Spike Lee talks Vietnam, intergenerational trauma and calls to defund the police


DA 5 BLOODS (Spike Lee). 134 minutes. Premieres Friday (June 12) on Netflix Canada.

A couple of weeks ago, Spike Lee threw a short film up on Twitter. He called it 3 Brothers. In it, the sequence from Lee’s 31-year-old masterpiece Do The Right Thing, when Radio Raheem is killed by police in a chokehold, is edited together with cellphone footage of the real-life police killings of Eric Garner and George Floyd.

“Still relevant,” says Spike Lee, on the phone with NOW while in self-isolation, during an interview discussing his latest joint Da 5 Bloods.

The 63-year-old director sounds good humoured, despite everything going on outside his Manhattan home, between coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter protests ignited by the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Floyd. In our conversation, Lee regularly makes wisecracks and lets out a chuckle, as if all he can do is laugh bitterly at how history and trauma keep repeating themselves and proving him right.

The director has never been irrelevant, not only because for decades his movies have tackled everything from systematic oppression to microaggresions, but because no matter how much time passes, America still gonna be racist. And Canada too, but we’ll get to that.

Da 5 Bloods opens with a mad rush through the civil rights era, which coincided with the Vietnam War. We see and hear Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Angela Davis speaking truth to power over images of unrest that are starkly reminiscent of today. The movie ends with Black Lives Matter protesters and some final words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Between all that, Da 5 Bloods tells the story of Black soldiers who served in Vietnam, sacrificing their lives in an unjust war while their own people face more injustice at home.

Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isaiah Whitlock Jr. and Norm Lewis star as veterans returning to Vietnam during the Trump era to retrieve the remains of their fallen comrade (Chadwick Boseman). In a plot borrowing from John Huston’s The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, they also search for a stash of gold they buried during their final tour.

Another classic hanging over Da 5 Bloods is Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. A scene early on has the four veterans heading down a river to the tune of Ride Of The Valkyries, the music invoked in arguably the film’s most iconic sequence. But this is a Spike Lee joint, so dangling from an overhanging wire on this Vietnamese river are a pair of Melo Class Jordans, kicks named after former New York Knicks player Carmelo Anthony, who Lee points out was born in his regular stomping grounds: Red Hook, Brooklyn. That details merges two authors, two places and two histories of oppression.

Like Apocalypse Now, Da 5 Bloods deals with psychological trauma and PTSD. Delroy Lindo’s character Paul is a sweaty, rambling and emotional mess haunted not only by wartime memories but also the trauma suffered for being Black.

“We’re traumatized from the minute we’re born,” says Lee, when I refer to research on cyclical trauma and its effect on Black mental health. He in turn refers me Dr. Joy DeGruy’s work researching Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, which argues that intergenerational trauma dating back to slavery is present among Black people today.

“This is going back 401 years,” says Lee. “1619, the first slave ship landed in Jamestown, Virginia. So there’s 401 years of this trauma. If an oppressed mother is traumatized, it doesn’t take a great leap to think that the child in the stomach is being traumatized. They can feel what their mother is going through. I believe that.”

I bring up Regis Korchinski-Paquet, D’Andre Campbell and Chantel Moore, Black and Indigenous Canadians who died after police were called to deal with a mental health crisis, contributing to stats that say Black people are 20 times more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement and 70 per cent of deaths by law enforcement involved people with mental health struggles.

“Hold up, hold up, back up, back up,” Lee shouts, nearly derailing the interview and flipping all the questions on me. He wants to know all the details. How did Regis fall off a balcony? Are people protesting?

“From what you’re telling me now, the cops is the last person I would call if I need mental help,” Lee adds. But again, even for him, this is nothing new. He refers back to that Radio Raheem sequence from Do The Right Thing.

After Radio Raheem’s body is carried away by police, a minor character invokes the name Eleanor Bumpurs. She was a disabled 66-year-old woman who authorities already knew was suffering from severe mental health issues when they kicked down her door in 1984 to evict her from public housing. Bumpurs was sitting in her apartment, naked, holding a kitchen knife. The police used a 12-gauge shotgun, twice.

“They shot her hand off and killed her,” says Lee.

At this point, I ask Lee – whose last film BlacKkKlansman was about an undercover police officer – whether he supports the growing calls to defund the police, which could free up money for several underfunded mental health supports.

“There are so many needs that the Black, brown and the poor white people need,” says Lee, skirting the question about defunding the police. “We can’t forget about the poor whites also.

“The biggest takeaway to me, from this pandemic, is the gap between the haves and have nots. It’s not just mental health. That’s not to negate what you’re saying. I mean as you go down the line, it’s not just that. It’s education, etc.

“The list is long.”