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Delroy Lindo Is Finally Getting His Due

With career-revitalizing turns in "Da 5 Bloods" and "The Good Fight," the seasoned actor has become a star. It's about time.
Delroy Lindo's newest movie, "Da 5 Bloods," is now available on Netflix.
Delroy Lindo's newest movie, "Da 5 Bloods," is now available on Netflix.

For the better part of four decades, Delroy Lindo has been right there, waiting. He is famous but not Hollywood A-list famous — at least not to anyone who isn’t a Spike Lee devotee or an admirer of character actors from forgotten ’90s blockbusters. Far too few people appreciate his bravura turn in “The Good Fight” because far too few people watch “The Good Fight,” one of the best shows on TV. But in the days since his newest movie, “Da 5 Bloods,” premiered on Netflix, a swift Delroy Lindo exaltation has erupted across the internet. The consensus can be summed up thusly: “Hold on, did y’all know this guy is great in everything?” 

And he is. Lindo thrives on characters who thrive on their own convictions. Having gotten his start in theater, he gravitates toward tragedy, meaning Lindo tends to portray individuals with fierce and sometimes flawed principles. He is the consummate monologuer, able to cycle through a spate of emotions in a single sentence. Paul, his troubled Vietnam War veteran in “Da 5 Bloods,” is as much an apotheosis of Lindo’s talents as any actor could hope for. Late in the film, he delivers two soliloquies directly to the camera, ambling through a jungle with a machete and an inventory of the horrors that prescribe Paul’s existence. Sweat dribbles down his face. His voice descends to a guttural croak. “You will not kill Paul,” he says in extreme closeup, pausing between each word. On paper, the line sounds life-affirming. In Lindo’s mouth, it is sanctimonious and taunting. 

“There’s this technical aspect of reciting a monologue in Shakespeare or August Wilson or any of the big plays,” Lindo said. “When you’re reciting a monologue that’s being said either out to the audience or when one is speaking to oneself, you are, in my opinion — this was said to me years ago in acting class somewhere — speaking to the person who you think has the answer. I’m not going to say that I made the camera an actual person, but in the process of speaking into that camera, I have to humanize that lens and imagine that I’m speaking to people that I want to communicate with. Somebody sent me an email, and he said, ‘Man, I love that monologue when you were going on that rant in the jungle.’ The audience completely has the right to define it as a rant. For me, it is not a rant. For me, I’m speaking my truth in order to get to a place of clarification.”

Precision is important to Lindo, especially when it comes to words. Even by phone, his enunciation is that of a trained stage performer. Like Paul, he is prone to monologuing, choosing what he says carefully and quibbling with phrasings that don’t perfectly match his perspective.

What was supposed to be a 30-minute conversation stretched into 60 because he had so much to say. Why weren’t we listening before? At 67, the London-born thespian has earned the chance to reflect on his livelihood, which includes acclaimed Broadway leads (“Raisin in the Sun,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”), four Spike Lee movies (“Malcolm X,” “Crooklyn,” “Clockers,” “Da 5 Bloods”), supporting parts in a string of commercial hits (“Congo,” “Get Shorty,” “Ransom,” “Gone in 60 Seconds,” “Romeo Must Die”) and a few prestige projects that never quite elevated him to household status (“The Cider House Rules,” “Lackawanna Blues,” “The Good Fight”). 

“I have a great deal of pride about the fact that I’m still here and I’m still making work,” he said. “The ups and downs and the hiccups — overall, it still constitutes a career that I’m proud of.”

Delroy Lindo surrounded by co-stars Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters and Jonathan Majors in "Da 5 Bloods."
Delroy Lindo surrounded by co-stars Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters and Jonathan Majors in "Da 5 Bloods."

When Lindo appeared in “Malcolm X” in 1992, he’d already spent close to two decades in the theater. That’s where Lee first spotted him. After catching Lindo’s Tony-nominated run in Wilson’s “Joe Turner,” the director asked him to audition for what would become his defining film, “Do the Right Thing.” Lindo turned him down. The character, part of a humorous Greek-chorus trio that annotates various comings and goings on a Brooklyn street corner, didn’t excite him. But Lee, who has been on the forefront of many careers, including Halle Berry and John David Washington, was persistent about casting Lindo, returning a few years later to offer him the role of a Harlem mobster who mentored Malcolm X. 

More than three hours long and laden with controversy, “Malcolm X” wasn’t a runaway smash. But it generated rapturous reviews and became what Lindo considers the kind of “cultural moment” he wouldn’t experience again until “Da 5 Bloods.” In other words, it was a film that spoke to its time. Denzel Washington was on the cusp of top-tier movie stardom, the Los Angeles riots had enveloped the nation earlier that year, and the spirit of Malcolm X’s politics was finding newfound relevance. 

“Here’s the thing about ‘Malcolm X,’ though,” Lindo said. “I was not here for the premiere. I was working on another film in Martinique, and silly me, I did not make the arrangements that I could come back to New York for the premiere. But I’ll never forget my wife calling me after she got back from the premiere and saying, ‘Oh my god, you should have been there.’” 

It was his next two Spike Lee projects that would confirm Lindo’s range and build a bridge to broader Hollywood. In the lovable slice-of-life dramedy “Crooklyn” (1994), he played a jazz musician struggling to help his wife (Alfre Woodard) support their five children. And in the hard-edged crime saga “Clockers” (1995), he was a drug kingpin with a puffed-up sense of his own power. Lindo’s smile curled in a way that announced the character’s perceptiveness, like only he knew the truth about how the world operates. That’s the sort of feature critics allude to when they claim the camera loves a particular actor.

Lee’s work is often so lived-in that his principal players wind up seeming like co-authors. While making the semi-autobiographical “Crooklyn,” Lindo and Woodard spent the shoot acting as makeshift parents to their fictional kids. “I remember us giving each other the side-eye when we realized these were real children we were going to be dealing with all summer,” Woodard told me. During rehearsals, she witnessed the care with which he prepares. As Delroy Lindo gave way to free-spirited Woody Carmichael, his gestures became more delicate, his voice gentler. 

“He’s got that look that America thinks is formidable,” Woodard said. “He is a chocolate, statuesque, muscular Black man with an intensity, and I’m telling you: I will cut you if you need cutting, but Delroy won’t. Delroy will appeal to you. But you’d never know it from looking at us. That’s one of the reasons I’m so happy and grateful that Spike gave him Paul in ‘Da 5 Bloods.’ It’s a place for Delroy to flex all of his muscles. People talk about righteous anger, and Delroy has power as an actor, but the thing that makes him different is he doesn’t just go off like a Roman candle. Underneath his powerful presence and the way he presents and speaks, there is an underlying vulnerability. People jump to conclusions when they see Black men, and they never get to understand that there’s a vulnerability there because most Black men have been really deeply touched by their mothers.”

With Lee’s imprint on his résumé, landing bigger-budgeted films wasn’t hard for Lindo. But going from creative partner to foot soldier was a different story, especially because not all of those movies proved as dynamic as “Crooklyn” and “Clockers.” From 1995 to 2003, Lindo played a drug dealer (“Get Shorty”), an FBI agent (“Ransom”), a military colonel (“Broken Arrow”), the baseball trailblazer Satchel Paige (HBO’s “Soul of the Game”), an animal sacrificer (“The Devil’s Advocate”), an angel (“A Life Less Ordinary”), a World War II-era migrant worker (“The Cider House Rules”), a detective (“Gone in 60 Seconds”), a gang honcho (“Romeo Must Die”), an interdimensional traveler (“The One”), a professional criminal (“Heist”) and a rascally geologist (“The Core”). Despite the varying quality, that’s a pretty notable slate by late-’90s/early-2000s standards, when franchises weren’t yet the industry’s overwhelming business model. You’d expect Lindo to have headlined an Antoine Fuqua or Michael Mann drama next, headed toward Academy Award glory.

But somewhere along the way, Lindo said, he developed something of a reputation. Perhaps spoiled by idiosyncratic Spike Lee scripts and all those highbrow plays, Lindo found himself pushing back against some of the material he’d been given. When he had concerns about the way a scene was written, he would let people know. 

“Certainly my career was on an upward trajectory,” Lindo said. “I look back on it with an immense amount of pride that I was involved in some of those projects. I would say to you, from a professional standpoint, I made some missteps that cost me. I wasn’t as strategic as I should have been. It serves one better if one has a problem to be very strategic as to how you tell a person that X is not working for you, or Y is not working, and can we address this? Sometimes I was too direct. I’m sure you’ve heard the term ‘You get more with honey than you do with vinegar.’ I should have used quite a bit more honey. When a producer is paying you a lot of money to be in his or her film, they do not appreciate being confronted by somebody who’s saying, ‘I really would appreciate if you guys would look at X, Y and Z.’ It’s not that I was in the wrong. I was involved with various scripts that needed work or that I would have appreciated being modified. I don’t know if ‘reputation’ is the right word, but the D-word became associated with me: ‘He’s difficult.’ In my own defense, there were times when I thought a director and myself, or a producer and myself, were having a genuinely creative conversation. But they were affronted. They were insulted that I was having the, I don’t know, the temerity to question something.”

Lindo wouldn’t name specific incidents, but apparently whatever happened robbed him of future opportunities. Producers would call up folks he’d worked with recently, and what they heard wasn’t always positive. He was in the running for certain parts — again Lindo declined to list specifics — and then suddenly he wasn’t. 

“There was one project in particular that I’m thinking of that I really felt I could bring something to,” he recalled, describing his “disappointment” at losing out. 

As the 2000s turned into the 2010s, Lindo’s roles weren’t nearly as remarkable as what had come before. He played third fiddle in unmemorable blockbuster hopefuls like “Domino,” “Sahara” and a “Point Break” remake, as well as the short-lived fantasy series “Believe.” It wasn’t until “The Good Fight” came along that Lindo landed a gig worth his caliber. 

“One has to make the attempt to be big enough to say to oneself, ‘OK, what was my culpability in this?’” Lindo said. “What extent do I have to own that I kind of brought this upon myself, versus when a producer was just being an asshole or not being fair or not giving me the kind of leeway that he or she might give another actor. Because the other piece of this is, it’s not a meritocracy. Arguably one could say life is not a meritocracy, and certainly the entertainment industry is not a meritocracy.”

Alfre Woodard, Delroy Lindo and their fictional children in "Crooklyn."
Alfre Woodard, Delroy Lindo and their fictional children in "Crooklyn."

In “The Good Fight,” a spinoff of “The Good Wife” that’s housed on the streaming app CBS All Access, Lindo plays Adrian Boseman, a senior partner at a distinguished African American law firm known for tackling police brutality cases in Chicago. The series premiered in 2017 with Adrian inviting a white attorney, “Good Wife” transplant Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), to join the firm after a financial scam leaves her broke and unable to retire. Diane provided a worthy portal, but it’s Adrian and his ex-wife-turned-colleague Liz (Audra McDonald) who give “Fight” texture. In them, creators Michelle King and Robert King designed an affectionate bond without the sensual current that pigeonholes too many heterosexual relationships on-screen.

Maybe because it doesn’t air on CBS proper, “The Good Fight” hasn’t become the cultural touchstone that “The Good Wife” was, even though it’s just as good if not better. But those who watch it love it, and the show has secured an immaculate roster of guest stars (Bernadette Peters, Judith Light, Lorraine Toussaint, Louis Gossett Jr.).

The creators told me Lindo was their first choice for the role; they knew his Adrian would be a “showman” in court. “When we were casting the show, we had a meeting with Delroy at the office of our casting director, Mark Saks,” Michelle King said. “I just recall it was wintertime and he came in with this coat and scarf, and the way he took them off, it was Adrian Boseman. There was something imperial and so elegant about it. It was like, ‘Oh yeah, this guy has a law firm.’”

It came as a surprise, then, when the news broke in February, two months before the fourth season debuted, that Lindo would be leaving to star in ABC’s “Harlem’s Kitchen,” created by “Scandal” writer Zahir McGhee. An actor departing a well-liked series before its completion invites speculation about what drama might have unfolded backstage, especially an actor who says he was once labeled difficult. Lindo and the Kings promise there was none. 

Unlike some previous producers in Lindo’s career, the Kings relished the fact that he was “very opinionated” about the writing. (Similarly, Woodard called him “unapologetic” but said he “cops to mistakes” like a professional.) Lindo helped the Kings consider the “ins and outs” of what things might be like for a Black lawyer and advised them on how those lawyers would behave when there are no white people around. And yet, when I told Lindo I adore “The Good Fight” and asked how he feels about the show’s depiction of race, he responded with questions.

“Is it your perception as you continue to watch ‘The Good Fight’ that it is every bit an African American-led firm as it was in the beginning?” Lindo said. “Did you perceive any differences between the personality of the firm at the beginning and the personality at the firm at, let’s say, the end of Season 4?” 

To his point, the core narrative is no longer fixated on the dynamics of a white attorney joining a Black practice. One of the few shows that has found clever ways to comment on the Trump presidency and other current events, it now has a number of preoccupations.

“The reason that I asked you the question is because, to the extent that ‘The Good Fight’ concerned itself with topical issues, the dynamic having to do with us as an African American law firm was not always the emphasis of the story ‘The Good Fight’ was telling,” Lindo said. “So the show emphasizing a topical subject matter morphed out into investigating other topics: God, the Trump administration, medical ethics, Jeffrey Epstein. The actual component having to do with race was not always top of mind.”

Lindo said the Kings were “sad” to see him go, and the Kings agreed. But when I talked to them, they challenged the notion that race is less of a focus, pointing to Season 4 episodes about reparations and Adrian’s right to use the N-word. Still, they were understanding about Lindo’s attraction to “Harlem’s Kitchen,” in which he will play a chef at a fine-dining restaurant. Given the competitive restraints of broadcast TV, the Kings say CBS and ABC would never allow Lindo to do both concurrently. Nonetheless, they hope he will be able to complete Adrian’s arc at the top of Season 5. 

“When I read the third episode [of ‘Harlem’s Kitchen’], I got really excited about the prospect,” Lindo said. “There was something about the way that the characters were presented and the way that the characters were interacting where I thought, ‘Wow, what an opportunity to investigate the psychological and emotional realities of the people in this family.’ Now, I’m not naïve, and I know that this is broadcast television. All I can say to you is I fervently hope there is the space inside this work to do the investigation that will present these human beings who happen to be African American in all of their complexity and all of their humanity.”

Delroy Lindo, Audra McDonald and Christine Baranski in an episode of "The Good Fight."
Delroy Lindo, Audra McDonald and Christine Baranski in an episode of "The Good Fight."

In the days surrounding the June 12 launch of “Da 5 Bloods,” my cinema-obsessed Twitter feed lit up with Lindo tributes. Many of them presented him as an underrated powerhouse who, until now, hasn’t gotten his due. Cue immediate Oscar buzz, with one caveat: The awards were postponed by two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which means he’ll need to maintain that momentum all the way to next April. 

“Without being — what’s the word? — facetious, I’m not making anything of it,” Lindo said of the enthusiasm. “Meaning, it’s really nice. It’s wonderful to hear, but I can’t get caught up. I’m thrilled. I am thrilled that people are having such an extraordinarily positive response. But my job now is to just keep my feet on the ground and just enjoy that pride that I have from the achievement.”

Lindo and Lee hadn’t spoken in quite some time when Lee called him about taking on Paul. In the interim, Lee remained prolific, directing a movie almost every year and winning an Oscar for his “BlacKkKlansman” screenplay. He started working on “Da 5 Bloods” in 2017, redrafting a spec script about white veterans. When they reconnected, Lindo saw a new side of his old pal.

“He said some things to me in one of our first conversations that were very touching,” Lindo said. “I came home and I told my lady, ‘Wow. Spike said X, and it’s all kind of un-Spike-like.’ It was very touchy-feely, and I can only attribute that to his maturity and his growing as a human being. Now, I got to say, those dynamics did not mean there were not disagreements and differences of opinion as we were making the work.”

Like what?

“I’m not going to tell you. Sorry. The reason I bring it up, ultimately, is that we were able to get past that. It did not create an obstacle in the work that we could not surmount. It was a little upsetting going through it, but ultimately we were able to surmount it, and I want to believe that that speaks to the regard and the trust.”

Maybe that’s why this represents a peak for Lindo. He is back in the arms of the filmmaker who first recognized his potential, able to dissent without consequence. When you’ve done Shakespeare and August Wilson and Spike Lee, why settle for less? Amid the bleakness of 2020, watching Lindo course through such a frenzied tapestry of emotions is cathartic. His sweat symbolizes years of labor, for Lindo and for every person like Paul who feels disenfranchised by their country.

“I was, at a certain point, in tune with this man,” he said. “I had a sufficient ability to empathize with this man and humanize this man. I don’t know if ‘catharsis’ is the term, but there was, creatively, for me, a coming together inside this work that was liberating. It was affirming. I was releasing all of this creative energy in service of Paul.”

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