No one else is operating at his level.
During the publicity cycle for BlacKKKlansman there was a fair amount of press over how director Spike Lee ending the film by using news footage from the 2018 Charlottesville white supremicist rally as well as shots of Trump praising the “very fine people” on both sides of that rally. That coverage treated it as something novel or unusual, for Lee to use real life footage in his film. It was anything but.
As I rewatched Lee’s Malcolm X I was reminded it begins with footage of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police as well as the ensuing protests that swamped parts of that city in the aftermath less than a year after those events occurred. There are plenty of other examples, including his recent short video that shows the real police killings of Eric Garner and George Floyd along with the scene of police killing Radio Raheem from Do The Right Thing.
Lee uses the same style in his recent film Da 5 Bloods. The movie is an examination of the connections between the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 70s, specifically dealing with how black soldiers were treated before, during and after that military action. Throughout the story, the question is asked why black soldiers were sent overseas to die disproportionately for freedoms they themselves were not able to enjoy at home?
As we watch the five veterans navigate the jungles of Vietnam in search of the remains of their fallen friend and the treasure they buried decades prior, we get footage from that era. Lee weaves in clips of protests, marches and more along with the often violent actions of law enforcement to those protests.
In Da 5 Bloods that footage is contemporary, at least in relation to the flashback sequences of the soldiers’ time in-country. In the other movies the news clips serve a different purpose, juxtaposing recent news with a feature whose narrative is set in the past to show how little has changed in that time. The Charlottesville rallies make it clear that the Klan depicted in BlacKKKlansman is not a part of history but something that is alive and active right now. Rodney King’s beating shows how the dignity Malcolm X fought for is still missing.
The skillful way all that is presented in these and other films never gets in the way of the narrative he’s building but always supports it. Unlike some filmmakers, he underlines the point being made without it being obtrusive or distracting.
If anything, it shows he is telling a narrative story – often a real life one – with the ethos and mindset of a documentarian. That’s something no one else is really doing.
It’s just the latest reason Lee has remained one of the most vital filmmakers operating for over 30 years, someone who’s never really had a downswing in terms of quality or relevancy. Everything he does sizzles and pops off the screen and is just as important today as the day it was released. That’s both a positive in that he has told important stories that reward continued viewing regardless of whether you’ve seen the film before or not and a negative because we’re still dealing with the same issues Lee was addressing in 1986.
Few others can say likewise. In fact, the director he’s a contemporary of and is frequently compared to – Oliver Stone – has devolved into a parody of himself in the last 15 years with movies that keep hitting the same paranoid themes and Boomer mentality. Stone made his bones telling stories about Vietnam and its veterans, but always from the perspective of there being someone else to blame for the tragedies that happened there and without examining how that has reverberated through the rest of society.
Lee has now done that, using the archival footage to support his thesis, showing that the party to blame was us, because we weren’t grappling with issues at home while feeling we could still help the rest of the world deal with theirs.
That comes into focus in one relatively minor piece of dialogue. As Paul (Delroy Lindo) is trying to negotiate for the eventual transportation of the gold he and his friends recover out of the country, he and the French smuggler (played by Jean Reno) begin trading words about the U.S. assistance provided to France in WWII. “Yes,” Reno’s character points out, “but even America couldn’t win in Vietnam.”
That’s an admission that goes beyond the “war is hell” ideas presented by Stone and others and plays into how Lee is and has always been willing to go where others can’t or won’t. Even the premise of the film, that Vietnam impacted some groups more than others because of racial or economic disparities at home, has rarely been addressed so clearly. It’s just the most recent example of how Lee is a filmmaker unlike most others, one that too often is left out of discussions of the great directors in cinema history.