Since the release of Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods this past weekend, the discourse around the film has been fascinating – many have called this one of the famed director’s peaks, a visceral and heart wrenching war drama that combines many genres into one dynamic package, with the general sentiment being that it is overall an incredibly complex work that may be brutal and challenging, but is still an admirable achievement. One aspect of the film that has received almost universal praise, to the point where most conversations have tended to gravitate towards to it, is Delroy Lindo’s performance. Working with Lee for the fourth time, Lindo seems to be undergoing something of a re-analysis, where audiences are either getting to know him for the first time or becoming reacquainted with him after years of seeing him in smaller roles. His explosive performance has lunged him into the awards conversation, and repurposed him as the seminal character actor who is able to take on absolutely any role and contribute to every project, regardless of the size, and is now getting his chance to stake his claim to film history. Da 5 Bloods is an extraordinary moment for Lindo, as he’s finally stepping out of the shadows – and it’s about time.
Lindo’s career has spanned film, television and theatre, consisting of powerful leading parts and pivotal supporting roles, with the latter being most prominent. He’s the quintessential “actor’s actor” – he allows those around him to enrich their own performances by playing off him, while still commanding the screen in his own way. Lindo’s intimidating presence conceals a chameleonic set of talents, allowing him to shift into any number of roles. Unlike many cherished character actors, Lindo has somehow avoided any kind of typecasting – he demonstrates a firm control over each one of his parts, defining himself as someone who simply can’t be pinned down to a specific kind of character.
No one seems to know this better than Spike Lee, who cast Lindo in four of his films over the course of the past three decades. As is the case with any great character actor who has been the epitome of longevity, it’s impossible to find a clear way to cover their entire career, but the collaborations between Lindo and Lee paint the perfect portrait of precisely why he’s one of the most consistently brilliant actors working today. A glimpse into their work together reveals a director-actor pairing that can stand with the very best of them, each film revealing a new layer to their respective talents, with some of Lindo’s best work coming under Lee’s direction, each one of them a persuasive combination of the gifted actor’s many talents.
West Indian Archie, Malcolm X (1992)
Starting chronologically, we’re first introduced to Delroy Lindo’s character of West Indian Archie in the first half hour of Malcolm X, a character who Lindo chose to make Jamaican, as a way to honour his own heritage. The film is essentially divided into two parts, namely the formative years of Malcolm’s growth, and then his rise to the public consciousness. Lindo is an omnipotent presence in the first half, playing a very different kind of gangster – soft-spoken, gentle and charming, but with an undercurrent of malice. His defining quality is his intelligence and how he is able to command his legion of goons and low-level criminals with an understated intensity, which the titular character would ultimately come to do himself, leading to the exclamation by a police officer that “that’s too much power for one man.”
West Indian Archie was a small but pivotal role – appearing in only a few scenes towards the beginning of the film, he’s the inadvertent catalyst for Malcolm’s awakening, the person who gave him a taste for rebellion and made him realize there is something more to the hand society has dealt him. This kind of jagged wisdom makes their eventual reunion more poignant, where Archie has shriveled into a shadow of his former self, a disabled, meek man – yet Lindo still sells every aspect of the character, playing him as a sinister but benevolent mentor figure, whose experience serves as one of the motivating factors behind the transition between Malcolm Little and Malcolm X, and whose eventual decline is both justified and heartbreaking. Lindo’s role may be small, but he commands the film, looming over the film as one of its most memorable, vital characters, and in the process establishes himself as one of the finest actors in Lee’s ensemble of regular collaborators.
Woody Carmichael, Crooklyn (1994)
Lee and Lindo subsequently followed Malcolm X with Crooklyn, perhaps the director’s most personal film, and the role that presented Lindo with a considerable challenge – to play a character loosely based on Lee’s father. Woody Carmichael believes himself to be a good father – he just prefers to think of himself as a musician first, which is where the conflict comes in. This was a much larger role for Lindo, and the first leading role he took on for Lee. The character is in many ways more intimidating than the one he played in the previous film, because it sees Lindo go in a completely different direction – the epitome of warmth, charm and good-natured humour, Woody isn’t just a docile father-figure who has all the answers and the time to solve every problem, but someone yearning for greatness, but is struggling to achieve it. He’s a complex protagonist, someone who struggles to resolve his parental responsibilities with his own broad ambitions.
Crooklyn is Lee’s underpraised masterpiece, pure joy condensed into a single comedic story of a family working together to build a future in 1970s Brooklyn, and it’s Lindo who is at the heart of the film, playing a man working through his own insecurities, succeeding and failing in equal measure, and taking on the burden of broken dreams, which lends the film its melancholic charm. Lindo’s warmth shines through, and while he may often get noticed for playing more resilient, self-assured characters, this performance showed his more vulnerable side, and demonstrates his wit and ability to capture even the most intricate nuances of the human condition, which he uses as a way of bolstering this fascinating portrayal of a man lost in a world he doesn’t quite understand anymore.
Rodney Little, Clockers (1995)
Contrast the two previous roles with the work he did in Clockers, a role in which Lindo adopts qualities from both performances in the creation of an entirely different character, playing one of cinema’s most terrifying, yet entirely compelling villains. Rodney Little is a local drug kingpin in a small neighborhood of Brooklyn who rules over the territory with an iron-fist and a shining smile, which conceals a malevolence to rival any other. What has made Lindo’s villains throughout his career so memorable is how they’re the embodiment of sinister intentions, but they don’t appear to be without motivation. Rodney may be a violent gangster whose stubborn refusal may make him a figure of fear for anyone who crosses his path, but he’s still a beloved member of the community, even if that reputation was earned through force.
Lindo thrives in playing father-figures, and whether tending towards the more negative (Malcolm X) or positive (Crooklyn), he’s an exceptional force at playing these guiding forces in the lives of more impressionable characters. Rodney is a terrifying antagonist precisely because Lindo plays him as if he is a good person. The key to creating a great villain is to realize that no one believes that they’re evil – even the most despicable antagonists genuinely think their actions are justified, and Rodney is firm in his steadfast determination that he is doing the right thing, which is only bolstered by his reputation occupying the ambiguous territory between respected and feared, with Lindo once again going to great lengths to personify the character beyond a set of archetypal traits.
Paul, Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Then there’s Paul. Da 5 Bloods seems to be a watershed moment in Lindo’s career, which comes as quite a surprise, considering how he’s been working for decades and has established himself as being a beloved part of the fabric of the industry. There’s something about his performance here that takes him to another level entirely – a simmering anger, a man defined by his trauma and singularly unable to move past it, to the point where he falls apart entirely. Composed of fragments, rather than a complete individual who has led a productive life, the character is beyond salvation – yet, the film is so intent on trying to save him, which is precisely why this is a performance for the ages. Nearly every scene in most of his previous collaborations with Lee positions the actor alongside someone else – but this time, Lindo takes center-stage, looking directly at the camera and espousing his character’s own inner quandaries and disillusionment with the world around him. There seems to be nothing separating us from Lindo in these moments – he captures our attention and never abates.
Lindo’s ferocity and incredible ability to grapple the line between charm and villainy all converge into this performance that is perpetually on the verge of eruption – and when he eventually does reach the point of no return, we are left shaken by the sheer might of what the actor does with the role. His fierce monologues still resound days later, and will undoubtedly come to be definitive of this era in film acting. The simple declaration of “you will not kill Paul” lingers more than any of the visceral carnage we witness throughout the film. Lee wrote a perfect role for Lindo, who in turn defines the film and leaves us reeling, and in the process cements himself into film history in a way that he never has before. He’s arrived with this performance – it may have taken decades of tireless work, but Delroy Lindo is finally the star he’s always meant to have been.
With the release of Da 5 Bloods this past week, Lindo’s body of work seems has become a topic of widespread discussion, based on his incredible performance. He possesses a career that is ripe for rediscovery, and his newfound acclaim is indicative of an actor who has been through the industry and played every kind of role imaginable. It seems inevitable that Lindo will be in the conversation for awards this year – but what’s important to realize is that honoring Lindo for his work in Da 5 Bloods isn’t only going to be an act of recognizing an astonishing performance, but also the overdue acknowledgement of one of the industry’s finest actors.
Inarguably, this retrospective only scratched the surface – four performances over a decades-spanning career isn’t nearly enough to encapsulate the force of nature the actor is – but considering how Lee brought out the best of him, these four characters is the exact introduction the public needed to realize what Lindo is capable of. Throughout his career, Lindo has taken on so many different characters, adopting an endless array of personas and traits, contributing to innumerable projects that have all benefited massively from his immense talents and willingness to take on absolutely any role. He has shown a kind of versatility and range that has rarely been glimpsed, proving that, in terms of acting, he can indeed do absolutely anything and be anyone, without this sounding like an overstatement. Going forward, the question shouldn’t be “who is Delroy Lindo?,” it should be “who isn’t he?”