NEW YORK: Spike Lee was just 10 when Muhammad Ali, in 1967, refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War. 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,” says Lee, “but at one time, Muhammad Ali was the most hated man in America.”
“Da 5 Bloods,” which premieres Friday on Netflix, is the first major film to put the experience of black Vietnam veterans front and center. 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,” says Lee. “So I felt it was appropriate that we have true American patriots.”
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.
“American patriotism is when you say: [Expletive] is [expletive]-ed up. People like Agent Orange who say, ‘America, love it or leave it’ -- they’re un-American,” says Lee, using his favored nickname for President Donald Trump. “They’re not patriotic. Anybody that tells black folks ‘America love it or leave it,’ they need to get the [expletive] out of here because black folks built this [expletive].”
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 buried gold.
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 movement -- is especially egregious.
African American troops accounted for 11 percent of troops in Vietnam (though only a fraction of officers). In 1965, they were 23 percent of all combat troops.
“We have been almost systematically disappeared from those experiences,” says Lindo. “Vietnam, when you look at ‘Platoon,’ ‘Apocalypse Now,’ black soldiers are on the peripheries-slash-almost nonexistent.”
Lindo recalls being especially upset by Oliver Stone’s “Platoon,” in which black soldiers are repeatedly seen either dying, fleeing or erring.
“I don’t remember whether I walked out on the film,” he says, “but I do remember being completely disgusted.”
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 favorites, and to its potential.
“I knew from the get-go that it was a great script,” says Lee, “but I wanted to flip it to tell it from the perspective of black Vietnam vets.”
Willmott and Lee scripted insertions of documentary footage but, once in the editing room, Lee would often be inspired to add more.
“He’s only interested in going to the past to show the present,” says Willmott, who also teaches film at the University of Kansas. “Whether we like it or not, a lot of people are going to get their history in the movies if they’re going to get it at all. So it’s an opportunity to correct history.”
In flashbacks, “Da 5 Bloods” captures the paradox of being a black soldier fighting for the U.S. while the Civil Rights movement raged back home. Deep in the Vietnamese jungle, the men are seen listening to a radio broadcast reporting the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
No character more fully embodies that painful conflict than Lindo’s veteran. His character is a Donald Trump supporter and sports a “Make American Great Again” hat. Lindo initially balked at the idea.
“I said to Spike, ‘I’m a father. I don’t want my son seeing that,’” says Lindo, but he came to understand it as a result of his country’s betrayal.
“These guys came back and just experienced the same issues and problems that regular black folks did except they had the added burden of having a horrific experience in Vietnam,” says Willmott. “Your blackness took over more than your service or any other element of your life.”