The World Is Finally Catching Up to Spike Lee

The World Is Finally Catching Up to Spike Lee

The World Is Finally Catching Up to Spike Lee

From Do the Right Thing to Da 5 Bloods, no American filmmaker speaks more urgently to our times.


Spike Lee is enjoying a moment, a resurgence of interest in his work he’s achieved by the simple feat of being ahead of the world by a few decades. Last year he won his first competitive Academy Award, Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman. His new movie, Da 5 Bloods, a thriller about Vietnam War vets who return to their old battlefield searching for buried gold, is being showered with rave reviews after being released on Netflix, where it has been one of the most watched movies on the streaming service since premiering on June 12.

Winning his first Oscar ended Lee’s remarkable record of being shut out of official Hollywood recognition for decades, despite making dozens of feature films and documentaries, many of a high quality, since his first movie She’s Gotta Have It (1986). Prior to BlackKkKlansman’s garnering three nominations for Lee (Best Director and Best Picture in addition to Best Adapted Screenplay), he had only ever been nominated for Best Original Screenplay for Do the Right Thing (1989). Now widely recognized as a classic, Do the Right Thing wasn’t even deemed worthy of a Best Director or Best Picture nomination. In 1997, Lee received a Best Documentary nomination for 4 Little Girls, his film about the Birmingham church bombings.

Prolific and protean, always jumping from genre to genre, eager to make risky explorations into explosive topics, Lee has produced an uneven oeuvre. But that unevenness can hardly explain his being snubbed by the Oscars for such compelling films as 25th Hour (2002) and Inside Man (2006). The honorary Oscar Lee was given in 2016 was doubtless intended as compensation for this neglect.

Lee doesn’t need Hollywood’s approbation. He possesses something more valuable, the stature that only true prophets have. In the age of Black Lives Matter, when worldwide protests have broken out against police racism, there are few films that sum up the moment better than Do the Right Thing, even though it was made more than three decades ago. Da 5 Bloods takes up many of the same themes as Do the Right Thing, testifying to their continuing urgency. And just as Do the Right Thing is both a response to and critique of a certain type of New York film (from Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets), so Da 5 Bloods is Lee’s answer to earlier Vietnam War movies.

Following a multiracial cast of characters in Bedford-Stuyvesant on a scorching summer day that ends with the police choking a young black man to death and the local residents burning down a pizzeria, Do the Right Thing remains the most convincing portrait of street-level race relations in America. It’s hard to think of another movie that offers so textured a picture of the way different ethnic groups negotiate and navigate through social interactions with each other, sometimes with friendly jibing, sometimes with glowering threats.

Lee is a humanist but not a softy. He extends a wide empathy to his characters, including even to racists, but he probes their blindness and jabs at their sore spots. It is a signature Lee touch that the real point of racial conflict in Do the Right Thing is between the two most likable characters: Sal (soulfully portrayed by the late Danny Aiello), the paternal pizzeria owner who takes pride in feeding the neighborhood, and Mookie (played by Lee himself), the genial delivery man.

Both Sal and Mookie are peaceable types, surrounded by hotheads who egg them on to be more aggressive. But Sal’s friendliness doesn’t preclude his stubborn refusal to recognize that the neighborhood is changing, or his failure to see his customers as who they are. The argument over the “Hall of Fame” photos in the pizzeria (exclusively devoted to Italian-American idols like Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, and Liza Minnelli) anticipates current battles all over the world over statues.

Sal’s sin is a subtle one: In his possessiveness over his wall and in his hostility toward the boom box playing rap music, he is unwilling to give recognition to the reality of black cultural expressions that surround him. But that seemingly minor flaw, that failure of cultural recognition, widens into a chasm. It is the path to conflict, killing, and rioting.

Do the Right Thing is haunted by the memory of the stalled civil rights revolution of the 1960s, a heroic era whose murdered martyrs are a reproach to the living. The famous photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X shows up again and again. The film ends with dueling quotes from the two giants, offering conflicting advice on the necessity of nonviolence and of self-defense.

Da 5 Bloods is also a movie about the unsettled business of the ’60s. Here again King and Malcolm X are presented as beacons to guide the characters through a murky world where it is difficult to discern what is, in fact, the right thing. The film tracks four black survivors of a military unit who live in the shadow of a fallen comrade, a guru-warrior who was both “our Malcolm and our Martin.” All the performances in Da 5 Bloods are strong, but the outstanding one is Delroy Lindo as Paul, a man so traumatized by the war that hurt and grievance are all that remain of his personality. Lindo is simply superb, mesmerizing in making visible the inner life of a man addicted to his own pain.

Da 5 Bloods isn’t in the same league as Do the Right Thing. Like many of Lee’s recent movies, it suffers from being overstuffed. The plot is extremely busy and, in haste to make his points, Lee at times descends into heavy-handedness and mawkishness. Still, for all its flaws, it’s a superior movie, certainly one of the few Hollywood films to capture the experience of black soldiers—and to recognize the justice of the Vietnamese struggle for independence.

As in Do the Right Thing, peacemakers are contrasted with provocateurs. Paul, always spoiling for a fight, is counterbalanced by the stolid, conflict-averse Otis (Clarke Peters). But Lee, as always, does not pick a side. His interest remains in showing an injustice and the range of responses it can provoke. He eschews offering any easy remedy.

The black soldiers have a justified grievance: They were used as cannon fodder by a country that didn’t respect their rights. Getting the gold is a form of reparation. But should reparation be about individual enrichment or go to community betterment? And don’t the Vietnamese have an equal claim to reparation?

These are not easy questions to answer, and Lee, as is his preference, finds more value in raising them than in providing solutions. No other living filmmaker has so consistently probed the hard problems that face us, which is why Lee remains essential.

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