Spike Lee loves cinema and he loves making movies, but, perhaps more than either, he loves filmmakers who are willing to share that kind of love for the art and its craft.
For Lee, it began in the early ’80s at NYU’s film school, where his classmates included Ernest Dickerson and Ang Lee, and where Jim Jarmusch, two years his senior, gave him the confidence to believe that his goals were achievable. It was in 1985, however, that he had an epiphany, when NYU old boy Martin Scorsese returned to his alma mater with a print of his new film After Hours. “After the screening,” Lee recalls, “he didn’t run out of the theater. He stayed around. I went up to him and told him my name and what I wanted to do. In that very moment, Marty took an interest in me as a filmmaker, and we’ve been very good friends since then. He could have easily blown me off. I was, like, the last person in line. He could have said, ‘Look, man, I showed you my film, I’ve got to go.’ But he stayed to speak to me. Engaged.”
It was clearly an important moment for Lee, who, when asked how this moment might have affected his future as a filmmaker, reacts as if the question shouldn’t need to be asked. “I teach!” he yells. “I’m a teacher—a film professor for going on 20 years!”
The teaching began in 1991 at Harvard, then Lee returned to NYU shortly after, taking over as artistic director of its film school in 2002, where he has tenure now. One of the conditions of him taking that position was that it accommodated his busy production schedule. “Usually I shoot in the summer,” he says, “so it works out”.
For Lee, teaching is a way to connect the past with the present and to find a path to the future. “It is the job of filmmakers and professors to make [film history] interesting to young film students and young audiences,” he says. “They should not turn their noses up at films that are in black and white or films that were made before they were born. I tell this to my students: ‘Look, there was great s–t made before you were born. Movies, novels, plays, music—s–t just didn’t start when you were born.’ That’s what I tell them.”
Released in the summer, during the first locked-down months of the coronavirus pandemic, Lee’s Da 5 Bloods reflects this awareness: when the director first came across the script, in which four Vietnam veterans return to the country they fought, to lay the ghosts of the past and retrieve a hidden cache of gold, he was acutely aware that he needed to bring something new to the screen. “It was in very good shape,” he recalls. “My co-writer Kevin Willmott and I liked the script a lot, but we wanted to put a different spin on it. This was going to be another Vietnam film, and we wanted to tell it through the eyes—specifically—of African American soldiers, who, during the high point of the Vietnam War, were one-third of the fighting force, yet at the same time only 10% of the population back home. So, we just felt it was time to tell the story. We also loved the whole Treasure of the Sierra Madre thing, and it was, ‘Let’s go.’”
Unlike many filmmakers who make Vietnam movies, Lee wasn’t afraid to reference a film classic close to his heart (“I wasn’t a filmmaker when the war was going on,” he dryly notes). In fact, he was getting ready to be a film student, doing an internship at Columbia Pictures, when he first saw Apocalypse Now in 1979 during its 70mm run at the Cinerama Dome in LA. “That film has made such a big impact,” he says. “You can’t talk about films made about the Vietnam War without mentioning or respecting it—which I did.” Indeed, there are two nods in Da 5 Bloods: Lee shot at a surprisingly real nightclub named Apocalypse Now and, equally on the nose, used Richard Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries” on the score.
Da 5 Bloods also reflects Lee’s use of regulars, whether it’s some of the main players (Clarke Peters and Delroy Lindo), its composer (Terence Blanchard) or production designer Wynn Thomas, who Lee still hasn’t forgiven for spending the whole production budget on the main character’s bed for his 1986 debut She’s Gotta Have It. “A team is family,” Lee reasons. “A team is comfort. A team gives you the license to be honest with one another. The reason why you’re being honest with each other is because it’s based upon love. So, if I say, ‘Why are you doing that?’ it’s not because I’m trying to jump on your ass—it’s love. We’re all on the same page and we’re all trying to do the best we can.”
But, as Lee proved with BlacKkKlansman, and its star-making turn by John David Washington, there’s always a place for new blood. “With everything I’ve done,” he says, “I’ve always tried to get new talent in. In a lot of ways, I approach my casting as a general manager would in sports. It’s been my observation that great teams in sports are the teams where you have the seasoned veterans with the youngsters. The youngsters give their energy, and when you get that mix between youth and vitality and spirit with experience, that’s a winning combination. For me, that’s the formula of success.”
Of the younger cast in Da 5 Bloods, Lee was robbed of a future collaborator when Chadwick Boseman died in August, aged just 43 (“I truly believe he felt that this was gonna be his last film. And he was like, ‘Yo, it’s the last one—I’m going out like a motherf—er…”). And he’s not holding his breath for another chance with Jonathan Majors either, after his name was added to the new Ant-Man movie. “I’d hope so, but you know what? I might not be able to afford him after he does these new Marvel movies.” He laughs. “He might be like, ‘I love you man, but I’m getting $20 million playing this Marvel character. I’ll be the first in line to see the movie, but you can’t afford me.’”
Lee may well lose Majors to the tentpoles, but, even after 30 years in the business, he doesn’t fear for the indie world. “I would just like to say that there is still independent cinema,” he says, adding that one of his ex-students is Chloé Zhao, director of the feted Nomadland (“She doesn’t call me Spike, she calls me Professor Lee,” he laughs). “So independent cinema is alive. Streaming has opened up a whole different avenue for young filmmakers. I’m not going to deny that getting the money, especially, for first-time filmmakers, is hard. That’s always going to be hard. But I think there are many more opportunities for young filmmakers than when I was in film school.”
Lee is also somewhat optimistic about America’s political future, after the recent election result—a direct reaction, he feels, to the years of “holy hell with Agent Orange” that began with President Trump’s anti-Obama birther campaign. How did he feel about the outcome? “Oh, I’m on Instagram popping a bottle of prosecco,” he laughs. “OK, it wasn’t champagne, it was handed to me. But it was a glorious day. It’s very sad that this guy is still saying that he won and trying to dismantle democracy and his gangsters, co-conspirators, won’t acknowledge it, a lot of them. I’d say [his presidency] was a goddamn shame and history is not going to be very kind to Agent Orange.”
It’s still too soon to be complacent, though, he feels. “Look, here’s the thing. No matter how bad we talk about Agent Orange, it’s even a more condemning comment on Americans as a country that 70 million people voted for this guy. That’s a comment on an America that is OK with the president saying all Mexicans are rapists, murderers and drug dealers. That’s 70 million people who believe it’s OK if you separate mothers from their newly born sons and daughters, many still breastfeeding. That’s one of the highest immoral acts: separating mother from infant child. Who does that? Nazis? Slave owners? That’s f—in’ shameful. That’s a f—in’ disgrace and that is a terrible mark on American democracy.”
Even darker are Lee’s satirical but nevertheless troublingly relevant thoughts on Trump’s exit strategy. “This guy is still in office and he still has the nuclear codes, and it’s highly conceivable that he’s going to start another war. This guy is not going to go out with a whimper, he’s going to go out with a bang. I’m a realist. I just hope that the generals gave him a fake code.” He laughs uproariously. “Gave him the bogus, fugazi numbers. Gave him numbers he can remember, like, one, two, three, four!”
In reality, though, Lee isn’t really so gloomy. His hopes for the future? “That the world becomes humane,” he muses. “That everybody, those who want to, takes the vaccine, and that we learn from all the mistakes that were made during this pandemic.”
He’s also excited to get started on his next project, a musical about Viagra, how it was invented and how it came to the marketplace. “It’s a great story,” he enthuses. “I’ve been wanting to do a musical for a long time, I just didn’t have the idea, with the exception of making my second film School Daze into a Broadway musical. So, when the script was brought to my attention, it was the right script at the right time. I mean, I know I’ve had musical elements—there’s a great musicality—in my films. I’m talking about a straight-up all-singing all-dancing musical. God willing, that’s what this next film is going to be.”
It will also, of course, be a contemporary Spike Lee joint, not something knowing, in-jokey and retro, although, having enjoyed David Fincher’s Mank, he isn’t averse to the idea of filmmakers making films about filmmaking. “I did a film like that—it’s called Bamboozled,” he chides gently. “It dealt with the racist narrative of film and television. That’s one of my films that slipped through the cracks. You haven’t seen it?” He laughs. “We’re in a pandemic, what else you doing? What else you got to do?!”