Spike to the System: The ‘Chi-Raq’ Director Talks Racism, Money, and the Oscars


Spike Lee wants you to know that he is absolutely not boycotting the Oscars this year. He might even try to catch some of the broadcast. He’d just rather watch the Knicks.

“Hopefully after the New York Knicks, God willing, defeat the Miami Heat, I will, later that night, watch the monologue Chris Rock did,” he told me as we sat in his office on the ninth floor of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “Because I know it’s going to be funny.”

Lee also knows this installment could mark an important turning point for the Academy Awards, which, for the second year in a row, feature zero nominations for actors of color. This meant snubs for much-admired turns from the likes of Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson (Creed), Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), Will Smith (Concussion), and Benicio Del Toro (Sicario). The situation prompted widespread outrage and reignited the online #OscarsSoWhite campaign launched in 2015 by activist April Reign. In response to the nominations, Lee — now back in the spotlight with the controversial Chi-Raq and a recent Showtime documentary about Michael Jackson — did announce via Instagram that he would not be attending the ceremony (“2 Years And No Flava At All. We Can’t Act?! WTF!!”).

After I’d asked for his thoughts on the casting of white actor Joseph Fiennes as Jackson in a forthcoming British TV comedy — a question met with an epic shrug, a pause, and then the weary answer “Cleopatra didn’t look like Elizabeth Taylor neither, so this is old stuff” — we got into the nuts and bolts of Oscars, diversity, and Lee’s hopes for a more inclusive film industry.

VV: Let’s start with the Academy Awards, and your decision not to attend…

SL: Look, I was awarded an honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards in November. Historically, if you receive that, you come to the ceremony in February. My wife and I had our tickets. But that day, when the nominations came out, we decided, mutually, we can’t go. No! And I didn’t want the camera on my face, ’cause it would not be a good look, and I would not have been there smiling and laughing.

But I never said I was boycotting these Oscars. I never said that I was protesting. And it wasn’t like no slave revolt. Jada Pinkett and Will Smith [who also announced they wouldn’t be attending]? They did that on their own! It was obvious! We’re conscious, so we see what’s happening. They’re not going. But if people wanna go? Cool. Go with God.

There are no acting nominations for people of color, but there will be a notably diverse list of people handing out awards, including Whoopi Goldberg, Kerry Washington, Kevin Hart, Benicio Del Toro, Priyanka Chopra, and Lee Byung-hun. Does that help, or make things even worse?

For me — though I don’t include Chris in this, and I support those people for feeling they have to be part of the Oscars — that’s just window dressing. There’s no one of color that’s gonna be handed an Oscar! [Laughs] Or was even put in the position to win an Oscar. You could say that we’re the waiters at the table. There’s a difference between serving the food and eating — and at the Oscars, we’re not eating it, for the last two years. Shoot, growing up I worked at Baskin-Robbins…and I know the difference between scooping ice cream and being the one who’s getting that ice cream cone or that sundae or that malted! [Raucous laughter]

Did the nomination of Sylvester Stallone for Best Supporting Actor — the sole nomination for Creed — remind you of when Danny Aiello was the only actor nominated for Do the Right Thing, not Ruby Dee or Ossie Davis?

No, because Stallone is part of Hollywood. Ossie [and] Ruby were more part of New York theater. I think Sylvester was good in that movie. But I don’t know how you pass over Ryan [Coogler] for Director, the film for Best Picture, Ryan and [co-writer] Aaron Covington for Screenplay. And Michael B. Jordan was great, too. I feel it was a sentimental vote for Stallone. No one can say that sentimentality doesn’t take place in voting. Voters are human beings.

If you go on YouTube, you can see clips of Richard Pryor onstage talking about the lack of color at the Oscars in 1977, Eddie Murphy in 1988. Jesse Jackson tried to organize a “Hollywood Blackout” protest in 1996…

It’s not new. Look at Hattie McDaniel [who was required to sit at a segregated table for two at the 1940 Oscars]. Here’s the thing: America is a racist country. Racism is interwoven into the very fabric of this country. So why should Hollywood, sports, or anything else be immune to what’s part of this country, the history of this country? This history is based upon the genocide of the native people and stealing a race of people from Africa. We were considered three-fifths of a human being. The Founding Fathers wrote that. They owned slaves. I know we’ve advanced as a country, but emancipation wasn’t that long ago. The Voting Rights Act was only 1965.

Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs was quick to respond to the controversy and institute changes to the Academy’s voting system. Are you encouraged by that?

She did the right thing, and it was a good step, but non-diversity of the voting Academy members is not something that’s going to change overnight. And the Oscars is a misdirection play. That’s a device to keep you focused away from what the real thing is: the gatekeepers. These are the people that decide what we’re making and not making. Until we get into those green- lighting positions, we’ll be talking about the Oscars. I reference the song from the musical Hamilton, sung by Leslie Odom Jr.: “I’ve gotta be in the room when it happens.” We’re not in the room, we’re not in the upper echelons of the studios, film studios, network and cable TV. These are people — mostly white males — who decide what gets made and what doesn’t get made. We don’t have any vote.

So how best to combat that situation?

I think the studios need a Rooney Rule. In the NFL, since 2003, if there’s an opening at head coach or [for a] senior position, you cannot hire someone until you interview a candidate of color. It’s not a quota, not affirmative action, it’s getting qualified people a chance to get in the room and be interviewed. The head coach of the [NFC champion] Carolina Panthers, Ron Rivera, he’s Hispanic.

How do you feel about the term “diversity” itself?

I’m not going to get into semantics, but that’s what makes this country great. We’re never going to be as great as we can be if we’re not diverse. The U.S. census says that as early as 2043, white Americans will be a minority in this country. If I’m a businessman — forget about movies — and I want to stay in business and stay relevant, I’m going to want my product and my workforce to reflect this new, exciting America.

Back to the Oscars for a sec. You won the Student Academy Award in 1983 for Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. How did that feel?

Great. I thought that all the studios would be calling me that night! [Laughs] That I’d be directing a feature within months. It took three years.

So as a young filmmaker, did you look at the Oscars and say, “I wanna win that”?

Of course, yeah, I thought that, early on. Anybody that’s ever wanted to be a filmmaker or an actor as a youth has watched the Academy Awards and said, “One day I want it to be me.” But after Do the Right Thing [which, in the year Driving Miss Daisy took home Best Picture, wasn’t nominated for the prize], I woke up. And that’s when I truly understood that if you’re making an artistic endeavor, and your goal is to win an Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, or Tony, that ain’t the move. I’ve also learned that great work is going to outlast other work that might have gotten awards.

How significant are the Oscars now?

It’s global. The Oscars says: “This is Hollywood. We’re the baddest motherfuckers on the planet, we do it better than anybody else, and this is our best shit.” And it’s not just symbolic, there’s money attached. If you’re a writer, you’ll get a higher price. If you’re an actor, you’ll get better scripts. If you are the recipient of an Oscar, it elevates your presence. If that wasn’t the case, they wouldn’t be spending millions of dollars on Oscar campaigns. It’s well-thought-out. They’re not doing this shit haphazardly.

Your film Bamboozled is fifteen years old, and it doesn’t seem like much has changed, in terms of diversity at decision-making levels in entertainment, from the world you depicted there. Do you feel sad or disconsolate about that?

No, it doesn’t make me sad or disconsolate. It just reminds you that you’ve got to keep fighting the good fight. People in power don’t just give it up. That doesn’t happen. And nothing worth fighting for has been won without a fight, without a battle. Without dialogue, it doesn’t work.