On the day the Oscar nominations were announced, The Daily Beast hung out with Spike Lee at his Brooklyn office to discuss awards politics and how Selma was overlooked.
The coincidence wasn’t lost on either of us. Lee’s films have been on the receiving end of several egregious Academy snubs, from his 1989 classic Do the Right Thingfailing to receive a Best Picture nod—the racially problematic Driving Miss Daisyended up winning that year—to Lee not receiving any nominations for his ambitious biopic Malcolm X, though it later landed on both Roger Ebert’s and Martin Scorsese’s lists of the best movies of the ’90s.
As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The biggest Oscar news Thursday was that the powerful Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selmamanaged nominations only for Best Picture and Best Song while being snubbed in all the other major categories, most notably Best Director (Ava DuVernay) and Best Actor (David Oyelowo). Lee, who said Selma and Birdman were the two best films he saw last year, seemed annoyed but not surprised.
“Join the club!” Lee chuckled, before getting serious. “But that doesn’t diminish the film. Nobody’s talking about motherfuckin’ Driving Miss Daisy. That film is not being taught in film schools all across the world like Do the Right Thing is. Nobody’s discussing Driving Miss Motherfuckin’ Daisy. So if I saw Ava today I’d say, ‘You know what? Fuck ’em. You made a very good film, so feel good about that and start working on the next one.”
But it wasn’t just Selma. This year’s Oscars is the whitest since 1998, with no person of color receiving an acting nomination. It’s a far cry from last year, when 12 Years a Slavetook home Best Picture, Lupita Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress, and Steve McQueen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Barkhad Abdi garnered nods for Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor, respectively.
“Anyone who thinks this year was gonna be like last year is retarded,” said Lee. “There were a lot of black folks up there with 12 Years a Slave, Steve [McQueen], Lupita [Nyong’o], Pharrell. It’s in cycles of every 10 years. Once every 10 years or so I get calls from journalists about how people are finally accepting black films. Before last year, it was the year [in 2002] with Halle Berry, Denzel [Washington], and Sidney Poitier. It’s a 10-year cycle. So I don’t start doing backflips when it happens.”
One of the major problems, according to Lee, is the composition of the Academy voting body, which is 94 percent white and an average of 63 years old. In other words, it’s a different generation of people and thinking, which could explain why most Oscar-winning characters portrayed by African-Americans are subservient—from the slave (12 Years a Slave) to the maid (The Help).
“Let’s be honest. I know they’re trying to become more diverse, but when you look at the Academy and Do the Right Thing or Driving Miss Daisy, are they going to choose a film where you have the relatively passive black servant, or are they going to choose a film with a menacing ‘Radio Raheem?’” asked Lee. “A lot of times, people are going to vote for what they’re comfortable with, and anything that’s threatening to them they won’t.”
But Lee, who also expressed shock that the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itselffailed to be recognized, said he was optimistic about the Academy’s trajectory under Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first black president in Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences history.
“The Academy is trying to be more diverse,” he said. “Cheryl is trying to open it up and have more diversity amongst the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But with Selma, it’s not the first time it’s happened, and every time it does I say, ‘You can’t go to awards like the Oscars or the Grammys for validation. The validation is if your work still stands 25 years later.’”
This interview is a portion of a forthcoming profile of Spike Lee in The Daily Beast.