Three years ago, Spike Lee made headlines when he announced that he’d be skipping the Oscars — a protest, he said, of the academy’s historical failure to honor artists of color.
Now, the academy is coming to him.
“BlacKkKLansman,” Lee’s 21st feature, not counting documentaries, was nominated for six Academy Awards on Tuesday, including best picture and best director. It’s the first directing nomination for Lee, who, by almost any other measure, has been widely regarded as one of his medium’s most important artists — and one of his industry’s most energetic ombudsmen — for at least two decades.
[Read more about the nominations | Check out the full list of nominees | See the snubs and surprises.]
His classic films of the late ’80s and ’90s (“She’s Gotta Have It,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X”) reshaped American cinema, helped make stars of Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson, and turned Lee himself into a new kind of celebrity — part auteur, part public servant, part sneaker pitchman.
But he’s had a fraught relationship with film’s major honorary body from almost the beginning of his career. At the 1990 Oscars, “Do the Right Thing” lost out in two categories (best screenplay and best supporting actor, for Danny Aiello) and fell short of a best picture nomination, awarded that year to “Driving Miss Daisy.” In 2015, during an acceptance speech for an honorary prize at the academy’s Governors Awards, Lee implored those in attendance to “get smart” about diversity and foster a creative work force that can “reflect what this country looks like.”
The same night of that speech, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, then the academy’s president, announced a multiyear campaign to diversify its membership. The move wasn’t enough to convince Lee to attend the 2016 ceremony (he went to a Knicks game instead), but he credits Isaacs’s efforts for clearing room for “BlacKkKlansman.” The movie, a critical and box office hit based on the true story of a black police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, has turned the director, at 61, into the toast of the town once again.
Lee spoke about “BlacKkKlansman,” the state of the Hollywood and, naturally, the state of the White House, from his home in New York, where he watched Tuesday’s announcements with his wife, two children and one flustered dog.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How do you feel?
Well, it feels very good. We’re very pleased. We were all watching, sitting in bed, jumping up and down. The dog was barking at us — she didn’t know what was going on [laughs] — but it’s a good day. It’s a good day.
You’ve said that ever since your experience with “Do the Right Thing,” you haven’t held out hope for recognition from the academy. What does it mean to be nominated now, 30 years later?
Well, any time there’s an award, you should think about who’s voting. And the membership of the academy today is much more diverse than it was back then. #OscarsSoWhite definitely prodded the academy to open up its membership, and that’s why I think that you see films by people of color are getting the recognition now that they didn’t get in the past.
A lot of people worked on this film, in front and behind the camera. And also the marketing — this whole Oscars campaign. I couldn’t have done it alone. People were busting their ass. Everyone has asked me from the beginning, “How do you feel about where you are with this film?” I love where we are. We’re the long-shot. And I like being in that position. I’ve always been the underdog, always. And you could quote me: We’re the dark horse in the race. Pun intended.
Does any part of you feel like it’s overdue?
I mean, look, it’s no secret. 30 years is a long [expletive] time. But I’m not complaining! It’s a joyous day. I’m blessed for this day. Blessed for the recognition. And there’s a feeling that it’s not just the people that worked on this film [that have earned recognition], it’s the people that have been working on my films since 1986.
You’ve made all kinds of films — some independent, some with studios, some that you wrote, some that were written by others — was there anything about “BlacKkKlansman” that you thought had the potential to resonate in a different way?
Well, when Jordan Peele called me up and gave me the pitch “Black man infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan,” I was intrigued, because with the absurdity of that premise comes humor. Kevin Willmott [a co-writer of the film] and I knew that if we could use the movie to connect the past with the present, we could do something that connected with people. And it was a tough thing to do. But it was successful, and it speaks directly to the world we live in today with this guy in the White House. Today, when 800,000 Americans need a break as we go into another week of this temper tantrum about how this guy wants his money for his wall. A wall he wants to be built upon the border of a country that he says [is home to] rapists, murders and drug dealers. And that they’re gonna pay for! Which is not true.
This film deals directly with the madness and the mayhem of this Looney Tunes, cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs world [laughs]. And I feel that many years to come, when historians search for a piece of art that clearly shows what is happening today, “BlacKkKlansman” will be one of the first things they look at. Because this film is on the right side of history.
When you think about the journey “BlacKkKlansman” has had, what do you think it says about where the industry is today and where it’s going?
Well, none of this would have been possible if the academy did not make the heroic move, and the right move to open up its ranks to better reflect what this country looks like. And I applaud the former president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, for being the one to champion that. I don’t think that was an easy thing to do.
You once famously said that it’s easier as a black man to become the president of the United States than it is to become the head of a movie studio. There still aren’t many black people at the heads of movie studios.
[Laughs] And I still think I’m right on that. I think that one of the final frontiers to complete diversity has to be among the gatekeepers. The people at the head of various media outlets who decide what they’re making and not making. Until there’s diversity brought to that, we’re still going to have issues.
In 1990, the first time you were nominated for an Academy Award, “Driving Miss Daisy” won best picture. This year, “BlacKkKlansman” is up against “Green Book,” which some people have compared to “Driving Miss Daisy.” Do you see a coincidence?
I have a policy today where I’m not talking about anybody else’s films that were nominated. But I will acknowledge that comparison has been made, yes.
Can you tell me how you feel about being up against “Green Book”?
Can’t speak on it. Won’t speak on it! [Laughs]
In your own personal top 10, where does “BlacKkKlansman” rank?
It’s the latest one. The latest Spike Lee joint.