How long does a filmmaker last? How long is he relevant? Not many have had the creative longevity of Spike Lee, who is four decades deep into his filmmaking career. Do I know what it’s like to be black man in America? No. Do I have an idea?- yes, because of Spike Lee. He has taught me more than Public Enemy, NWA, Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Dr. Dre, Kanye West, Kendrick Lemar put together.
In 1989’s Do the Right Thing, Radio Raheem was choked to death by a police baton in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Mookie, played by Spike Lee in his only starring role, threw a trash can through a window. In the South of France, at the world’s most prestigious film festival, Cannes, the audience was left in shock and awe at Spike Lee’s 3rd feature film. He was 32 years old. The Palme D’Or, the festival’s top prize, went to an American filmmaker, but not Spike Lee. Steven Soderbergh won with his first feature Sex, Lies and Videotape. Lee, who is never at the loss for words, made his feelings known. ‘Wim Wenders (the jury president) better watch out because I’m waiting for his ass’ continuing ‘Somewhere deep in my closet I have a Louisville Slugger bat with his name on it’.
Fast-forward 30 years. Academy Awards 2018. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman loses to Peter Farrelly’s Green Book (the clear winner should have been Roma, but that is beside the point). Lee stormed out perplexed, not so much that he didn’t win, but that Green Book, a film that plays US race relations extremely safe, had. It must have felt like history repeating itself. Do the Right Thing lost Best Original Screenplay to Driving Miss Daisy at the Academy Awards. Driving Miss Daisy also won Best Picture, for which Do The Right Thing wasn’t even nominated.
Spike Lee is a hungry filmmaker. A man with a burning desire to have his voice heard. Thankfully, more black filmmakers, Ava duVernay, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, are getting to make films. However, Spike was the pioneer. His message to his nation, ‘Wake Up!’ Wake up to the injustice and oppressions that the black race has to experience every day. But also, wake up to black people who allow themselves to be subjugated and boxed into a corner. Lee’s politics is more Malcolm X, than Martin Luther King Jnr. His ideals are searing and not always easy to swallow, but always unabashed and never apologetic.
Lee made his name as a political filmmaker. Films like, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X (1992), Chi-Raq (2015) and BlacKkKlansman certainly point in that direction. But to simplify Lee’s 23-strong feature film output as just that would be a mistake. Lee is interested in telling stories of the black experience, whether it be a Jazz trumpeter (Mo’ Better Blues (1991)), a star Basketball player about to make it big (He Got Game (1998)) or simply a teenage boy spending the summer with his estranged grandfather (Red Hook Summer (2012)), Lee shows himself to be humanist and empathetic filmmaker.
Da 5 Bloods, out on Netflix tomorrow is set to be a big release for Lee. It seems that Lee’s films get the unfortunate syncretic relationship with particularly tumultuous times in US race relations. Do the Right Thing now watches like a prerequisite to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. BlacKkKlansman’s most powerful moments are arguably harnessed in Lee’s decision to end his film with actual footage of the Charlotteville car attack, where James Alex Fields Jnr. drove his car into a crowd of people protesting the Unite the Right rally, ongoing that same day.
However, the current Black Lives Matter protests are too immediate to be addressed in his latest feature. A short film put together by Lee entitled 3 Brothers: Radio Raheem, Eric Garner and George Floyd is available online. A quick Google will take you there. Da 5 Bloods looks like it will lean more toward Lee’s aforementioned humanist and empathetic side. However, a film about the Vietnam war with four black protagonists will not be without it’s political undertones. Lee has already made a film about the black soldiers' experience in World War II, fighting for a country that treats them like second class citizens at best, Miracle at St. Anna (2008). The greatest films about the Vietnam war, Apocalypse Now (1979), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Platoon (1986), The Deer Hunter (1979), all cinematic classics in their own right, largely relegate their black characters to the margins. No doubt Lee intends to rectify this.
Da 5 Bloods will be available on Netflix 12 June