Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee’s latest joint, is released on Netflix this week, amidst a world examining race relations in the wake of a global pandemic.
The film follows four African-American bloods – a term of camaraderie used by black soldiers – who return to Vietnam to exhume and repatriate the remains of their former commander (and dig up gold they buried in the jungle).
One of the bloods, Paul, played by Delroy Lando, 67, is an intimidating MAGA-cap-wearing bully on the surface, a brittle and broken man inside. Despite Spike Lee only ever referring to Trump as “Agent Orange”, Paul is no caricature; the anger, pain and frustration that darkened his heart is easy to empathise with.
Lee said: “Life treats people differently. Post-traumatic stress affects people in different ways. The war turned this guy into an Agent Orange supporter.”
Lindo, who was born in the UK, plays Paul with such humanity that speaking to The Big Issue from his home in the San Francisco area he sometimes talks about the character in first person.
Central to the film is Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On?, which was infused with the big issues of the day, inspired by letters Gaye’s younger brother sent from Vietnam where he served as a radio operator. The record feels more relevant than ever today, so first we ask Lando what exactly is going on.
The Big Issue: In the words of Marvin Gaye… What’s going on?
Delroy Lindo: All hell is breaking loose – culturally, socio-politically – in similar ways that all hell was breaking loose back in the 60s and early 70s. Without the hint of hyperbole this is a madness, it is an insanity and our task as humans now is to be protective of ourselves and our families. That may sound utopian but that’s our job right now, that’s all of our jobs.
My wife and I have an 18-year-old son. We were discussing how to communicate with our young men about the fears we have for them every single time they walk out the door, in ways that won’t terrify and stop them living their lives. It’s a very fine balancing act we as parents of black men are having to negotiate.
But it’s an extremely pertinent question – What’s going on? I would say what the fuck – is going on.
When you see some of the newsreel footage in the film from 40 years ago, the scenes could have come from last night – or could be replicated tonight.
It’s complicated and it’s nuanced. On the one hand one could say, Jesus Christ, have we learned nothing? But we have and there has been progress. In some instances, it’s two steps forward, three steps back but my faith is in the millions of people of goodwill in this country.
When you are preparing to play a character like Paul, who I’m guessing is not much like you, where do you begin?
I did not know this before working on the film that eight per cent of the African American electorate voted for Trump. As I became more familiar with my character Paul, it became clear to me that this is a man who has been betrayed a lot in his life, personally and by the country. One of the largest betrayals has to do with how I was treated when I returned from Vietnam. I have two cousins who were vets and I spoke with them at length. One of the things that both said was that they felt violated by the reaction of people when they came back. One becomes incredibly vulnerable and that can contribute to how one can end up responding to a Trump, not being able to see through the lies and disingenuousness of someone who is offering a lifeline that you want to – have to – believe in.
Paul is not like me but I’ve experienced betrayal, there have been instances in my life when I felt violated. It did not take a lot of imagination for me to extrapolate and arrive at a place would I understand this is a man who feels disconnected, violated and disenfranchised.
Is finding common ground the key for people to begin reconciling with each other?
That becomes the point of departure. And it also becomes the area of empathy and understanding.
Fundamental to the journey of creating this character were my fellow actors. We all formed a genuine bond. We had these amazing conversations, at breakfast or lunch, at the weekend when we were at the hotel, and the chemistry that that evolved directly found its way into the chemistry that we were able to produce in front of the camera.
It became critically important for me and for Paul, this relationship that I have with these men. In actuality, the fact of me being a Trumpite, they still accepted me. That did not become a component that turned us from each other.
For me, that contributed to my understanding of the story because in the final analysis, I feel that this story is a love story between these men.
You were born in Britain. The Windrush scandal is one of the country’s recent, shameful episodes.
What’s happening in America is not dissimilar to some of the dynamics that you had going on over there. There are some very noticeable similarities between the person that we have here and Boris Johnson.
I was born in Lewisham Hospital in southeast London. My mum is Jamaican and was part of the influx of people from the Caribbean. It’s a stain on British history, the manner in which people of colour, specifically the Windrush generation and their offspring have been and continue to be mistreated. People being “repatriated” is profoundly indicative of the aspects of the racial problems that exist in the UK.
Da 5 Bloods streams on Netflix from today