Spike Lee pays homage to Vietnam War films shot in PH with ‘Da 5 Bloods’
LOS ANGELES—“You’re right, a lot of those films were shot in the Philippines and not Vietnam,” director Spike Lee replied when I told him that his new film, “Da 5 Bloods,” reminded me of the great Vietnam War movies filmed in the Philippines.
Watching “Da 5 Bloods,” which Spike described as “my statement on the Vietnam War with a lot of other stuff put in,” reminded me of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” which were shot in the Philippines, from Ilocos Norte to Baler.
The Oscar-winning filmmaker said with a smile, “The reason why I cast Laurence Fishburne as a lead in my film ‘School Daze’ is because I saw him in ‘Apocalypse Now.’ The reason why I cast Albert Hall in ‘Malcolm X’ is because I saw him in ‘Apocalypse Now.’”
Spike praised his fellow director Oliver Stone for his “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Platoon,” which starred Tom Cruise and Charlie Sheen, respectively: “I have nothing but deep respect for Oliver Stone with his films about Vietnam. He was in Vietnam (Oliver served in 1967-1968).”
He added, “I also have a lot of love for my brother Francis Ford Coppola. As you saw, there are two homages to ‘Apocalypse Now’ (in ‘Da 5 Bloods’). So they’re there for a reason.”
In his film that will premiere on June 12 on Netflix, Spike honors Francis’ Vietnam War masterpiece with a scene that salutes the latter’s unforgettable helicopter attack sequence using Richard Wagner’s stirring “Ride of the Valkyries.”
In this recent video call, the director, who was once dubbed Hollywood’s enfant terrible and is still one of the most important voices in cinema, sat behind a corner that was full of framed prints. “I am at the world headquarters of 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks (his production company), in the people’s republic of Brooklyn, New York,” he said.
“Da 5 Bloods,” the latest from Spike’s 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, tells the story of four African-American veterans—Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.)—who return to Vietnam. They will search for the remains of their fallen squad leader (Chadwick Boseman) and a buried treasure.
The film adds to Spike’s prolific output, which includes at least 37 movies so far.
“I started going to the movies at a very young age,” said Spike, who was born in Atlanta, Georgia, but was raised in Brooklyn, New York. “My mother (Jacqueline Lee) was a cinephile.”
The movie lover naturally gravitated toward a film career. “I graduated from Morehouse (College) in May 1979. At fall, I was going to my first year at NYU Graduate Film School. I was lucky enough to get an internship that summer at Columbia Pictures in LA. It was the first time I had ever been to LA. I was at the first screening (that day), at noon, to see ‘Apocalypse Now’ at the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard.”
He continued to talk with enthusiasm about the war classic that Francis shot mainly in Baler, Aurora, and Pagsanjan, Laguna: “I had already been admitted to film school, but that is one of the greatest experiences I ever had in a movie theater, from (Vittorio) Storaro’s photography to Walter Murch’s sound.”
The Vietnam War was a vivid memory for the boy growing up in Brooklyn. “I was born in 1957, so I was 10 years old in 1967,” he recalled. “I was old enough to know what was going on, but young enough not to be drafted.
“I remember the riots when Doctor (Martin Luther) King got assassinated in 1968. I was 11 years old. I remember the antiwar movement protest. I remember when Nixon resigned.”
Interestingly, “Da 5 Bloods” began as a project for Oliver Stone but eventually, it ended on Spike’s lap. “The script was brought to me. The original screenwriters, Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, wrote the script on spec. Lloyd Levin, my coproducer, optioned the script and brought it to Oliver Stone. After two years, Oliver felt he couldn’t do it.
“Lloyd read an article where I had mentioned my love of the film, ‘The Treasure of Sierra Madre.’ We had a meeting with my cowriter Kevin Willmott and we said we want to do it, but we want to make those guys black Vietnam vets.”
He emphasized that Vietnam War was generally an unpopular war that ignited protests in the United States. “I do know during and after the war, black and white Vietnam soldiers were spat upon,” Spike said. “They were vilified because it was an immoral war and the atrocities that some of the American soldiers did were televised.”
On the impact the Vietnam War had on the civil rights movement and the changes that took place since the 1970s, Spike answered, “Yes, there have been changes, but many black people are still being killed left and right by the police. To add insult to injury, these murderers walk free.
“There were four cops in Minnesota (allegedly involved in George Floyd’s death). Only one has been charged. Charges should be pressed against those other cops, too (the three police officers have also been charged since this interview).”
Asked if he sees his body of work as hopeful even in the dire circumstances that it presents in general, Spike commented, “I think ‘Do the Right Thing’ is a very optimistic film. That was made 31 years ago. You have to ask yourself—you look at the murder of Eric Garner (who died in 2014, after a New York police officer put him in a chokehold). So it hasn’t changed. History has always repeated itself.”
Trump figures in “Da 5 Bloods” through Delroy Lindo’s MAGA (Make America Great Again) cap-wearing character. “I don’t call him (Trump) by his name,” Spike said. “I call him Agent Orange. The pun is intended when that is in a Vietnam film. That would be a shortcut for the audience to understand what type of trauma he’s (Delroy’s character) been in since the Vietnam War. In other ways, he’s almost like a Shakespearean tragic character, too. I have to give a shout out to my love, Delroy Lindo, because he did his thing.”
On Trump, who is poised to be challenged by Joe Biden in the presidential election in November, Spike did not mince words: “We have got to vote. He (Trump) has to go. It’s my belief that if this guy wins again, the world will be in peril, not just the United States of America.”
Spike harped on Trump as a reflection of other despotic leaders in other world, saying, “Because the United States of America is not the only country that has racial problems. That guy in Brazil (President Jair Bolsonaro) is lucky because what he’s doing in Brazil, people aren’t looking at because of other world matters. But he is just as bad as Agent Orange.”
Spike could only laugh at how the pandemic impacted “Da 5 Bloods.” “Everybody’s plans were changed—everybody on this planet,” he quipped with a chuckle.
“God works in mysterious ways. The plan was, I was going to be the president of the jury in Cannes and ‘Da 5 Bloods’’ world premiere would be in Cannes, but out of competition. After that, we would get a theatrical run like Scorsese had with ‘The Irishman.’ There’s a thing called Covid-19 that changed the plans.”
Looking back at his career that got ignited with his breakthrough film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” Spike said, “I have done several films that people didn’t get. People didn’t get ‘25th Hour,’ but it’s been rediscovered.
“People didn’t get ‘Bamboozled.’ And also ‘Do the Right Thing.’ Now it’s a classic, but I was being accused that in the film, I was inciting riots.”
On whether he’s still driven by the need to push the envelope, Spike, now 63, replied, “Yes, because I read an article that in the last interview Akira Kurosawa,… who is my hero, said, I am paraphrasing again, ‘I still have a universe to learn from cinema.’ Learning never stops.” INQ
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