TIME 100 Talks
June 11, 2020 5:20 PM EDT

The Oscar-winning film director Spike Lee spoke with MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid about his new Netflix movie Da 5 Bloods, the long history of racism and brutality in America, and his hopes for the protests after the death of George Floyd.

A lot of your work feels like it’s about the relationship of black people to America, and the extent to which violence is a critical part of that relationship. Is that an intentional thing? I don’t think that is intentional, but if you want to tell the story of who we are, just the fact that we were stolen from Mother Africa and brought here through the Middle Passage and no one knows how many people, our ancestors, didn’t even make it. And now we’re 401 years later, 1619, the first slave ship went to Virginia. So our entire existence from day one till today has been one of violence that is brought against us. And the more I think about it, we’ve got trauma. We as a people have trauma, and we don’t deal with trauma.

One of the things I do love about Da 5 Bloods is that that story too, the story of trauma, the idea of fighting for a country that doesn’t love you and where the rewards you get when you come home and take off your uniform is police brutality. Vietnam was very particular. So whether you’re black, white or brown, and you’re a Vietnam vet, you got hated on when you came back because I mean—spat upon, “baby killer”—all that stuff.

But it was also the first war in American history where you actually had a black voice of dissent that was loud? The film is a prologue and epilogue. A prologue is Muhammad Ali. Epilogue is Dr. Martin Luther King. Both of these guys were out against the war when it was not popular. Muhammad Ali got stripped of his title. Lost prime years of his athleticism. Dr. King got shunned by LBJ when MLK stepped out against the war.

Do you put yourself in your films, and if so, which of these guys are the most like you? None. The Vietnam War was the first war that was televised into American living rooms. So a lot of these memories I put in the film. I remember sitting on my stoop in Brooklyn, and I hear a voice, a woman’s voice, screaming hysterical. And it’s my mother. She’s screaming bloody murder. No pun intended. “They killed Dr. King! They killed Dr. King! Those MF-ers killed Dr. King!” I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember watching the news that night and seeing 120 cities in America in flames.

Do you feel like we are reliving that period that you just described? Yes, yes, yes, yes. That’s what makes me hopeful. Because these young white brothers and sisters. They’ve taken to the streets. And saying no to the stuff their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents before that have told them. You’re not born a racist.

This film I think was particularly timely because we’re dealing with George Floyd. When that killing happened, when you saw that death on tape, what went through your mind? I thought of Eric Garner, which led me to Radio Raheem, a fictional character in Do the Right Thing. Which led me to Michael Stewart, who Radio’s murder was based upon. And then after that, all the other black people who have—then our brother in Georgia. Our sister in Louisville, Breonna. And I’m not trying to be funny or making a flip statement: I can’t keep up with the names.

Do you believe with all that you’ve seen is black liberation ultimately possible in America? Well, the struggle continues. We’re going to keep fighting for it until we get it.

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