Vanity Fair: Da 5 Bloods looks back at the history of Black American soldiers fighting for a country that doesn’t believe in them. You explored a lot of the same questions that the Black Lives Matter protests ended up raising last summer.
Spike Lee: Well, this whole thing was crazy. Everything came together and happened at the same time. You’ve got that ’rona; you’ve got Breonna Taylor and numerous others. And people especially saw the image of brother George Floyd. That went around the world, and people took to the streets all over the world, and most cases they weren’t even Black people. So that resounded.
You were not just ahead of it with Da 5 Bloods. Many people invoked Do the Right Thing during the uprising. You were 30 years ahead of your time with Radio Raheem and what happened with him. You must have seen the talk about that film and the resonance it has today.
To be honest, that happened earlier with Eric Garner.
It keeps happening, right?
Black people, Black lives keep getting killed. You saw it there in the fictional character of Radio Raheem and real-life murder—the NYPD choke hold of Eric Garner and the Minneapolis police knee-on-the-neck murder of George Floyd. So it’s really a sad comment on the United States of America.
What is it like for you to see cautionary tales you created decades back returning? There must be some sense of, I’ve been warning you. I’ve been talking about this.
I don’t take any glee or satisfaction that Black people are still getting killed. It was my hope by showing what happened to Radio Raheem that it would bring attention to it. But to be honest, that film, there were a lot of critics; there was a lot of stuff written that I was trying to cause a race riot, that I wanted Black people to start an uprising, which is not the case at all. But that stuff, I didn’t just make it up. Black people have been getting killed since even before we got to America. We’d been killed during the Middle Passage, or we died of disease, or we made the choice to end our lives—jump in the Atlantic Ocean rather than come to some unknown place. So this is not new. And we could focus on 1619 when the first slave ship came and landed in Jamestown, Virginia. But there were deaths before that ship even made it. So this is not something that’s new. What’s new is that we’re seeing it with people’s camera phones. Technology goes around the world with the press of a button.
Do the Right Thing is still so vital. I guess that’s the point I’m getting at.
When this film came out, lines were around the block. The people that work at the theater, their job was to get people out of the theaters and bring in the people on line. But so often the film couldn’t start on time because people were not leaving the theater right away. They would get out of their seat and then stand in the lobby and talk and discuss the film, all the different viewpoints. It was amazing to really see that. And I would go around in New York City and sneak in at the end of the movie as the film let out. I’d just hide in the corner and watch these people have these really in-depth discussions.
You’ve described Delroy Lindo’s volatile character in Da 5 Bloods to me as a “MAGA-hat-wearing motherfucker,” which I think is the best character description I’ve heard from anybody this year. Do you think Da 5 Bloods plays differently post-election?
No. I don’t think it’s going to change the power of the film at all. I think what changes is watching this film after Chadwick left us. That’s what changes. I mean, he was great in this film, and then it really does a whole other thing watching this film knowing that he’s no longer with us. It makes the character of Stormin’ Norman even more mythical. And I’ve got to say, he’s phenomenal in Ma Rainey too.
You had no idea he was sick, right? Sounds like nobody knew.
I didn’t know; [Ma Rainey director] George C. Wolfe didn’t know; [Black Panther filmmaker] Ryan Coogler didn’t know. I mean, his tightest, innermost circle knew.