What makes an American a patriot? Spike Lee has some answers

Jake Coyle

NEW YORK (AP) — Spike Lee was just 10 when Muhammad Ali, in 1967, refused to be drafted into the Vietnam. It wasn’t his fight, Ali said then. The Vietnamese “never lynched me”.

Ali’s stand, and the subsequent vitriol that came his way, made an enormous impression on Lee. His latest film, Da 5 Bloods, opens with footage of Ali’s speech.

“Everyone is all lovey-dovey with Muhammad Ali now that he’s dead,” said Lee. “But at one time, Muhammad Ali was the most hated man in America.”

Da 5 Bloods, which premieres tomorrow on Netflix, is the first major film to put the experience of black Vietnam veterans front and centre. Lee bookends the movie with Ali and other black activist figures from the ‘60s, framing Da 5 Bloods as not just a war film but an inquiry into what patriotism means for African Americans.

“The narrative that’s been painted of American heroism is John Wayne,” said Lee. “So I felt it was appropriate that we have true American patriots.”

This image released by Netflix shows (from left) filmmaker Spike Lee with Clarke Peters, Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors and Norm Lewis on the set of ‘Da 5 Bloods’. PHOTO: AP

Lee’s timing is, as ever, prescient. His movie is arriving just as millions have taken to the streets to protest endemic racism and the death of George Floyd.

The time couldn’t be riper for a film that considers who “true Americans” really are.

“People like Agent Orange who say, ‘America, love it or leave it’ — they’re un-American,” said Lee, using his favoured nickname for United States (US) President Donald Trump. “They’re not patriotic. Anybody that tells black folks ‘America love it or leave it’, they need to get the out of here because black folks built this.”

Lee, 63, has never been one to mince words but he was especially inclined to say it like it is during a recent interview by phone from his apartment on the Upper East Side where he’s been quarantined with his wife, Tonya, and their two children, Satchel and Jackson.

The unrest following Floyd’s death — which for some recalled Lee’s Do the Right Thing — has yet again made Lee’s movies all the more urgent. Da 5 Bloods, his first film to confront Vietnam, further expands Lee’s passionate, righteous and essential survey of American history and race, a roiling body of work that already spans the ‘60s of Malcolm X, post-Katrina New Orleans and contemporary Chicago.

It’s about African American vets (Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Norm Lewis) returning to Vietnam to search for the remains of their fallen squad leader (Chadwick Boseman) and lost treasure. It’s Lee’s second war film, after 2008’s Miracle at St Anna, which followed a group of soldiers from the Army’s all-black division during World War II.

The contributions of black soldiers have long been under-represented, but their minor roles in films of the Vietnam War — the first conflict after the start of the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and ‘60s — is especially egregious. African American troops accounted for 11 per cent of troops in Vietnam (though only a fraction of officers). In 1965, they were 23 per cent of all combat troops.

“We have been almost systematically disappeared from those experiences. Vietnam, when you look at Platoon, Apocalypse Now, black soldiers are on the peripheries-slash-almost nonexistent,” said Lindo.

The original script for Da 5 Bloods, by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, was titled The Last Tour. It was written for white veterans and first brought to Stone. When that didn’t go anywhere, Lee was drawn to its connections to The Treasure of Sierra Madre, one of his favourites, and to its potential.

“I knew from the get-go that it was a great script but I wanted to flip it to tell it from the perspective of black Vietnam vets,” said Lee.