23 Years Later, Spike Lee Finally Gets His Oscar & Uses It To Promote Diversity (Video)
It’s hard to believe that Spike Lee, the director of such iconic films as Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X has never won an Academy Award for Best Director. The former received the nomination for Best Original Screenplay in 1990 and eight years later, Lee was once again nominated, albeit that time for Best Documentary for 4 Little Girls, the poignant film about the young African American victims of a 1968 church bombing. In 1993, Denzel Washington earned a nod for his lead role in Lee’s biopic about Malcolm X, but his own name was not offered up for any nominations that year, and many of his fans (and perhaps even some of his critics) rebuffed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for what appeared to be a snub. A 1993 op-ed about the 1993 Oscars remarked on the Academy’s “long history of wrongheadedness when it comes to nominations,” reflecting much of the general consensus that, once again, Lee’s filmmaking was unjustly overlooked.
Now it’s 2015 and Lee has more than 40 films under his belt including his forthcoming satire Chi-Raq. This past weekend he received an honorary Oscar at the Academy’s Governors Awards ceremony. The ceremony is an annual event that bestows three separate awards; the Academy Honorary Award, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. Lee was the recipient of the first (as did longtime actress Gena Rowlands), and while technically it is his first Oscar, to many it doesn’t carry with it nearly the same weight as do the Oscars handed out at the Academy Awards. According to the Academy’s website, the Honorary Award was created to “reward significant achievements of the year that did not fit in existing categories,” and Lee was chosen for reasons including his being “a champion of independent film and an inspiration to young filmmakers.”
In acknowledgment of the well-deserved honor (presented to him by Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, and Washington), Lee spoke for more than 15 minutes, using his time to express both great gratitude and consternation. More specifically, he used the platform to express his discontent with the level of diversity in Hollywood, an issue that has long been one he has championed. In his quintessentially Spike way, he begins by pointing out his special edition Air Jordans, decked out in gold just for the occasion. And, in another quintessentially Spike moment, he begins his speech by directly addressing his being long since deserving of Academy recognition (“How did I get here? Well, it’s been a long time comin’…”). Shortly thereafter, however, it’s all business as he brings up some powerful points about the industry which he loves so much. Though tinged with humor (“we need some flava up in here!”), Lee’s comments are pointed and critical of the establishment. Near the 13:35 mark he begins “as a people we got in this industry behind and in front of the camera. That was always the goal. If I got in, I was gonna try and bring as many mothafuckas in as possible,” at which point Jackson, Snipes, and Washington join Lee in celebratory whoops and handshakes. “I knew I had to make changes like that, or we wouldn’t be where we are today,” he continues. “I want to commend Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs [first Black president of the Academy] because she is trying to do something that needs to be done. I don’t know if you know this, but the United States Census Bureau says by the year 2043, White Americans are gonna be a minority in this country, and all the people out there are in positions to be hiring, you better get smart, because your workforce should reflect what this country looks like.”
Check out Lee’s full speech below, which includes a touching homage to the women in his family as well as an insightful biographical account of his foray into film.