Lillian Gish, who’s been called the First Lady of American Cinema, was probably born in 1896. Yet it is customary to dial back the date three years to coincide with the showing of William K.L. Dickson’s Blacksmith Scene, considered the first “film” ever shown in public. “She was the same age as film,” James Frasher, Gish’s manager, simply insisted. “They both came into the world in 1893.” When Gish died in 1993, it was as if the world’s last connection to the origin of film itself was severed. She had some roles in the sound era, including a memorable turn in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955). But her legend will always be pinned to her roles in The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), and Broken Blossoms (1919), the films by D.W. Griffith that have come to constitute the cradle of cinema as art.
The inconvenience is that arguably the greatest and certainly the first of this trio, The Birth of a Nation, is a momentous work that’s also a racist polemic, like the first modern toilet, revolutionary but disgusting. You simply can’t avoid that it is nostalgic for slavery, paints blacks as lazy and sexually aggressive, and declares that the KKK was formed by Southern whites out to defend their women and manhood—and the stability of America. It is therefore a further inconvenience that Gish, in her well-meaning and affectionate memoir The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me, denied that Griffith was racist against black men. “To say that is like saying I am against children, as they were our children, whom we loved and cared for all of our lives.” Gish quoted Griffith, who no doubt called them all “son.”
A year after Gish’s death, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize was established according to her will, and named after not only Lillian but her older sister Dorothy, who Lillian said was the one who had real acting talent, as Dorothy could do comedy. “I’m as funny as a barrel of dead babies,” Lillian once said, which is a pretty funny thing to say. It doles out $300,000, one of the largest amounts in the arts, to “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” Recipients have included Frank Gehry, Ingmar Bergman, Bob Dylan, Ornette Coleman, Laurie Anderson, Chinua Achebe, and Anna Deavere Smith.
On Wednesday night, the 2013 prize was presented to filmmaker Spike Lee in a ceremony at the Museum of Modern Art. If there is a common thread in Lee’s films it is that he has always insisted on subverting the black stereotype, and to present a balanced and manifold view of African Americans—from She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989), and 4 Little Girls (1997) to When the Levees Broke (2006) and Red Hook Summer (2012). Lee says he has been familiar with Gish’s performances since his school days. “Would you believe, two of the most important films that impacted me while I was studying at NYU starred Miss Lillian Gish,” he has said. “Those films were D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation and Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter. Isn't it funny (sometimes) how life works? And how ironic life can be?”
When I met him at his Brooklyn office this week, we spoke about his busy November: his documentary Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, a taping of the former boxer’s one-man Broadway show, will be shown on HBO on Nov. 16, and his remake of Korean cult film Oldboy, starring Josh Brolin, will be released Nov. 27. We also discussed race and blackface, his feelings on the new Steve McQueen film 12 Years a Slave, diversity in the Oscars, the Brooklyn Nets—and more about The Birth of a Nation.
As an agitator of stereotypes, how did you feel about The Birth of a Nation?
In fact, the film that almost got me kicked out of NYU film school was a film called The Answer, which you might say was a reply to that film. It was about a young African-American writer-director who was hired to direct the Hollywood big-budget version of D.W. Griffith’s film. And he takes it on thinking that he can do his own film.
But he couldn’t.
Of course not. That’s the same thing I touched upon with Bamboozled [a satire on blackface], where [main character Pierre Delacroix] thought he could control his show with [minstrel characters] Mantan and Sleep n’ Eat.
They don’t do this anymore, but when I went to film school, they would kick out half of the first year. Just gave them the boot. They no longer do that, which I’m happy about. I don’t know what it was. In film school you get graded on your films. I was a very hard worker, and I worked in the equipment room. I was such a good, hard worker, that they gave me TA-ship for the second year. But they gave me the TA-ship before the film was screened. So somebody slipped up.
They couldn’t take it back?
They couldn’t. How could they kick me out? They gave me a TA-ship, and I had it in writing, too. So, by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin, I was allowed back in the school for the second of three years.
Speaking of Bamboozled, every Halloween you hear a horror story of a celebrity in blackface costume.
Not only celebrities, but on college campuses.
Why do you think people feel it’s okay to do that still?
People are very insensitive. If you want to be a thoughtful human being, you have to be aware of what’s hurtful to other people.
Orange and Blue, all the way.
As magnificent as it was, The Birth of a Nation reflected the times. We’ve come a long way. To go from The Birth of a Nation to 12 Years a Slave … by the way, have you seen 12 Years a Slave?
I’m going to see it. I definitely want to go. I’m a big Steve McQueen fan, so I’m very happy with all the accolades he’s getting. It’s great.
It’ll likely be a Best Picture contender.
I don’t deal with awards anymore. In the long run, awards are not going to keep a film going. Many films that have won an Academy Award for Best Picture, no one’s looking at. I don’t have to give specific examples, and you don’t have to go back too far in history for that also. That’s not the reason why I make films. If Steve McQueen wins the award, it’s great. But I can tell you this, that’s not the reason why—I don’t know him that good, but I know he didn’t make that film to win the Academy Award. Maybe some other people did who are involved in that film. But not Steve McQueen. I guarantee you that.
The Oscars are notorious for its lack of diversity. How do you think the Academy can improve in this respect?
How any group or business improve on diversity is, number one, by being proactive, and invite diversity. It’s one thing to have lip service to it, another thing to really, really be proactive and sincere about it. So the Academy is making moves. The new president is an African-American woman, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. I think that’s great.
When did you first see Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy? What was your reaction?
I saw it in the theaters. I was just knocked out by it.
What made you want to remake it?
I don’t use the word remake. I use reinterpretation. And that didn’t occur to me until I was offered the opportunity to direct it. So it was that, coupled with, over many, many years, Josh Brolin and I talked about working together.
Were there any contemporary issues that you wanted to explore in Oldboy, that drew you to the movie?
Not really contemporary, but something that’s been around for ages: revenge. Everybody has had something happen to them, that they feel slighted. Not to the extreme of being locked up for 20 years. But everybody’s been slighted, and depending upon the individual, wanted revenge, no matter what it was. I always talk about that great scene in Diner, Barry Levinson film, where one of the characters starts beating up somebody. “Why you do that?” “They gave me a bloody nose in third grade” or something like that. And he was a grown man, and he hadn’t forgotten. So you do remember. Some things you let slide, and some things you don’t. For the ones you don’t, you just wait for the right moment to get retribution. So what interested me with this film was this man was locked up for 20 years, doesn’t know why, but makes a vow to himself that if he ever gets out, he’s gonna find out, hunt that person down, and make them pay. That’s a great premise.
Without giving anything away, how is your version different?
It’s just different. I mean, I grew up as a black man in America. I’ve never been to Korea. So it’s this whole way of growing up, whole different way of looking at the world. Western culture, Eastern culture, Korean culture, American and African-American culture—that’s what makes stuff great. We have different viewpoints. Josh met with Park before he even decided to do it, because if he didn’t get Park’s blessing he wasn’t going to do it. Park gave his blessing, and he told Josh, as Josh relayed to me, “Don’t try to do what I did. Just make your own film.” And that’s what Josh and I did. We know this is a great film. We respect the genius and ingenuity, not only the Korean film but the Japanese manga, the original source. A lot of people don’t know that. Oldboy came from something else. But at the same time Josh and I wanted to do something that’s different. I’m very confident the audiences will see that.
Oldboy is so much about violence, about pushing a human being to the extreme and laying things bare. You’re not really known as a violent filmmaker, or an action filmmaker. Did you retain the violence and the gore, and what do they mean for you?
Yeah we retained it, but here’s the thing. We didn’t want to make the violence cartoonish. Violence is not a game, it’s not a joke, and I just don’t look at violence like that. So, that was our approach to it. We didn’t want to soften the violence, but we made the decision that it can’t be cartoony. Too many things have happened in this country with guns to make it cartoony. And there’s no guns in this film, either.
Is the hammer still in it?
[Laughs] No guns in this!
How did you first meet Mike Tyson?
Hmm, we both can’t remember. We both started around the same time. He was heavyweight champion of the world. I had films out. We’re both from Brooklyn. So it’s natural we’d meet. We’d see each other’s stuff around, so we’ve been friends ever since. We just didn’t run around the same circles. Me with the heavyweight champion of the world? Come on! We had a mural of him up that’s on the side of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria in Do the Right Thing.
I notice your office is awfully close to the Barclays Center, where the Nets play.
Life-long Knicks fan, huh? Not switching your loyalties.
There’s no question. No way I will do that, ever. No amount of money. Nothin’. It’s not going to happen. I don’t even know why people would even entertain that. Orange and Blue, all the way.
This interview has been edited and condensed.