MID-MAY and Spike Lee is speaking to me from the other side of the world. “I’m calling you from the epicentre,” he begins. “At the world headquarters of 40 Acres and a Mule, in the People’s Republic of Brooklyn, New York.”

We are in lockdown, coronavirus has killed 100,000 people in the US, President Donald Trump is raging at everyone in the White House, George Floyd is still alive, and I’ve phoned Lee at his production company office to talk to him about filmmaking.

There’s an argument to be made, I’d like to suggest, that people don’t do that enough. Lee’s name is associated more with controversy and provocation. So often his films become talking points in the media, prompting op-ed pieces, denunciations and supportive praise.

From his 1989 classic, Do the Right Thing, in which a character is choked to death by the police (tragically, that’s not a new story in the United States) and Malcolm X, to the Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman, Lee’s films have consistently touched America’s trigger points, a reflection of the director’s engagement with the politics of race in America (and white responses to that engagement).

Lee has always given as good as he gets when his films are released, but today he is keeping his power dry for the most part. He only says the word “mother*****” once. (Who knows how he might have felt if this interview had taken place after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police? As it is, that is five days in the future.)

The danger in all this is that the films themselves can sometimes perversely feel overlooked. What gets missed is Lee’s engagement with film craft.

It’s something he believes, too, when I suggest as much. “Oh, I agree with that and I answer this question humbly. I think the so-called – and I use this word in quotations – “polemics” and … I’m going to use another word in quotations … the “controversy” people talk about, overlooks the craftmanship that goes into my films. The script, the scores – I’ve a long-term relationship with [composer] Terence Blanchard – the cinematography, the editing, the acting, all of that stuff my films, I feel … And, again, I say this humbly … are very well crafted.”

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As Lee says himself, “I’m a cinephile. I love movies.” That love and affection for the form is there in all his films. You can see it in the way he uses double dolly shots, for example, in which actors are placed in front of a moving mounted camera to separate his characters from their settings (something of a signature for Lee).

And it’s on show in his latest movie, Da 5 Bloods, a film that tackles the subject of the Vietnam War from the perspective of the present day during which Lee uses shifting screen ratios as a device to move from now to then and then to now. Such a simple yet effective device.

The truth is Lee’s films wouldn’t be anywhere near as incendiary as they often are if not for his ability to make cinema that has an energy, a rhythm and a power that connects.

Da 5 Bloods, which stars Chadwick Boseman, is the story of five African American GIs who find and conceal illicit money during the war. Now, decades later, the four GIs who survived, return to Vietnam to see if they can find the buried treasure.

In that sense it’s a heist movie, with double-crosses and shoot-outs, as well as a vehicle for veteran actors like Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters and Jean Reno .

But it’s also a film about the history of African-Americans fighting for the US, the ongoing poison that the war injected into the American body politic and that section of the African-American community who supported Trump in 2016, personalised here by Lindo’s alienated vet.

“Well sir, white people all don’t think or look alike,” Lee suggests when I bring Lindo’s character up. “The number of African Americans who voted for him was a very small percentage. There are one or two who voted for him and will probably vote for him again. People who are drunk on orange Kool Aid.”

At that, he dissolves into laughter.

In truth, Da 5 Bloods is more pedagogical than provocative. Lee is keen to remind us that the history of black Americans fighting for the United States goes back as far as the origins of the country. The film even references Crispus Attucks, the first man to die in the American civil war.

“America has a bad habit of leaving stuff out in its story , changing stuff, rewriting stuff,” Lee points out, “and I put Crispus Attucks in the film as a point to show that’s we’ve been dying for this country from the get-go, from the very beginning.

“Crispus Attucks was the first American – who was also black – to die for the United States of America in the revolutionary war at the Boston Massacre. The very first. So that’s why I get infuriated when Agent Orange starts talking that bullshit, ‘America, love it or leave it.’ We black folk have been very patriotic.”

One of the points Lee posits in Da 5 Bloods is that wars never end. It’s an idea he expands upon when we speak.

“The Vietnam War was 50 years ago and there are still people mourning the loss of their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts. The war is still with us. And then the war is still with the survivors of the war who have to live with it every single day.

“We participated in the war in a great number. We were only 10 per cent of the population at the time and during the height of the war almost a third of the fighting forces were African Americans, so, proportionately, we had higher numbers of injuries, fatalities.”

The film, written by Dan Bilson and the late Paul De Meo, was originally an Oliver Stone project. But when Stone walked away, producer Lloyd Levin remembered reading an article in which Lee was raving about another buried treasure movie, John Huston’s 1948 film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Levin approached the director in 2017 to see if he would be interested. Lee was, bringing on his own writer Kevin Willmott.

Three years later the film has arrived. Not in cinemas, though, but on Netflix. “We were lucky,” Lee points out. “Netflix did this film because every other studio turned us down.”

It’s a measure of how the cinematic ecology has changed that the likes of Lee, who also made two series of She’s Gotta Have It with Netflix, a spin-off from his debut movie, and Martin Scorsese find more support from Netflix than they do from traditional studios these days. Maybe, I suggest, if he made superhero movies…

“I did already. Malcolm X,” he says, laughing again. “It’s not necessarily a Marvel superhero movie, but it’s a superhero movie. I’m not against doing it. Who knows? I am not against doing a movie like that. It has to be the right one but I’m not against it.”

Since he made his debut with She’s Gotta Have It, back in 1986, Lee has made more than 20 movies, some big-budget, some defiantly indie. It’s an impressive return for someone whose films inevitably draw flak. How hard has it been to keep making films?

“It’s always been hard. It was not a done deal that this film was getting made. What helped a lot, I must admit, was winning an Academy Award. In a lot of ways, people change their attitude about you and maybe just think it’s another marketing ploy they can use. But as I tell my students – and I use profanities in my class – this shit is hard as a mother*****. You better wake up. If you think you can come in here and just bullshit and get a film made, your heart is going to be broke.”

It’s a bit depressing, I suggest, that despite his lengthy resume, an Academy Award should make such a difference. “But here’s the thing. That’s not just me. That’s across the board. If you win an Oscar, you can reap some rewards from that. Why do you think studios spend tons of money on academy campaigns? Because they know if they win, they can make money from it. They’re not just doing it as a favour. They know there could be some monetary returns if they win.”

Lee says he has a great working relationship with Netflix. Not even the cancellation of She’s Gotta Have It has soured that. “Look, I’m a big boy now,” he says. “I don’t hold any grudges and they didn’t hold any grudges against me either.”

It’s impossible not to ask about the moment we are living in. Nearly four years into the Trump presidency, with a pandemic killing thousands in America, is there room for optimism?

“Ask me that question after November 2,” he says, referring to the date of the next American presidential election. “I will give you a very definitive answer after November 2.”

How has the pandemic affected him personally? “Well, I’m 63 years old. I feel young, but for the first time ever during this pandemic I’ve been thinking about my own mortality. And I don’t think I’m the only one. I’ve been thinking, ‘one day I’m not going to be here.’ And I never did that before.

“That is how this pandemic is affecting me and it’s made me want to live even longer.

“My grandma lived to be 100 years old, so we’ll see. And, also, Kurosawa made films in his late eighties so that’s another thing to look for.”

Spike Lee is a filmmaker, first and foremost. He hopes he will be one for some time yet.

Da 5 Bloods streams on Netflix from Friday.