On January 1 2020, Spike Lee felt good. Why wouldn’t he? Optimism was natural. He had begun the year an Oscar winner, a much-loved director with a career in full-blown renaissance. Friends and family were doing well. The Trump era had been a dark night of the soul, but even that was surely drawing to a close. On his busy Instagram account, Lee posted a picture of himself at home in New York. He wore a goofy smile and a pair of outsize novelty glasses, frames in the shape of the year ahead, the 0s for eyes. “Folks, let’s go,” he wrote amid emojis of hearts and pizza slices. “Upward. Onward. 2020.”
Twelve months later, Lee logs on to a Zoom call. It is midday in New York. “I’ve just been getting my nose swabbed,” he says. “We test weekly here.” Lee is at the Brooklyn offices of his production company 40 Acres and a Mule, a three-storey townhouse where he and a few socially distanced colleagues are tending to future projects. Over a long career, Lee has made his own appearance a branding masterclass, built on statement glasses and baseball caps. Today, he wears neither. (Later a pair of tangerine frames and a bucket hat will be located for the photo shoot.) His hair is cropped close, more salt than pepper, his face all but clean-shaven. The effect somehow leaves him looking both younger and older than the mental picture you have of him.
Even on Zoom, Lee is animated, not uncomfortable with a certain level of performance, occasional British accent included. (“You bloody blokes!”) Conversation is punctuated with head-back laughter, when the mood and WiFi allow. “Like everyone we go day . . . ” he says as the call glitches. He freezes. “ . . . by day.” He refers to the distant months of January and February as “BC”. Before Corona. The rest he calls “the real year of living dangerously”. His experience of 2020 mirrored everyone’s — a timeline of dread, loss, political turmoil and frequent professional stasis.
In January, his diary involved no Zoom calls. Instead, 2020 was to be a year of fun and landmarks. On January 13, it was announced that he would lead the jury at the 2020 Cannes festival — the first black film-maker to do so. “Ev-er!” he says now. “A true honour.” His next movie was to screen at the festival too, the latest addition to a body of work whose most celebrated moments include Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992) and more recently BlacKkKlansman (2018). An ambitious story about black US troops in Vietnam called Da 5 Bloods, the film’s star was Chadwick Boseman, a huge name since headlining Marvel adventure Black Panther.
The film was newly complete, but Lee scarcely had time to relax before flying to California for the Oscars on February 9. While his relationship with the Academy has sometimes been fractious, he had finally won an award in competition in 2019 for co-writing BlacKkKlansman, the true story of a black cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. (Lee was given an honorary Oscar in 2015.) Now he presented Best Director to Bong Joon-ho, South Korean creator of Parasite. In a bespoke purple Gucci suit, Lee stole just enough of the show; the outfit was a tribute to LA Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant, a friend who had died in a helicopter crash two weeks before. A quick return to New York followed. Commissioned to make a concert film of musician David Byrne’s acclaimed Broadway show American Utopia, Lee shot three performances before the run ended in late February.
On March 1, New York City recorded its first confirmed case of Covid-19. “In retrospect,” Lee says, “I was not paying the attention I should have.” A few days later, he flew back to Los Angeles. There he was to emcee a performance of music from his films by composer Terence Blanchard. It was scheduled for March 14. Two days before, it was cancelled under new coronavirus restrictions.
“All hell broke loose,” Lee says. His wife, the film and TV producer Tonya Lewis Lee, had asked him not to go to LA at all, unnerved by news from Milan and Tehran. On his return, he found himself self-isolated in the couple’s Upper East Side townhouse. “She put me in Tonya quarantine! So believe me, at that point I start taking it very seriously!” He gives one of his gleeful, cackling laughs. It fades. “I guess all hell broke loose for America the same time.”
On the first day of spring, March 20, Lee turned 63. That evening, New York mayor Bill de Blasio called the city the epicentre of the US pandemic.
In 2020, the lucky ones — among whom Lee repeatedly counts himself — only heard sirens wailing for strangers. He still found the noise nightmarish. Closing the 40 Acres offices, the director “sheltered in place” with Tonya and their two children, who are both in their twenties. The adjustment was hard. He watched CNN 12 hours a day, tracking the curve of cases and deaths, railing against Trump: “This motherfucker had blood on his hands from the start.” Eventually, overwhelmed, he took refuge in old movies. “I’m a nonstop worker. I never wake up and say, ‘What am I doing today?’ I already know. So this was rough.”
As the New York days grew longer, he took to cycling through the city in which he had been setting films since his breakthrough 1983 short Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. The streets were blissfully sunny, emptied out by death and the fear of death. He felt that himself. The more the virus raged, the clearer its parameters became. As a person of colour in his sixties, Lee discovered he was high-risk. He also noted his good fortune. As a director, one of his signatures is the grand, all-seeing aerial shot. Now, from his bike, he found a new panorama. “Late March through April, every New Yorker saw this was no hoax. It was devastation. And it was grocery store clerks saving us, hospital workers.” The delivery riders he once cursed as a menace became frontline heroes.
But inequality was everywhere. Lee had never apologised for living in a 9,000 sq ft townhouse bought from the painter Jasper Johns. (“Full disclosure, I got a place in Martha’s Vineyard too!”) But he grew vexed at Manhattanites discussing permanent exits from an apparently doomed New York: “What about the New Yorker who doesn’t have somewhere to sell or a place in Martha’s Vineyard?” he says now. “Where they going?” He was frustrated — a film-maker with things to say and no film to say them with.
The divisions that would also define the year were already coming into focus. By late April, the state of Georgia was planning to end lockdown measures and reopen cinemas. Lee was not among those film-makers for whom the health of the big screen came first. “Hell to Da Naw,” he emailed reporters when asked if he supported the proposals.
Da 5 Bloods was not unaffected. Before arriving on Netflix, the film was meant to premiere in Cannes and have a run in US cinemas. On May 7, the theatrical release was pulled. “Me and Netflix were in total agreement. We’re all grown-ups. The world had changed.” Again, Lee points out his relative luck, his deal with the streaming company ensured his film would be seen anyway. Both outsiders to Hollywood in their own way, Lee and Netflix enjoy a good relationship. (In 2017, he also worked with them on a series spun off from his feature debut She’s Gotta Have It.) The same future-facing pragmatism that saw him quickly take to social media also found him deciding early on that directors should go where the audience is.
The next day, Lee released New York, New York — a fast-turnaround online short that captured scenes from the epicentre. It was set to Frank Sinatra singing the title song. The outpouring it provoked, he says, dwarfed that of most of his features. Two aspects of Lee made it possible. One was the hyper-connected insider able to secure musical clearance directly from Tina Sinatra. The other was the obsessive film-maker who had finally realised how he could be useful in 2020. “This was what I could actually do.”
Cannes was not officially cancelled until May 10. In another version of the year, Lee would have announced the winner of the Palme d’Or on May 23, making history by the Riviera. In this one, still in New York, he posted the trailer for Da 5 Bloods to Instagram. Two nights later in Minneapolis, a 46-year-old man named George Floyd was killed while being arrested on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill.
Lee saw the news the following morning. Emotionally, he was weary. “Once more, I can’t keep up with all the black people being killed.” Creatively, he responded with another short film on June 1, 3 Brothers, a furious collage of the last moments of Floyd, Eric Garner — killed by a police chokehold in 2014 — and Radio Raheem, the fictional character from Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing, based on New York graffiti artist Michael Stewart, who died in police custody in 1983. The film made its point. History was on endless repeat. But as Black Lives Matter protests gathered pace, it was apparent something was different this time. “Something different in every city in America!” Lee says. “And then worldwide! People are marching in places where there ain’t even black people.”
On June 7, a masked Lee joined protesters in Brooklyn. He noticed their youth and that among their number were countless white faces. “Where the outrage goes next, who knows, but that felt new. That felt like change. And it’s strange but for all the misery of the ‘rona, without it coming first I don’t know that the world would have responded like it did to that gruesome lynching.”
The funeral of George Floyd took place on June 9. The protests continued. On June 11, demonstrators gathered in Harlem, from where a group marched the length of Fifth Avenue, at one point a few blocks from Lee’s home. They passed in front of Trump Tower before stopping on Wall Street. There they spattered red paint to symbolise violence against black communities. At midnight Pacific time — 3am in New York — Lee’s new film appeared on Netflix.
Da 5 Bloods opens with a slick montage of archive, the clenched fist salutes of 1968 Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos accompanied by Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”. The story unfolds in two eras. In the present, four black Vietnam veterans return to Ho Chi Minh City in search of a cache of lost dollars; flashbacks see their younger selves guided by a politically turned-on squad leader played with full-throttle magnetism by Boseman.
Without the ready box office numbers of old-fashioned movies, gauging success on Netflix is not simple. Even so, Lee soon realised his film was working. Reviews were admiring (not always a given over the course of his career). He also began receiving a wave of messages on social media from the relatives of black veterans. “People saying now they understood their father, their uncle, their cousin who came back from Vietnam not their real self.”
A month after it first appeared on Netflix, the film had been watched in 27 million households. By then, the virus was under control in New York. “We have done the impossible,” governor Andrew Cuomo announced.
Lee was always going to be the one film-maker able to capture and channel the bedlam of 2020. Chaos has never daunted a bravura stylist whose films have also nervelessly pushed the world’s hot buttons for debate. If recent years have been a comeback story, there were tricky times to come back from. His 2019 Oscar and general embrace as getting-on-for-elder-statesman arrived after a tough middle period where movies such as Bamboozled (2000) and Miracle At St Anna (2008) were tepidly received, overshadowed by public spats with figures like Clint Eastwood. Lee is now more careful about his controversies. Maybe the world finally caught up with both his movies and politics? “There’s still catching up to do,” he laughs. “I don’t discourage more catching up.”
It was the morning of August 29 when Lee learned Chadwick Boseman had died. The actor was 43. The director switched on his phone to find it jammed with messages. Boseman, he now learnt, had been sick with colon cancer for four years, unknown to Lee or his other directors.
“I was in disbelief. The loss and the shock of it together.” There had been days making Da 5 Bloods when the actor looked unwell, but shooting in the Thai jungle, Lee figured everyone was struggling. Now it took a couple of nights before he and Tonya decided to rewatch the film, suddenly conscious of what Boseman must have known on camera. Ad-libbed lines about death took on new gravity.
“But the truth is, I never got to know Chadwick.” For all his showmanship, Lee can be disarmingly honest. “I mean, we saw each other at awards shows and showed each other love, but we didn’t really talk. And in Thailand, he was staying in a different hotel so I only saw him on set. Professionally, I cherished him. But personally, we didn’t ever get that close. Not as close as I wish we had now.” He pauses. “Coulda woulda shoulda. 2020.”
While Da 5 Bloods could not screen at Cannes, a very different Lee film opened the Toronto film festival. Reshaped by the pandemic, it launched with the world premiere of American Utopia — staged as a drive-in on September 10.
The reviews were ecstatic. Much of that was down to the choreographed wonder of Byrne’s show, but Lee added deft personal touches throughout. Earlier in the year, pre-pandemic, he had filmed a bike ride taken through Midtown Manhattan by Byrne and his musicians. Now, he set it to a children’s choir singing the melancholy anthem “Everybody’s Coming To My House”. (“And I’m never gonna be alone,” the lyric said.) It was a tune about acceptance and communality, recorded in a bleakly divided America. Audiences since have ended up in tears.
On Tuesday November 3, safely masked, Lee voted in person. The limbo nature of the days ahead were such that it wasn’t until the weekend that he took Joe Biden’s victory speech as a cue to celebrate. Outside the 40 Acres offices in Fort Greene, he led a crowd in an impromptu street party, joyfully shaking a bottle. The cork popped with an anti-climactic phut. “It wasn’t champagne, that was the problem. Someone gave me a bottle of Prosecco.”
The cynic might see it as a metaphor. As Lee points out himself, for all his loathing of Trump, 74 million Americans voted for his re-election, a significant number of black voters included. But then he might have foreseen that. Much of the drama of Da 5 Bloods involved Delroy Lindo’s bristling veteran Paul, a bundle of complexity in a red MAGA hat. In June, the character could have passed for a mere story device. Now, he looked like a premonition.
Allowing for the lack of a Biden landslide, how does Lee feel about the next four years? “A lot better than I did about the last four! Agent Orange is out of there. And he can’t come back to New York. New York hates him.” And his expectations for the incoming president? “Here’s the thing. We should expect human decency from our leaders. Agent Orange don’t have none. And Joe Biden does. Now I don’t know that decency is going to save the world but right now it feels like a start.”
Lee was left abuzz by the protests this summer. He also has a caveat. Bring them all down, he says of confederate statues. But he squints at certain popular slogans. “‘Defund the Police’? I one hundred per cent get the thinking, but the terminology? It hands the opposition a gun. We still need police. But we need reformed police. Righteous police.”
On November 9, drug company Pfizer announced they had developed a coronavirus vaccine of 90 per cent efficacy. For Lee, as for all of us, it was the cavalry. “Oh, that was a good day.” But with a screenwriter’s knack for coincidence, his own future already turned out to be tied up with the pharmaceutical giant. On November 17, he issued a press release announcing his next untitled project as a creative double whammy. One, it was to be a musical. Two, it would tell the story of the Pfizer executives who launched Viagra.
He is keen to emphasise he is not joking. “I’m very aware people think I’ve lost my mind.” A script has been co-written with British playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic. “My mother gave me a love of musicals. Musicality has always been central to my films. And with this story, the Viagra story, I can already see it. Hear it. All-singing, all-dancing.”
It’s December. Another New Year beckons. Musicals aside, how optimistic is Lee this time? “I’m pessimistic-optimistic. For now, Agent Orange still has the nuclear codes. I ain’t joking about that either.” The trial of the police officers charged over the death of George Floyd is scheduled for March. “I hope for the best. But historically, cops on trial for killing black people? Cops win.”
Other horizons are brighter. The end of cinema has, Lee says, been oversold: “Once people just feel safe again, movie theatres ain’t going anywhere.” He feels no fear for New York either. “Contrary to the doomsayers, New York will be all right. We made it through [Hurricane] Sandy, the recession, 9/11. So the people saying they’re leaving, you know what? Arrivederci. Au revoir.” The British accent returns: “Cheers!”
I ask whether he thinks 2020 has taken something permanent from him. “Of course. Me and the rest of the world. People have gone through holy hell.” Zoom glitches again. He freezes and stays frozen. I think that might be it. Then abruptly he snaps back into life. “But we learn. We learn. What else can we do? A lot of people died in vain if not.”
Danny Leigh is the FT’s film critic
‘Da 5 Bloods’ is on Netflix
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