Spike Lee’s 19th feature, Oldboy (rated R), is a bit of a departure in a career that spans 27 years and at least a few masterpieces. An English-language adaptation of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 South Korean cult classic, the film is a violent, tortuous thriller about a man (Josh Brolin) mysteriously imprisoned for two decades, now searching for the reason behind his incarceration. Oldboy is Lee’s first time tackling previously filmed material. It’s also a more mainstream and, on the surface, less personal project than much of Lee’s past work, but the film still carries the fingerprints of the artist-provocateur. A Spike Lee Joint can be brash and urgent (Do the Right Thing), spry and entertaining (Inside Man), delicate and elegiac (He Got Game), or all these things simultaneously. “He’s done great movies, and he’s failed in some movies,” says Brolin. “But he’s just one of those very few who are born filmmakers.”
Lee, 56, is as blunt as ever, as EW found out during a recent conversation at the red-brick headquarters of his Brooklyn-based production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. Sitting in an editing suite adorned with Michael Jackson memorabilia, Lee seems to enjoy the interview about as much as moderately invasive dental work. But this brusqueness is almost expected from a man who professes to disdain the idea of “controversy” and yet has practically become a synonym for it, butting heads with fellow filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino. “Spike’s always had his own vision and his own voice,” says Samuel L. Jackson, who reteams with Lee in Oldboy for the first time since the actor’s breakout role in 1991’s Jungle Fever. “Spike’s still Spike, he’s always been Spike, and he always will be Spike.”
You shot your first feature, She’s Gotta Have It, in 12 days, and you’ve made a lot of films on a shoestring. How different is it to make mainstream movies like Oldboy?
I enjoy both. People got stuff mixed up, like I’m giving Hollywood a f— you. That’s not the case at all. I like doing studio films. I want to do the sequel to Inside Man. My mindset has always been that I’m an independent filmmaker that works in Hollywood.
Inside Man grossed $184 million worldwide, by far your biggest box office success. Did you think it would open more doors for you? I know you had wanted to make a Jackie Robinson movie.
That was dead a long time ago.
Did you see 42?
Can’t see it yet. Too painful. Here’s the thing, though: I’m happy for [Jackie Robinson’s widow] Rachel Robinson. But for me, I can’t see it yet. I will, but I can’t yet.
Do you ever wish you were more of an insider, someone with more clout like a Lucas or a Spielberg?
I am very comfortable with who I am. I love Michael Jordan, I love Willie Mays, I love Frank Sinatra, but I don’t want to be them. I want to be myself. I want to be a better version of myself every day. Not George Lucas, not Spielberg, not Scorsese, not Jay Z, not Kanye. Not Beyoncé! [Laughs] In the words of Sammy Davis Jr., I’ve gotta be meeeee!
It’s been more than two decades since you made Malcolm X. Has Hollywood’s attitude toward films about the black American experience changed since then?
There have been a relatively high number of black dramas this year from black filmmakers like Lee Daniels, Ryan Coogler, and Steve McQueen.
Relative is the key word, because four or five isn’t much. You have Fruitvale Station, The Butler, 12 Years a Slave, Black Nativity, my cousin Malcolm [Lee’s] film The Best Man Holiday. I’ve been through this every 10 years. There’s the so-called “renaissance of black cinema,” so I’m not excited. There will be another nine-year drought and then on the 10th year, new articles about the same thing. I’m tired of it.
Why does Hollywood still have difficulty telling these stories on a regular basis?
It’s very simple: Which person of color at a studio has a greenlight vote? You can’t include Will [Smith] or Denzel [Washington] — they’re actors. I’m talking about somebody who has a studio position, or network position, that has a greenlight vote. Who are the gatekeepers?
Last year, you called Tarantino’s Django Unchained ”disrespectful to my ancestors.” Do you find it hard criticizing films without creating controversy?
I don’t find it hard. I’ve moved on since Django, but I’ll say this: People are going to write a lot of articles comparing Django to 12 Years a Slave. I’m going to be very interested in reading those articles. Two movies that came out within a year of each other, with the same subject matter, that took two very different approaches. And that’s all I was trying to say. Slavery is not a joke. Sometimes I become a pariah for saying stuff like that. But that’s fine. I can take it.