Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Bum rush the show: Spike Lee finally gets his Oscar

Spike Lee accepts his Honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

By my estimation, Spike Lee should have three Oscars, maybe four. In reality, he has been nominated only twice and won neither time. It is a game people who follow the Academy Awards play to determine filmmakers most overdue for recognition. Martin Scorsese was at the top of the list for a long time until he won Best Director in 2006 for The Departed. Now, you will hear names such as David Fincher, David O. Russell, and Christopher Nolan, but rarely will you hear Lee. Well, it may not be competitive, but Lee has got his Oscar, and at least from this writer’s perspective, it has been a long time coming.

On Saturday night, Lee, Gena Rowlands, and Debbie Reynolds were recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the annual Governors Awards, the Academy’s lifetime achievement honors. Reynolds received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her tireless charity work throughout the years, while Rowlands and Lee each received an honorary Oscar statuette for their contributions to the medium.

Each is highly deserving of the honor, but I want to focus on Lee here. Rowlands and Reynolds are accomplished performers in their 80s. It seems about time for them to be snatching up career achievement awards. Lee is not yet 60. He is still churning out films – some great, some less so, but all bearing the mark of an auteur. So, it may seem curious to bestow a career honor on someone in the middle of his career.

In January, the 2014 Academy Awards nominations famously spawned the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag for the failure to nominate a single black performer, writer, or director and the general whiteness of the nominees on the whole. Since then, under the guidance of President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy has taken steps to address its own lack of diversity, as well as the lack of diversity in the industry overall. At Saturday’s ceremony, Isaacs introduced the A2020 program, aimed at improving diversity of race, gender, age, class, etc., in Hollywood.

Never one to mince words or miss an opportunity to stir the pot, Lee had some strong words for the Hollywood establishment to close his acceptance speech. While the majority of Lee’s lengthy 18-minute address told the story of his discovery of filmmaking, the final two minutes were directed pointedly at a room of mostly white, mostly wealthy Academy members and supporters. Lee did not pull his punches, and for those of us similarly concerned with issues of diversity and representation, he did not disappoint.

“I want to commend the president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, because she is trying to do something that needs to be done,” said Lee. “I don’t know if you noticed, but the United States Census Bureau says that by the year 2043, white Americans are going to be a minority in this country. And, for all the people out there who are in a position of hiring, you better get smart because your workforce should reflect what this country looks like.

“I’m going to get real here. Everybody in here probably voted for Obama, but when I go to offices, I don’t see no black folks. Instead, brother-man is a security guard who checks my name off the list as I go into the studio. So, we can talk – ‘Yabba, yabba, yabba’ – but we need to have some serious discussions about diversity and get some flavor up in this. This industry is so behind sports it’s ridiculous. It’s easier to be the president of the United States as a black person than to be the head of the studio … or head of a network.”

The message was strong, smart, and necessary for an industry that risks falling behind the rest of the world. The people we see on screen should reflect the people we see in our lives. Hollywood has an opportunity and an obligation to be inclusive, but if it shirks that responsibility, it will be Hollywood that ultimately is left out in the cold.

Watch Lee’s full acceptance speech below:

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