Spike Lee: ‘We can learn from history if we wake up!’

The director and activist Spike Lee talks to The Big Issue about race and rage in America and his new film Da 5 Bloods

As Black Lives Matter protests continue across America and the rest of the world, Spike Lee has told The Big Issue that “we can’t go back to what was”.

The Oscar-winning film director said: “When they find a vaccine, it has to be a whole new agenda. These vast differences between the haves and have nots, these humongous gaps, have to be closed.”

For four decades Spike Lee’s films have fearlessly addressed big issues. Early indies She’s Gotta Have It, Jungle Fever and 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).

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Spike Lee was born in 1957. The war in Vietnam and civil rights battles at home coincided with his formative years.

He said: “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.”

Lee added: “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.

While Da 5 Bloods explores the legacy of the Vietnam War, Lee looks ahead to the legacy that the coronavirus pandemic will have.

“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. 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?

“History repeats itself. We can learn from history – if we wake up.”

Read more from Spike Lee in latest edition of The Big Issue, available now. Da 5 Bloods is on Netflix from 12 June