'Agent Orange': The one name Spike Lee can't bring himself to say

Arriving in Sydney after filming a new movie in Vietnam, legendary American filmmaker Spike Lee endorsed the stand of the Indigenous rugby league players who are refusing to sing the national anthem at the first State of Origin match this week.

"Sport has, I feel, always been a vehicle to move society forward," he said. "More power to them."

Typically feisty and witty, the prolific director of such movies as She's Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, Inside Man and BlacKkKlansman cited other groundbreaking athletes who changed history by taking a stand including trailblazing baseballer Jackie Robinson, black power saluting runners John Carlos and Tommie Smith and Muhammad Ali, who refused to be drafted to the Vietnam War.

But there was one name Lee could not bring himself to utter, preferring to just call the American president "Agent Orange".

Asked about the parallels between Indigenous Australians not feeling represented by Advance Australia Fair and NFL players taking a knee for the The Star Spangled Banner in protest at the oppression of African-Americans, Lee said "Agent Orange" turned the issue around by claiming it was disrespectful to the military.

"He changed the whole narrative and gullible Americans picked it up," he said. "[Protesting quarterback Colin Kaepernick] never meant disrespect to the military. It was horrible."

On a quick first visit to Australia to speak on Films, Politics and Race at Vivid Ideas on Saturday night, the 62-year-old filmmaker and New York University professor was a walking fashion statement in a New York cap, blue and red Nike sneakers and a green Vietnamese film jacket emblazoned with patches including an upside-down American flag.

"When the flag is upside-down, it means distress," he said. "The last image of BlackKklansman is a black-and-white American flag upside-down."

Lee said the rise of the extreme right as portrayed in the final scenes of BlacKkKlansman was "a worldwide phenomenon" that had extended to Europe and Brazil, where friends said president Jair Bolsonaro was "even worse than Agent Orange".


"It's the same old playbook where you've got to have a villain – somebody to blame it on," he said. "'Immigrants, they're taking our jobs, they're selling our culture.'

"Hitler did it, Mussolini did it ... You rally your troops and you say 'These people are the reason why we're not who we are and to bring back the glory of our nation we've got to kill these people, regain our culture and take our place amongst the giants of the world'."

Lee has been shooting Da 5 Bloods, which he called a epic along the lines of David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia about four African-American Vietnam veterans who head back to find their squad leader's remains.

He shot it immediately after one of the best moments of this year's Oscars when, having won best adapted screenplay, he leapt into presenter Samuel L Jackson's arms.

"What the world saw was pure, unbridled joy," he said. "And to have it from my guy – we're tight, we've known each other for years  – that was a blessing."

But Lee insisted he had moved on from being upset that Green Book won best picture.

"Monday morning I was on a plane," he said. "The next day I was in Chiang Mai in Thailand in pre-production. I've just wrapped this film like 10 days ago.

"My Brooklyn brother Jay-Z has a song, On To The Next, so Green Book and all that, even BlacKkKlansman, is ages ago."

Like Martin Scorsese's coming The Irishman, Da 5 Bloods has been made for Netflix. And while he respected Steven Spielberg's disregard for movies made for streaming services, he disagreed.

"All of us, we love film," he said. "And we love our films to be screen in a theatre. But I tell you this: every studio in town did not want to make The Irishman. Everybody turned down my film …

"One of the reason we've been able to survive is I manoeuvre. I got to make films and where I get 'em made is where I'm going to go."

Lee was curious about Australia, wanting to know where Peter Weir ("my filmmaker brother") lived, whether Cate Blanchett was in town ("I'd be blessed if I get to do a film with her") and wanting to meet Indigenous filmmakers.

But he was surprised to learn the nationality of Bruce Beresford, the director of Driving Miss Daisy, which Lee has regularly savaged for winning best picture at the 1990 Oscars when Do The Right Thing was not even nominated.

"He's Australian too?" he said with a laugh. "As I said post Academy Award, twice people starting driving people, I'm on the wrong end."

Lee agreed with his mother's childhood advice that he had to be 10 times better to make it as an African-American.

"[All] African-American parents of that era told their children 'You have to be 10 times better'," he said. "And their parents told them that. It still holds today. I said 'Mum, it's not fair'. She said 'f--- fair'. My mother cursed like a sailor."

Lee was now passing on similar advice to his students.

"My students are like 'It's not easy'," he said. 'I say 'what the f--- is easy? I curse in class. This industry is hard. You've got to bust your ass."

Before flying home for post-production on his new movie, Lee had some more advice for budding filmmakers.

"Hopefully you're doing it for the love and not to be famous or for the money," he said. "Not to say those things won't occur but for that initial thing, love's got to be there to tell stories."