Spike Lee: American Society Now!

State of Mind

SL: I have been optimistic, I think “Do the Right Thing” is a very optimistic film, that was made 31 years ago. Look at Eric Garner, you have to ask yourself, you look at the murder of Eric Garner, you have to ask yourself how much has changed? So I mean my mindset is day-by-day, and that was during the pandemic. So it has not changed. Day-by-day.

History Repeating Itself

SL: History has been, history has always repeated itself. And what gives me optimism is to see the young white generation, my young sisters and brothers who have joined us in the streets. So that has been very, very uplifting to me, that’s not just black or brown people. It’s our white sisters and brothers too, which you saw in the civil rights movement, and so that is history repeating itself, which I saw growing up as a kid. I’m seeing it again today. Can I make a statement? Let’s try as best as we can, if we could concentrate on the movie instead of what is going on in the world because it’s all connected anyway.

Blacks Voting for Trump

Well, I don’t call him by his name. I call him Agent Orange, and the pun is intended when that is in a Vietnam film. My mother told me at a very, very young age, my late mother, my late dear mother, that all (INAUDIBLE – 5:56) black people are in the group, we all think alike, look alike, etc. So there is a very, very small percentage of black people who drink that isn’t orange Kool-Aid. So Kevin Willmott, my co-writer, he felt this would be a good thing, we thought what would be the most extreme thing we could do to put amongst these four guys, cause they aren’t all the same, they have different viewpoints. And automatically, I knew it had to be Agent Orange. It also, that would be a shortcut for the audience to understand what type of trauma he’s been in since the Vietnam War. And in other ways, he is almost like a Shakespearian tragic character too. And I have to give out a shout out to my love, Delroy Lindo, cause he did his thing.

Change of Plans

God works in mysterious ways. It was not planned. Here’s the plan, the plan was I was going to be the President of the Jury in Cannes and “Da 5 Bloods” world premiere would be in Cannes out of competition. That was the plan. And after that we would get a theatrical run like Scorsese had with “The Irishman.” There’s a thing called COVID-19 that changed plans.

Filming in Southeast

The morning after I won the Oscar, I was on a plane to Thailand, the morning after. We shot the majority of the film in Thailand, Chiang-Mai, Bangkok, other places, and we finished in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, Vietnam. It was one of the most enjoyable, informative experiences of my life. Because as far as East goes, I’ve only been to Japan, that was it. This was my first time in Thailand, first time in Vietnam, and the cast, the crew, the people welcomed me and the Americans there with open arms, it was beautiful, beautiful. It was hot though. And it was something that, we had to rush because we were trying to get in front of the monsoon season. But in Thailand, there are many days where we were, had the worst pollution in the world because the farmers burn their crops at that time. But look, we had, we were ready for it, so it was a great experience and I look forward to going back.

Vietnam Movies

A lot of those films were shot in the Philippines and not Vietnam. The reason why I cast Laurence Fishburne as a lead in my film “School Daze,” is because I saw him in “Apocalypse Now.” The reason why I cast Albert Hall in “Malcolm X” was because I saw him in “Apocalypse Now.” I have nothing but deep respect for Oliver Stone with his films about Vietnam, Oliver Stone is not just dreaming it, I mean he was there, he was there. He was in Vietnam. I also have a lot of love for my brother Francis Ford Coppola, as you see, there are two homages to “Apocalypse Now.” So they are there for a reason. Did a small smile come on your face when you saw Robert Duvall in a helicopter and then you see these guys on a boat going up a river with the same plot. (laughs)

Personal Movie

SL: I was born in 1957, so I was ten years old in 1967, so I was old enough to know what was going on, but young enough not to be drafted. And I really tried to stay away from the hypothetical questions, but for me going back was, you have to remember that the Vietnam War was the first war that was televised in America’s homes. So in New York, the local news was 6, the national news was on 7, so we saw the Vietnam War on TV. That is why when we go back to Vietnam in the film, we shoot Super 16, which is what they shot that documentary footage on the war for. And I remember the riots when Doctor King got assassinated, 1968, I was 11 years old. I remember the anti-war movement protest; I remember when Nixon resigned. So all these things, it’s not like World War II, a film I did called “Miracle at St. Anna,” I wasn’t alive then. But the Vietnam War, I was aware of what was going on. No pun intended with the Marvin Gaye song.

Going Back

SL: I wasn’t old enough to go back and fight in the Vietnam War and I wasn’t old enough to be drafted. So I think that is the answer. Maybe I would have studied a little harder in school. (Laughs)

Need to Vote

We have got to vote. He has to go. It is my belief that if this guy wins again, the world will be in peril, not just the United States of America, the world.  We have got to vote; we have got to register to vote.

Films That Failed

I have done several films that people didn’t get. People didn’t get “25th Hour” when it came out, it’s been rediscovered, people did not get “Bamboozled” when it came out. And also “Do the Right Thing,” I mean now it’s a classic, but I was being accused, in “Do the Right Thing,” that I was inciting riots. There were critics, big time critics that said blood will be on my hands because of “Do the Right Thing.”

Racial Problems

I think it’s very important that people look at what has happened in America, but more importantly, look at what is happening in your own country. Because the United States of America is not the only country that has racial problems. And I think that that guy in Brazil is lucky, because what that guy is doing in Brazil, people aren’t looking at because of other world matters, but the guy in Brazil is just as bad as Agent Orange. So I think that, you could look at the United States, but also look at where you live.

Changes

SL: There have been changes, I give you that, but what fundamental changes have happened, the black people are still killed in this country left and right. That’s how I look at it. Yes there have been changes, but black people are still being killed left and right, many times by the police, and to add insult to injury, these murderers walk free. There were four cops in Minnesota, only one has been charged. Those other three should be put on charges, in my opinion, charges should be pressed against those other cops too.

Impact of Art

I do believe art can change the world. I believe that, I will go to my grave believing that. Now to the degree of change, that is debatable. First I want to thank you for being a part of the movement and also having your son there with you. Because a lot of times black people get asked how can we end racism? You guys got to answer that question, that is really on you and that’s why I am really, I was asked how optimistic I feel, I am optimistic because I see people like yourself, your son, and a generation of young, my young white brothers and sisters, who have taken to the streets like they did in the 60s when I was growing up. I have never, I mean probably going back, I have not seen since the 60s, the enormous outpouring of white righteous people taking to the streets. I am reading a list of, listen to this people, very important, I don’t call them riots, I call them uprisings. Riot is a very negative word, so let’s be careful, words matter. When I am reading the list of these uprisers in the United States of America, I’m like Salt Lake City? How many black people are in Salt Lake City and also, there’s no sports going on, so I know the Utah Jazz ain’t around. (laughs) Des Moines Iowa, how many black people are in Des Moines Iowa? So we are seeing, I think unprecedented numbers of righteous white Americans who are saying, excuse my language, fuck this, this shit has to stop and black lives matter. (applauds) And I thank you.

The photos directly behind me are of African-American artists, his name is James Van Der Zee, who came to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance. So those are his actual prints.

First Experience at the Movies

SL: I started going to movies at a very young age, my mother was a cinephile. But to connect your question to this movie, I graduated from Morehouse in 1979, in May and at Fall, I was going to my first year at NYU Graduate Film School. And I had been lucky enough to get an internship that Summer at Columbia Pictures in LA. First time I had ever been to LA. And I was in LA, I was at the first screening, 12 Noon, to see “Apocalypse Now” at the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard. I had already been admitted to film school already, but that is one of the most great experiences I ever had in a movie theater, from Storaro’s photography to Walter Murch’s sound.I am in the movie theater; I keep hearing helicopters and I am looking like, where are these helicopters coming from? (laughs) So “Apocalypse Now,” and that is why there are two homages to that film, to his film, “Apocalypse Now” and to my film, “Da 5 Bloods.”

Silvia: GOING BACK TO THE MOVIE, WHAT WAS AT THIS POINT IN YOUR LIFE THAT YOU FELT IT WAS TIME TO TACKLE THE REPERCUSSIONS OF THE VIETNAM WAR IN THIS TIME IN YOUR ARTISTIC LIFE? AND HOW MUCH IS THAT IMPACT CONTEMPORARY FOR YOU IN TERMS OF SEEING WHAT IS GOING ON TODAY? HOW ARE THE TWO THINGS CONNECTED?
Well the first thing, I did not predict Corona, the stuff that was in the film was there already. The script was brought to me, the original screenwriters, Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, they wrote the script on spec, it was called “The Last Tour” and it was about four white Vietnam veterans who go back to Vietnam to find some buried treasure. Lloyd Levin, my co-producer, optioned the script, and brought it to Oliver Stone. After two years, Oliver Stone felt he couldn’t do it. Lloyd Levin read an article where I had mentioned my love of the film “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” had a meeting with my co-writer Kevin Willmott and we said we want to do it, we want to change this and make these guys black Vietnam vets and that’s the story.

The film is contemporary today because the film takes place present day and we flashback to Vietnam.

More Envelopes to Push

Yes because I read an article that Kurosawa, the last interview he did and the interviewer asked him, I am paraphrasing, “Mr. Kurosawa, you are one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, a master, is there anything else that you have to learn about cinema?” And Kurosawa, who is my hero, said, it was his last film, he said, again, I am paraphrasing, “I still have a universe to learn from cinema.” So he was saying that, and this is when I went to film school. That was like, I really took that to heart, like learning never stops. And as I have gotten more older, more mature and skillful with the craft of filmmaking, it’s become more and more like New Orleans gumbo, but without the pork and red meat, which I don’t eat. (laughs) Look at this film, you have the narrative, you have the archival footage, archival photographs, I mean the music, it’s a whole bunch of stuff that we put in the pot and put the pot on the stove. But the thing about it, the pot, even after you take the pot off the stove, it still has to simmer, to get them juices mixing. But what you are saying is an astute observation, I am doing stuff now that I wasn’t doing before.

Immoral War

I do know that during the war and after the war, black and white Vietnam soldiers were spat upon, were vilified, because it was an immoral war and the atrocities that some of the American soldiers did were televised. And you had the Mai Lai Massacre. So they were not treated well.

Intermarriage and Racism

I agree with your statement. But here is the thing though, I don’t think the end of racism is that everyone inter-marry, not that I am against inter-marriage, but we just got to defeat racism on its own terms across the globe.

Voting

I think the Electoral College is horrible and it just has to go. I think that many people have called for reparations here in America, reparations, that black people get reparations for the 400 years of slavery, so I am hopeful for that.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Well even before, I saw “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” when I was in film school. And I had not seen it before, one of the great films of all time, one of the great directors, John Huston, his father was a great actor, Walter Huston, and the great, great Humphrey Bogart. What that film shows to me, is that greed is a motherfucker. (laughs) That everything that we all write, peace and love, that money, or in this film, gold comes into the equation, all bets are off.

1619 Project

Well I had nothing to do with the “1619” project as far as what they did. And they did a great job, and a shout out to the New York Times and all the people doing that. It was a momentous historical date to acknowledge. And that in 2019 marked the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship coming into Jamestown Virginia. So as you know from my films, I am a student of history and I think it is a benchmark that should be acknowledged.