: There were some who drank the Kool-Aid, you know, said, we have to protect America. We have to protect the world against communism. Now, you get drafted, now, you had to go unless you were enrolled college, unless you're going to Canada or unless you had a father who could have a doctor write a note for fake bone spurs so you didn't have to go to war.

KING: Can I ask you what you think it means to be a patriot or to be patriotic if you're an American?

LEE: Speak truth to power. And be in total defiance of that BS America, love it or leave it, you know? I was 10 years old in '67, you know? So I was watching the Vietnam War at home in New York City. I remember the anti-war movement. And I remember the resistance to that, you know? America, love it or leave it, you know?

And now, this guy in the White House has said the same thing. But I think it's very audacious to tell anybody, and particularly African Americans, who built this country - the foundation of the United States America is a land grab coupled with slavery. That is the foundation of this country. So we ain't going nowhere.

(LAUGHTER)

LEE: We built this [expletive]. And we been fighting for this country from day one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARVIN GAYE SONG, "INNER CITY BLUES (MAKE ME WANNA HOLLER)")

KING: And then I said goodbye to the director who, you'll remember, came to wide attention years ago with the movie "Do The Right Thing." Mr. Lee, thank you so much for taking the time today. We really appreciate it.

LEE: No, no, no. It's been a pleasure speaking to you, enjoy your show. And, you know, you're doing the right thing.

(LAUGHTER)

LEE: Pun intended. Pun intended.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARVIN GAYE SONG, "INNER CITY BLUES (MAKE ME WANNA HOLLER)")

KING: Spike Lee's latest film is called "Da 5 Bloods."

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