Two black men killed by the state 250 years apart…
March 5 1770, Boston. Eight British soldiers fire into a group of protesters. Five fall. The first to die – the first American to die for the nation’s independence – Crispus Attucks. In his mid-40s, of African and Native American descent, Attucks became a symbol of the American Revolution, the abolitionist movement, then was largely forgotten.
May 25 2020, Minneapolis. Arresting a man suspected of using a fake $20 bill, an officer restrains 46-year-old George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd repeats “I can’t breathe” and pleads “don’t kill me”. In the wake of his death, nationwide protests break out, cities burn.
The exceptional thing about George Floyd’s killing is that it is not exceptional. He was just another victim of a society built on inequality and exploitation since its conception.
After the Boston Massacre, future Founding Father and president John Adams, in his role as attorney defending the British troops, painted the protesters as: “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negros and molattoes” with Attucks encouraging conflict with his “mad behaviour”. Today, President Trump brands protesters as “THUGS” and threatens: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”.’
Floyd’s death came as tensions were already rising after other race-related killings. In March, emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor, 26, was killed in a botched police raid, hunting a perpetrator who was already in custody. In February, Ahmaud Arbery was killed in Brunswick, Ohio. Arrests were only made after footage of the shooting was leaked and went viral. In the words of Spike Lee: “A black jogger running down the street in Georgia is chased by two redneck crackers that look like they came out of the movie Deliverance and shoot him down like the dog. This is 2020!”
“How Many Times Does History Have To Repeat Itself Before The Murder Of Black Bodies In Broad Daylight Ends” Lee posted in response to Floyd’s death, alongside clips from his 1989 film Do the Right Thing where one of the characters, Raheem, is choked to death by a police officer’s baton.
For four decades Spike Lee’s films have fearlessly addressed big issues. Early indies She’s Gotta Have It, Jungle Feverand Crooklyn showcased a cinematic maverick telling untold stories of black America, Malcolm X resurrected a civil rights icon, 25th Hour defined post-9/11 loss and anxiety, Chi-Raq took aim at gun culture (in rhyming couplets), BlacKkKlansman taught us to infiltrate hate, winning Lee an Oscar in 2019.
His latest joint, Da 5 Bloods, released this week on Netflix, is about the Vietnam War but telling of our incendiary times. Four African-American bloods – a term of camaraderie used by black soldiers – return to Vietnam to exhume and repatriate the remains of their former commander (and dig up gold they buried in the jungle). In flashbacks the actors, most in their late 60s, play opposite Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman as Stormin’ Norman, their squad – but also political and spiritual – leader. The survivors have grown old, the memory of Norman has not. Events from decades ago still haunt and hurt.
Lee pulls back from individual to international trauma. History can separate and disconnect subjects from each other, Da 5 Bloods returns the context. It opens with a montage of archive footage: flag-planting man on ‘Da Moon’, black power at the Olympics, Vietnamese fields sprayed with chemical weapons. Demonstrators clubbed by police at the 1968 Democratic Convention, anti-war protesters shot at Kent State University, monks self-immolating on the streets of Saigon, the Viet Cong execution captured in a picture whose power can’t be put into words.
You cannot see these images without thinking of similar scenes in America now. Even Apollo 11 has its contemporary equivalent in the SpaceX mission – both incredible achievements nevertheless launched from a backdrop of mindless violence and mass unrest. Footage of police brutality and cities under siege from the 1960s could have been captured last night, could be replicated tonight.
“History repeats itself,” Lee says from his office in Brooklyn. “We can learn from history – if we wake up.”
What most of us know about the war in Vietnam comes from movies, so making Da 5 Bloods are you filmmaker or historian?
“It doesn’t have to be one or the other. I’m a filmmaker and we are telling history.”
Filming on location, Lee travelled to Vietnam for the first time. “We did not want to dehumanise the Vietnamese people,” he says. “They were fighting for their country. Previously, they had kicked China’s ass, kicked France’s ass and eventually they kicked the United States of America’s ass.
“Vietnam is a very small country. These are very proud people but a beautiful people. I did not want to make the Vietcong the villains in no way, shape or form.”
Conditions on location were tough – you can see it in the sweat that pours off the lead actors. Lee is just happy production avoided the horrors his friend Francis Ford Coppola encountered making Apocalypse Now. “I had the luxury of seeing what Francis did and I said, not for me! Martin Sheen had a nervous breakdown [as well as a heart attack], we didn’t have to go that far.”
Da 5 Bloods is similarly epic, far more urgent, centred around a blistering performance by Delroy Lando as Paul, an intimidating MAGA-cap-wearing bully on the surface, a brittle and broken man inside. Despite 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.
“Life treats people differently,” Lee says. “Post-traumatic stress affects people in different ways. The war turned this guy into an Agent Orange supporter.”
Agent Orange and his administration has been nothing but bad leadership
History is condemned to repeat itself except added to that burden are the after-effects of a global pandemic. Lee calls his home city, where there were 800 deaths per day at the pandemic’s peak, “the epicentre”.
“New York is coming back day by day,” he says. “The cases reported are going down slowly. The deaths are going down. I want to give a special shout out to our governor, Governor Cuomo, who has shown great leadership here, which has been absent in the White House.” Trump is attempting to lead…
“There’s good leadership and there’s bad leadership,” Lee says. “And Agent Orange and his administration has been nothing but bad leadership.”
In another world, Lee would have been president himself, eating croissants on la Croisette, as the first black head of the jury in the Cannes Film Festival’s 73 years, where Da 5 Bloods was due to premiere out of competition. The only public screenings were for groups of black Vietnam veterans in New York.
“They were laughing, crying, all those emotions, and afterwards everyone gave me a hug. Said: ‘Spike, thank you for making this film’. And also: ‘Spike, what took you so fucking long?’”
Born in 1957, the war in Vietnam and civil rights battles at home coincided with Lee’s formative years.
“I was young enough not to be drafted. But I was old enough to think, what the hell is going on? Many people forget the Vietnam War was the first war that was televised into American homes. It had a great impact. This was something we talked about at dinner. I’m seeing Muhammad Ali say, ‘No Vietcong ever called me nigger,’ I’m seeing John Carlos and Tommie Smith with their raised black fists.
“You had the Vietnam War, the peace movement, the civil rights movement, the black power movement… Here’s the thing. You have black soldiers who are fighting the Vietnamese yet back home, Martin Luther King, who’s fighting for their rights, is assassinated.”
A scene in the film shows the bloods’ reaction to the King’s assassination, heard via the enemy on Radio Hanoi: “Black GI, your government sends 600,000 troops to crush the rebellion. Your soul sisters and brothers are engaged in over 100 cities. They kill them. Why you fight against us so far away from where you’re needed?”
The broadcast – which Lee adapted from real recordings – states that black soldiers have more in common with the Vietcong than their white commanders who send them to the other side of the world to fight and die for freedoms they do not have at home.
Stormin’ Norman convinces his bloods not to take revenge against their white superiors. He warns them not to buy “the anti-commie Kool- Aid they selling”, talks about racism: “Every time I walk out my front door, see cops patrolling my neighbourhood like it’s some kind of police state, I can feel just how much I ain’t worth,” and black history.
Lee echoes this: “Since day one, black people have been fighting for this country – that’s why we hear Chadwick Boseman’s character talk about Crispus Attucks, he’s not really known, not being taught in school, that’s why he’s in the movie – we’re still fighting for our own rights. We’re still fighting for this country today.”
Da 5 Bloods draws a link between the spark of American revolution and contemporary fury. The Boston Massacre galvanised the campaign for independence but in the land of the free, vast portions of its people are trapped in cycles of poverty, their potential restricted by their racial profile. Thirteen per cent of Americans are black but they account for 34 per cent of the prison population. Inequality was built in since the birth of the nation. Slavery’s shackles have become handcuffed wrists, iron collars now knees on necks.
It is worth remembering that racism and discrimination in the criminal justice system is not only an American problem. In the UK, black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs. Sheku Bayoh, Rashan Charles, Darren Cumberbatch, Edson Da Costa, Nuno Cardoso and Sarah Reed are among the names of those who have died after encounters with police. Many questions about their deaths remain unanswered.
Lee continues: “Way back in 1989 with Do The Right Thing I was asked this question: ‘Spike, do you have the answers to stop racism?’ And I said no. People are still asking that question today.
“Racism is not any more just wanting to be able to sit down at a counter and eat. There’s redlining, social inequality, lack of education. For example, here we are in the middle of the pandemic, schools are closed. People of colour have a greater chance of not having wifi in their home, have a greater chance of not having computers. So how are children being taught?”
Lee points out that we’re still dealing with the legacy of the Vietnam War that didn’t end with the fall of Saigon. “Even though it’s 50 years ago, wars never go away, people are still mourning their fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, relatives, friends that got killed in Vietnam over some bullshit.”
Similarly, the impact of Covid-19 will last long after the pandemic passes for a generation who fell behind with their education or lost family members.
“You can say it lasts forever because people are always going to mourn their loved ones. That does not go away,” Lee says.
But remembering connects us to history, reminds us of those who tried and died, 250 years ago or today, who believed a change could come, who we honour by believing change could yet come.
“When they find a vaccine, we can’t go back to what was,” Lee concludes. “It has to be a whole new agenda. These vast differences between the haves and have nots, these humongous gaps, have to be closed.”
Do you think they will be?
“That’s my hope and dream.”
Meanwhile, police use tear gas to clear protesters outside the White House so Trump can pose for a photo op on the steps of a torched church. Holding up a bible he says: “We have a great country, greatest country in the world, we’ll make it even greater. It won’t take long, it’s not going to take long.”
Two hundred and fifty years and counting.
Da 5 Bloods streams on Netflix