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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

On MLK Day, Spike Lee reflects on how Black soldiers (and young Spike) learned of Dr. King's death

Spike Lee, Jimmy Fallon
Spike Lee, Jimmy Fallon
Screenshot: The Tonight Show

Spike Lee braved the—well, everything—to come by The Tonight Show’s New York studios in person on Monday to share his memories of Martin Luther King’s death for Martin Luther King Day. Lee himself was just 11 and sitting on his family’s Brooklyn stoop, when, as he recalled for Jimmy Fallon, he heard the chilling sound of a woman screaming off in the distance. As the voice grew closer, the young Lee realized it was his own mother, crying out inconsolably, “They killed Dr. King! They killed Dr. King!”

Spike Lee can tell a story. With Fallon, effusive as always, praising Lee’s acclaimed Vietnam War drama Da 5 Bloods, Lee went on to explain how—as dramatized by a clip from the film—Black troops in Vietnam had the news of Martin Luther King’s April 4, 1968 assassination filter through to them only days later—and from an especially wrenching source. Noting that Black soldiers made up over a third of the ground troops in Vietnam at the time (while Black Americans were only 10 percent of the population), Lee showed the Da 5 Bloods scene where North Vietnamese propaganda broadcaster “Hanoi Hannah” (Trịnh Thị Ngọ, played in the film by Veronica Ngo) found an especially potent way to up her game of wheedling Black soldiers for fighting for a nation that not only murdered King, but was then undergoing massive protests back home against racial injustice. As Lee reminded Fallon (who’s dad was in Vietnam), it was Dr. King’s vocal opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War that saw the civil rights icon receiving some of the most vituperative abuse and scorn in his life. (Which is really saying something, white America being what it is.)

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Lee, nothing if not restless in his creative genius, also confirmed for Fallon the report that his followup to the searing historical drama of Da 5 Bloods will, indeed, be a movie musical based on the invention of erectile dysfunction aid (and drug covered by most health plans while birth control and abortion aren’t), viagra. Nobody’s here to question whatever direction the acclaimed director’s muse leads him, and Lee was dead serious about the project (with music written by Mark Stewart and Heidi Rodewald, whose hit stage musical Passing Strange Lee documented in 2009). Dead serious. So serious that he did, in no way, set up Fallon for a huge, cheap laugh line about the proposed difficulty of creating art from a subject that’s so rife with potential boner jokes. No way. Art is serious business, people.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.