Photos by Maggie West
Amidst all the fanfare around Lee Daniels' The Butler, 12 Years a Slave, and the talk of 2013 being a landmark year for black filmmaking, the biggest name in modern black independent cinema, Spike Lee, drops another joint on the moviegoing public. Oldboy, an English-language remake of the 2003 South Korean film directed by Park Chan-wook comes out on November 27th. The film is as violent and dark as it should be, considering the source material, but it also contains plenty of signature Spike Lee touches, in particular, his penchant for including commentary on modern racial politics and gun violence.
We met in Hollywood last week to talk about the film, and all the hype about the year in black cinema. As you can see from the above photo, we did a lot of laughing.
VICE: I wanted to say that I really appreciated that you used two actors from The Wire in the movie [James Ransone and Lance Reddick]. I'm sure I'm not the only one who plays that "Spot the Wire actor" game when they see movie. Was that on purpose or was that just kind of like, you just cast who you like?
Spike Lee: The Wire had great actors. And I like to work with great actors. And I loved the show, David Simon’s a giant. And they were available.
What really attracted you to Oldboy as a project? It seems like a tough project to take on, first of all, it’s a remake—
Malcolm X wasn’t tough?
I mean, of course that’s tough.
I don’t run away from tough.
But what attracted you to it specifically? What was there in the original in the script that you got that made you really want to do this project?
I wanted to work with Josh Brolin, and I’d never done a reinterpretation before so those were the two things. We wanted to work together.
It seems like there’s a theme running through the picture of the cycle of violence and how people get into that world. And there’s that shot at the beginning of the sign of the gun—
That was my nod to the NRA.
So my question to you then is, is there a way to break that cycle of violence? Because the end of the movie is hopeful in a way, but there’s still a sense that this is such a hard thing for people to get out of, if they’ve been a victim of violence, be it emotional or physical violence. What does it really take to get out of that?
One, we gotta do something about these guns. I think that’s where it starts.
How do you think we can get these guns out of people’s hands?
The NRA, they’re not a pushover.
They have a lot of money.
They’re powerful. So it’s gonna be a battle. I don’t mean to say this as being cute, but it’s gonna be a fight.
This movie is very violent despite the fact that there isn’t a lot of gunplay. Was that purposeful?
Look at the source material. We had to be true to the source material. But Josh and I talked about how we don’t want the violence to be cartoonish. We did not want to be cartoonish.
Spike Lee and the author. As you can see, we did a lot of laughing together.
Oldboy is not overtly about race, but there are moments for myself, as a person of color looking at the movie and saying, there are things where maybe I feel you’re trying to say something, maybe you’re not. Specifically, the black bellhop in the hotel. Was there a reason why the bellhop was black?
That’s my brother. I just realized it after I cast him, he played a bellhop in the Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train, with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Historically, bellhops have been—
Yeah, that’s why it triggered in my mind, that historical association.
I just remember those images of black men in those bellhop suits. So that’s where that came from.
It didn’t make me feel great for some reason. Not to say that it was something that turned me off from the movie. It brought up those memories of those old movies you watch on Turner Classic Movies of like—
Exactly. They just shuffle in with the fucking goofy hat on and shit, and I can’t stand it. There are certain movies I can’t watch because of the racial implications.
Gone with the Wind. I had a girlfriend who was so into it.
One of the greatest movies ever made. I’m being facetious. [laughs]
Do you think there’s anything that you’re saying about race even though this movie isn’t ostensibly about race just because of the fact that—
There’s only one specific line where Sam Jackson on the phone says, “I must have reparations.” We slipped that in [laugh.]
With Oldboy, to go back to the movie, there’s I guess it’s a highly stylized movie and Samuel L Jackson’s costume is very out there and big and there’s a lot of big stuff. It’s an iconic-looking movie, it’s very well-shot and stylized. How do you keep that grounded? How do you keep that from going off into territory where it could be silly?
You have to have taste. Myself, Sharon Seymour, our production designer, Ruth Carter the costume designer, Sean Bobbitt the great DP, just shot 12 Years a Slave. We’re artists, so we know how far to go.
You mention 12 Years a Slave and this does feel like a banner year for black filmmakers in a lot of ways, and I know people say that all the time.
They say that every ten years.
Or like when Halle Berry won the Oscar.
They get excited.
I’m assuming you’ve seen 12 Years a Slave?
Is this a turning point, or like you said, another ten years of “oh black people have made it?” Because the latter feels like a cop-out.
Ten years. It’ll be another drop, another nine years, and then the new new new new new new new wave.
So, I’m not excited. I’m glad this film is being made, but I don’t think it’s some type of grand world-changing attitude in Hollywood amongst people of color. I don’t believe that.
That said, 12 Years a Slave being directed by a black person, that probably wouldn’t have happened ten years ago. Would you say that that’s at least kind of a glimmer of hope?
That’s not true. People don’t know this, but Gordon Parks directed a film called Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey, which is the book, starring Avery Brooks. That film has been done before. People don’t know that. Did you know that?
No, I had no idea. I know Gordon Parks, I know Avery Brooks, but I didn’t know they made that film.
Same book. But it was called Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey. You should check it out.
So, what does it take then for a black male or a black female in Hollywood to overcome what is clearly either a systemic prejudice or general disinterest in the stories?
I mean, the angel on this film was Brad Pitt. McQueen has said this himself, without Brad Pitt, this film would not have gotten made.
But why does that continue when some of the biggest stars in music and film and sports are black?
You’ve got to ask the studio. I’m tired of answering that question. You’ve got to ask the powers, the gatekeepers, that question. Ask them.
I get frustrated, which is why I ask someone like you who a lot of people look up to, and I remember watching your films and finally feeling like there was someone talking to me, as opposed to talking down to me. We only ask because I think we’re frustrated.
Oh, there’s a lot of frustration. But I just hope that people, now that they see another view of slavery, and compare the two films. Big difference.
Yeah, there was an article in Vanity Fair which kind of compared Gone with the Wind with—
No, I’m talking about Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave. Big difference between the films. And I’m going to say, that’s mostly due to the fact that you had a black Brit, an African-American, who was the writer. John Ridley—African American—and a black Brit—Steve McQueen, because the whole viewpoint is a different viewpoint of slavery.
It’s from the outside.
When you see 12 Years a Slave, it’s not a cartoon. It’s not funny. It’s not hip. You know? Was Spielberg’s Schindler’s List like that? Did he approach the Holocaust with that type of approach? The Holocaust is the Holocaust.
Do you feel that up to this point, up to 12 Years a Slave, there was a sense that we were forgetting about the actual horror of slavery? Was pop culture kind of—
It’s not forgetting, it’s not in particular… it’s painful. I know firsthand that many African-Americans don’t want to deal with that. It’s too painful. And up to that point, we really only had Roots. That was in the 70s. But, there’s still so much source material, and I’m not trying to knock Steve McQueen, because that film is great. And he would say the same thing now, there are many other stories. Harriet Tubman. Nat Turner. John Brown. Abolitionists. Harper’s Ferry. So, there’s many more stories to be told. Hopefully, these other people step up, besides Brad Pitt—and that’s a shout-out to Brad, because he didn’t have to do that. I think that’s a heroic act on his part, and he got it made. Steve McQueen comes into any studio without Brad Pitt, it’s not going to happen. It’s not happening. So, I’m glad it happened.
Do you still find yourself struggling when you go to a studio and say, “I want to do this movie?”
Yeah, it depends on what type of film I want to do.
So was Oldboy a little bit easier, just because it was more of a genre film?
No film is easy. Tough business.
Do you think the younger generations of black kids are spoiled?
Yeah, my son is spoiled.
I mean, more in terms of the struggle for equality.
They don’t know about it. It’s our job to teach them. Sometimes we’re not doing it, they’re not learning it in school. That’s not just black, that’s in general. Young kids, anything happened before they were born, it’s prehistoric.
Yeah. Right over your head.
Which is sad.
Well, I guess that means I have to watch that Gordon Parks movie as soon as possible.
Go find it. It’s called Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey. It was for PBS, American Masters. Starred Avery Brooks.
What do you have planned next?
Well, my thing with Mike Tyson’s coming out. I directed him on Broadway. It’s called Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, and we filmed the play, videotaped it, so it’s on HBO tomorrow night. And I just finished a Kickstarter film that we’re editing now. That title’s called The Sweet Blood of Jesus.
Is there anything you can say about what that project’s gonna be?
It’s about people addicted to blood. But they’re not vampires.
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