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Spike Lee: Black People Have 'Been Fighting For This Country From Day One'

What does it mean for men who have been oppressed by racism at home to become the oppressors in an unjust war?

That's the question at the heart of Spike Lee's new movie, Da 5 Bloods.The film tells the story of four black veterans who go back to present-day Vietnam to bring home the remains of their beloved former squad leader who was killed in combat.

"At the height of the Vietnam War, almost a third of the fighting force in Vietnam were African Americans. Yet, we were only 11, 12% of the American population," Lee says.

There's also a subplot: During the war, these men found millions of dollars of U.S. government gold — and buried it in the jungle. Now they're going back to retrieve it; the argument is that it's not stealing, it's reparations.

"We repossessed this gold for every single black boot that never made it home, every brother and sister stolen from Mother Africa to Jamestown, Va., way back in 1619," says squad leader Stormin' Norman (played by Chadwick Boseman.)

Lee worked with several Vietnam veterans while making the film. "Our military adviser was in Vietnam," he says, "and during the editing process, we had four screenings for black Vietnam vets."

Lee says he got two reactions after the screenings: "All of them thanked me, hugged me," he recalls.

They also asked what took him so long, "Because they wanted to see their story."

One scene in the film depicts North Vietnamese broadcaster — a real person known as Hanoi Hannah — delivering the news that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. At that moment, viewers get the sense the black troops might turn on the white troops.

"All the black Vietnam vets who saw the film — four different screenings — confirmed that," Lee says. "It's not something that's been talked about. But the black soldiers were about to set it off. They were going to start firing guns — and it wasn't going to be at the Viet Cong."

"We're fighting people who've done nothing against us," Lee adds. "And in the middle of all this, we hear that Dr. Martin Luther King has been assassinated. And on top of that, their black brothers and sisters are burning stuff to the ground. In over 120 cities, America was in flames."

For Lee, being a patriotic American means speaking truth to power.

"I was 10 years old in '67," Lee says. "So I was watching the Vietnam War at home in New York City. I remember the anti-war movement, and I remember the resistance to that, you know? 'America, love it or leave it.' "

Lee doesn't buy "love it or leave it." That's "BS America," he says.

"Now, this guy in the White House has said the same thing," says Lee. "But I think it's very audacious to tell [that to] anybody — and particularly African Americans, who built this country."

A "land grab coupled with slavery" is at the foundation of the United States, he says. "So we ain't going nowhere. ... We're not getting on a boat going back to Africa ... We built this b----. And we've been fighting for this country from day one."

Marc Rivers produced this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.