Spike Lee: A 'Heavenly Light' Shined On Chadwick Boseman In 'Da 5 Bloods' Lee's heist thriller centers on five Black veterans who return to Vietnam. Lee says one scene with Chadwick Boseman took on particular resonance after the actor's death from cancer in August 2020.

Spike Lee: A 'Heavenly Light' Shined On Chadwick Boseman In 'Da 5 Bloods'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Spike Lee's latest film, "Da 5 Bloods," is nominated for three Screen Actors Guild Awards and was named best film of 2020 by the National Board of Review. We're going to hear the interview he just recorded with our guest interviewer Sam Sanders, the host of NPR's It's Been A Minute. Here's Sam.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Since the 1980s, Spike Lee has been a singular force in American cinema. From "Do The Right Thing" to "Malcolm X" to "BlacKkKlansman," has made films that force America to confront its ugly history. And he's also made films that are just pretty awesome to watch. Spike Lee's latest film is called "Da 5 Bloods." It was released last year on Netflix, and now it's getting Oscar buzz. This movie, "Da 5 Bloods," it is equal parts heist film and history lesson. It's full of flashbacks to the Vietnam era, and it shines a light on how Black soldiers back then gave so much and got so little in return.

All right, let's play a clip from "Da 5 Bloods." You're going to hear now from four Vietnam vets. They are played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr. They've all gone back to Vietnam to retrieve the remains of Norman, their squad leader who died during the war. He is played by the late Chadwick Boseman in flashbacks. And important to know - the men are also back in Vietnam to try and retrieve a treasure they buried in the jungle during the war.

All right, so in this scene, the group is traveling by boat. One of them, Paul - he's played by Delroy Lindo - he gets in this heated screaming match with a Vietnamese man selling chickens. It escalates quickly. The seller ends up yelling at the group, saying American GIs killed his parents. Then the argument breaks up, and Paul is trying to calm back down. His concerned son, who is also with him, is trying to help. He is played by Jonathan Peters (ph).


JONATHAN MAJORS: (As David) He has PTSD. He gets triggered.


DELROY LINDO: (As Paul) David, what you know about it, huh? You don't know nothing about this. I don't have...

MAJORS: (As David) Nightmares. You've been having nightmares.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah, he does.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We all got PTSD.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Come on now. Look - just breathe. Breathe. Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Come on, bud. Come on. There you go. Come on.

LINDO: (As Paul) I see ghosts, y'all. I see ghosts.

NORM LEWIS: (As Eddie) Well, it happens to all of us, man.

LINDO: (As Paul) Oh, you've seen them, too?

LEWIS: (As Eddie) Yeah.

LINDO: (As Paul) They'll come to you at night. Storming Norm comes to me damn near every night. Now, he talked to y'all like he talked to me?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Come on.

LINDO: (As Paul) I don't think so.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Come on. Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Take it easy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Go ahead. Go ahead. Get it out. Come on. Get it out. Come on now.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Fists up (ph). Come on. Fists up, man.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) Bloods.

SANDERS: So, you know, we are talking in the midst of yet another award season, a season in which your latest film, "Da 5 Bloods," is getting a lot of buzz and some nominations. But already people are saying, in some regards, it's getting snubbed - like, no Golden Globe nominations for you. It's this thing I keep seeing with you and your work and your art and the coverage of it, is that besides making films that really speak to who and what America really is, there is this constant discussion over whether or not you and your work get their due. Are you tired of that conversation? Do you listen to that conversation?

SPIKE LEE: Well, I don't listen that. You know, I did at one point, but that is just going down a hole. I mean, I just - look at "Do The Right Thing," you know, considered American classic on all counts. You know, that wasn't even nominated for best picture and...

SANDERS: "Driving Miss Daisy" won.

LEE: ...Got two nominations - Danny Aiello for Sal lost out to Denzel for "Glory," and I had - I got original screenplay. So we know what film won best picture, and no one's watching that film. I mean, very few people watching that film today. But also, in retrospect, the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is more diverse now than it was back in the day.

SANDERS: Do you think it's there? Do you think it's reached the point where it needs to be when you talk about the academy membership?

LEE: No, I mean, it's better than it was, but it's not - look; everything is a process. So it's not - you're not going to be able to snap your fingers overnight because of hashtag Oscars so white. But that hashtag made the academy, you know, make changes, which I commend them for. And it opened it up for people of color to be members of the academy and vote.

SANDERS: Are you thinking ahead to whether or not "Da 5 Bloods" is going to get some Oscar nods this year?

LEE: Look. You know, that's out of my hands. And I've had five - before the film was streamed on Netflix, had five screenings for Black and Puerto Rican Vietnam vets. I mean, that's who I made the film for, you know? And they loved it, so I'm at peace with that.

SANDERS: Yeah. You sound like someone who does not do the song and dance that other folks might do in the awards show...

LEE: Well, I mean, I had a outburst for when "BlacKkKlansman" - so I'm not - that was - it wasn't that, the fact that "BlacKkKlansman" didn't win. It was the film that won. And I had "Driving Miss Daisy" flashbacks...


LEE: ...With the film that won.

SANDERS: And we should say the film that won that year when "BlacKkKlansman" was also up for Oscars was "Green Book."

LEE: Yep.

SANDERS: What is the deal with those kind of movies continuing to be made? From "Driving Miss Daisy" to "Green Book," this, like, children's book sanitation of race - why is the industry still letting that stuff happen and giving it awards?

LEE: But here's the thing, sir - racism permeates every inch of American society. So why should Hollywood be exempt from it?

SANDERS: Let's talk about "Da 5 Bloods." So this movie is all about Black Vietnam veterans going back to Vietnam, present day. In the original script, the soldiers were white. You've made movies with white lead...

LEE: There was - one of the group was a Black guy.

SANDERS: OK, OK. But the majority were white. Talk about the choice to make all the soldiers Black and how difficult the process was to rewrite it in that way.

LEE: Well, I rewrote it with Kevin Willmott. Kevin and I, we had no problem (laughter) with the change.

SANDERS: OK. Black it up, yeah.

LEE: And when we got the script from the producer, Lloyd Levin, Kevin and I automatically knew that - what we needed to do, and this would give an opportunity to tell the story of the Black effort, the Bloods who fought and died in Vietnam in a very immoral war.

SANDERS: I don't think people know that Black soldiers were overrepresented in Vietnam. You know, they were - at that point, Blacks were about 11% of the population at that time, but they represented more than 20% of all combat troops in Vietnam.

LEE: Well, my numbers say at the height - my numbers say at the height of the Vietnam War, it was almost 30%.

SANDERS: Wow. And at least a quarter of all U.S. combat deaths were Black soldiers.

LEE: Look. We are indexing everything. The fact is that the majority of films that dealt with Vietnam, the Black experience was not a part of the story. That's - of course, you would think that. I don't like that, but that was the case. That's not the story they wanted to tell. It's simple.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, I like how in the film "Da 5 Bloods," you kind of poke a little fun at that. There's a little line where the characters are ragging on "Rambo" and saying that Hollywood always tries to go back and win Vietnam. What do you mean when you have your characters say that Hollywood always tries to go back and win Vietnam?

LEE: Because it's revisionist history. United States of America, the biggest and baddest, strongest country in the world, got their ass kicked by the Viet Cong. Before that, they had fought the Chinese. Before that - you know, and they kicked France's ass. So I mean, all the money we have, all the bombs we dropped, the napalm, all that stuff, and we still lost.

SANDERS: You know, speaking of things in your movies that folks maybe did not know before they saw your movie...

LEE: Who, Hanoi Hannah?

SANDERS: Oh, well, that was very interesting. Actually, talk about that for a second because I didn't know that existed at all.

LEE: I did a film called "Miracle At St. Anna" about the Buffalo Soldiers, the 92nd Division that fought in Italy, landed in Italy, went up the boot, fight against Mussolini's fascist army and then later on to Germany against Hitler's Nazis. In that film, we had a scene, a woman called Axis Sally. In fact, she was born in Cincinnati. But she was an American who was in Nazi Germany who would be on the radio playing popular American music. And in between the music, she would talk with soldiers, you know, about propaganda. At the same time, in the Pacific Theater, the Japanese had a counterpart. Her name was Tokyo Rose. She was doing the same thing. You can look it up.

And so in the Vietnam War, there was Hanoi Hannah. And again, she would play popular American music, rock 'n' roll, soul. And in between songs, she was given a script to read. Even though some people might say it's propaganda, a lot of stuff she said was not a lie. You know, when she says, why are you dying for a country that doesn't love you? A lot of the Black soldiers, that's how they heard about how, two or three days later, that MLK had been assassinated. That's how they found out.


LEE: And she used that, saying, why are you - don't you know that your sisters and brothers are rioting and burning over a hundred cities in America and they're being killed by the police?

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, that was something - scene in your film that I did not know a thing about. Now, what did happen in the film that I know is a reality but I don't think I think about enough is that you have, you know, Delroy Lindo playing a character who was a Black Vietnam veteran, who is also a Trump supporter. And I'm realizing, we know at this point that there are people of color who supported Trump. At least, like, one in 10 Black men who voted in 2016 voted for Trump, even higher numbers of Latino men. And I realized, watching Delroy Lindo in this role, I don't see that a lot even though it's real.

LEE: (Laughter).

SANDERS: What went into deciding to make one of the Black veterans in this movie support Trump and wear the MAGA hat?

LEE: Here's the answer. As a young lad growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., my mother - my late mother, Jacqueline Shelton Lee, would always tell me, Spikey, all Black people don't look alike, think alike, act alike. Black folks are not one monolithic group. That's always stuck with me. So if I had this group of guys, they all can't be lovey-dovey. So it was very simple to think of what was the one thing that would be the most combustible (laughter), and that would be for Paul's character to be a Trumpette (ph).

GROSS: We're listening to the interview that our guest interviewer Sam Sanders recorded with Spike Lee. Lee's latest film, "Da 5 Bloods," is streaming on Netflix. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the conversation our guest interviewer Sam Sanders recorded with Spike Lee. His latest film is called "Da 5 Bloods." Sam is the host of the NPR show It's Been A Minute.

SANDERS: Chadwick Boseman in "Da 5 Bloods," it's one of his last performances.

LEE: Next to last. The last was "Ma Rainey."

SANDERS: You've said since the film's release and his death that one of those final scenes with him in the movie, the one with the light where he's kind of coming back...

LEE: He comes back as a ghost...


LEE: ...A spirit.

SANDERS: Set up that scene and, like, what you think it means now after he's gone.

LEE: Oh, I had the pleasure of seeing the film before and after. My wife and I - Tonya - we saw it - we watched "Da 5 Bloods," I think, the next day after we heard the bad news. And seeing that last scene with Delroy playing Paul, I mean, it just took on another - I know what the word is. But it just became something extra. And, you know, that - the main light - we had a little fill light. But that light, you know, it was not manmade. That was a heavenly light that was shining down to the trees in the jungle on our brother Chadwick.

SANDERS: His character in that moment was already kind of Christlike. And he's saying to Delroy's character, I died for you, as he hugs him and there's a wound in his gut. Watching it after he's dead, it even has more of a spirit of the divine. There's no question here, just what a loss. Was he sick when he was filming with you all in Vietnam?

LEE: I think so. He didn't tell anybody, but I think so. He didn't tell George Wolfe. I asked George. He didn't know either on "Ma Rainey." He directed "Ma Rainey."

SANDERS: That's, like, a higher level of performer.

LEE: Well, that's the type of person he was. And I understand that he didn't want to be treated differently than any of the actors, because if I had known - the first battle sequence, he has to run, like, a hundred yards. And I was telling him to run like Usain Bolt.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEE: If I had known that he was terminally ill, I would not ask him to do that. And that's the reason why he didn't tell me or tell - you know, he did not want to take any shorts. I'm just thinking about that this year. Just so many people been dying, not just in movies, but Hank Aaron, I mean, everybody, Christopher Plummer the other day. I did two films with him, "Malcolm X," "Inside Man." And you know that thing in the Academy Awards where they - like, the obituary thing where they put...

SANDERS: In Memoriam? Yeah.

LEE: Yeah. I mean...

SANDERS: And they always forget somebody and everyone's mad about it. Yeah.

LEE: But when Chadwicks name comes up, whew, that's going to be a - not disrespecting anybody who's left us. And I say that in all sincerity. Not in the - a life is a life. However, there are going to be some names, you know, where they tell people not to applause where people are going to applause. I mean, Cloris Leachman died the other day.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

LEE: I mean, it's like people are dropping left and right. And not everything's from COVID either.

SANDERS: You know, hearing you talk about all of these shining figures dying, does all of that make you think a little more about...

LEE: Yes.

SANDERS: ...Your own legacy and mortality?

LEE: Yes. Yes.

SANDERS: OK. Tell me everything you're thinking about that.

LEE: I don't want to talk about it (laughter). Nope. You know, I'm trying to stay as long as I can, so I'll leave it at that. I just don't want to speak my mortality into existence.

SANDERS: No, I totally hear you.

LEE: But to answer your question, you know, I don't know how one could not think about their mortality when you see people leaving us, I mean, giants, giants...

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

LEE: ...Leaivng us left and right.

SANDERS: Out of the blue, it seems, out of the blue. There's something in the movie that I wondered about. There's a lot of flashback in "Da 5 Bloods." These veterans are flashing back to the times they were fighting in Vietnam. You don't have younger actors play the younger versions of these actors.

LEE: That never works for me.

SANDERS: Explain.

LEE: You can't find the people look alike. And you do that, then people got to say their names, other people's names every sentence or keep up with who's playing who, especially when you got - I mean, you could do it with one or two people. We've got five people.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, totally, totally.

LEE: Oh, let me ask you this question.

SANDERS: OK (laughter).

LEE: Do you know all their names? What's the significance of the names of the Bloods?

SANDERS: I know Delroy is Paul. Is it biblical?

LEE: Yeah. I'm not asking you to name them. I'm just saying, what's the significance of their names?

SANDERS: I really don't want to answer this question incorrectly.

LEE: Just say you don't know.

SANDERS: I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.


LEE: No, those are the names of the original Temptations.


LEE: Yes, yes. Slipped that by you, huh?

SANDERS: What was that about? What were you trying to convey? Well, it's interesting to hear you say it's the Temptations because...

LEE: It's a homage to one of my favorite groups. I mean, Motown - Marvin Gaye, you know, Adelaide, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas. You know, it was all one big family. Motown, led by Berry Gordy, the sound of young America.

SANDERS: Well, not even just thinking about Motown and the Marvin Gaye that you're playing in the movie, there are these moments where Marvin Gaye is the soundtrack in this film. And there's one moment where it's just his vocal tracks acoustically.

LEE: Yeah, that's a cappella "What's Going On."

SANDERS: Yeah. And it's so beautiful. And his voice sounds so bright. But you realize he's singing about some stuff that's kind of sad. It's this wonderful juxtaposition that that music in him and his voice brings to the film, because he's always been this man who sings about real stuff even as his voice just sounds like roses.

LEE: Well, the album came out in 1971. So they were listening to - the Bloods were listening to what's going on. I mean, many of those songs, you know, applied to this moral war in Vietnam.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest, interviewer Sam Sanders recorded with Spike Lee. His latest film, "Da 5 Bloods," is streaming on Netflix. We'll hear more of their interview after a short break and listen back to my 2009 interview with actress Cloris Leachman. She died last month. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying. Brother, brother, brother, there's far too many of you dying. You know we've got to find a way to bring some loving here today. Yeah. Father, father, we don't need to escalate. You see; war is not the answer for only love can conquer hate. You know we've got to find a way to bring some loving here today. Oh. Picket lines and picket signs - don't punish me with brutality. Talk to me so you can see, oh, what's going on, what's going on, yeah, what's going on, oh what's going on.


THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) I've got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it's cold outside, I've got the month of May. I guess you'd say, what can make me feel this way? My girl, my girl, my girl - talking 'bout my girl, my girl. I've got so much honey, the bees envy me. I've got a sweeter song...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Spike Lee. He's made over 50 films, including "She's Gotta Have It," "Do The Right Thing," "Malcolm X," "25th Hour" and "BlacKkKlansman." His latest film, "Da 5 Bloods," was on many 2020 best of lists. It's streaming on Netflix. Spike Lee spoke with our guest interviewer, Sam Sanders. Sam hosts the NPR show It's Been A Minute.

SANDERS: One of the stories I love most about you is the story of the movie you made as a student at NYU.

LEE: What, "The Answer?"


LEE: One of the great things about NYU, the faculty, the teach professors, they screen a lot of films, you know, especially world cinema. I mean, I never heard of Akira Kurosawa before. And "Rashomon" made such an impact on me. The premise that "She's Gotta Have It" is "Rashomon."

But going back to my first film, "The Answer" - they screened D.W. Griffith's "Birth Of A Nation." And I'm not one of these people saying that film should not be seen, but I would have liked that the teachers would have put - before they screened the film or after the film - talk about it in a historical context, you know? And, you know, I didn't find out much later that the Klan at that time the film came out was dead and stinking - no pun intended. And that film gave rebirth to the Klan, which, consequently, Black bodies were burned and hung.

So my film was like an answer to - I don't want to say an answer, but my commenting on "Birth Of A Nation" is about a young African American filmmaker, a writer-director who's hired by a big studio to write and direct the remake of "Birth Of A Nation," big-budget version. And he somehow thinks that he's going to be able to make the film he wants to make, which is stupid on his part.

SANDERS: You know, we kind of got at this earlier in the conversation, about the industry doing better when it comes to race and honoring the work of creatives of color. But I wonder, as you're someone who's been in the biz for a long time - I keep flashing back to the story you've told where you - early on in your career, you'd be going to these meetings with all white executives. And in one of those meetings, they, like, pulled a Black guy from the mailroom just to have a Black face there, too.

LEE: There's more than one (laughter). Oh, you know what was cool, though? Is, like, the white executives thought I was fooled. But there was a look between me and the brothers they brought up from the mailroom. I knew what was happening. They knew I knew. So it's like we had an understanding. You know, this is a game right here and we're - you know, this is a game. And we both understood, you know, what the game was. And after I left the office, you know, they sent their Black asses back down to the mailroom (laughter).

Because for a while - you know, I don't go into the mailroom, but for a while, the only Black people I would see would be the brothers and the sisters at the gate, you know, let you in. Come on. Come on, Spike. Come on through. Come on through (laughter). They brought - this is on my mother's grave, happened more than once - they brought some Black people up from the mailroom. And I smelled that a mile away and just played along with it.

SANDERS: What does playing along with it look like in that kind of meeting? What do you - do you just like, OK?

LEE: Well, I tell you what's not playing along. Not play along would have been like, yo, this is bull**** (laughter). You must think I'm a [expletive] idiot (laughter).

SANDERS: Well, now you're at the point in your career where you can just say that probably in any meeting. You're Spike Lee, right?

LEE: Look, this is still - you know, you can't go off on somebody.

SANDERS: I mean, you can.

LEE: You got to, you know, respect. But to be honest though, they don't try that [expletive] with me (laughter).

SANDERS: (Laughter) They know. They know Mr. Lee's not playing around.

LEE: I mean, but also another thing, which is to be honest, you know, these are - over the years, you know, I've - I know a lot of the players. So it's not like we don't know each other and then done films before. So it's - you know, there - I mean, that thing with the bringing up guys from - the brothers from the mailroom, that was like in the '80s.


LEE: That happened, like, around - really after "She's Gotta Have It." And then we got courted by Hollywood after success of "She's Gotta Have It." If you do your research, if you look at reviews of "She's Gotta Have It," I was called the Black Woody Allen (laughter).

SANDERS: How did you feel hearing that? - because, I mean, in hindsight, none of us want to be Woody Allen.

LEE: Look, I mean, Woody's a great - he's a great filmmaker. He's from Brooklyn. He's a Knicks fan. So but it really wasn't describing me. And then after "School Daze," you know, it was all Black - to place it, you know, historically Black colleges - that those comparisons ended.

SANDERS: All right. I promise, last question for you. A lot of your friends call you Negrodamus.

LEE: (Laughter).

SANDERS: (Laughter) So on that note, as we close, Negrodamus, do you want to make a prediction about anything about America, about film, about race? Because I want to hear it.

LEE: Well, you know, we almost came to the brink on January 6. And I have full confidence in Joe and my sister from Howard University. And they got a big, big, big, big job on their hand. But I believe we're on the right track - from lies to truth. Even though the truth is painful, I'd rather hear the truth than the lie.

SANDERS: Yeah. Mr. Lee, this was such an honor.

LEE: No, no, thank you, thank you. And it makes - let me tell you something. Talking to you for an hour was not going to the dentist to get root canal (laughter). And you may take that as a backhanded compliment, but is not because what makes interviews for me worthwhile is when - the questions I get. You know, so I'm not answering the same question I've been answering for 30-some years. So thank you very much, and I enjoyed speaking to you.

GROSS: Spike Lee's latest film, "Da 5 Bloods," is streaming on Netflix. He spoke with our guest interviewer Sam Sanders, host of the NPR show It's Been A Minute. After we take a short break, we'll remember actress Cloris Leachman. She died last month. We'll listen back to my 2009 interview with her. This is FRESH AIR.


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