Filmmaker Spike Lee had never won an Oscar before, so when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented him with an honorary one this weekend, he wasn’t going to waste an opportunity to give a characteristically frank acceptance speech.
At the Governors Awards on Saturday, the “Do the Right Thing” director sounded off on a familiar theme — the lack of diversity in Hollywood’s executive offices.
“It’s easier to be the president of the United States as a black person than to be the head of a studio,” Lee said in a nearly 18-minute speech. There are currently no minorities running a major studio. And despite notable exceptions like Kathleen Kennedy at Lucasfilm/Disney and Donna Langley at Universal Studios, women in leadership roles are few and far between.
“By the year 2043, white Americans are going to be a minority in this country. And all you people out there in the position of hiring, you better get smart. Because your workforce should reflect what this country looks like,” the director added.
Lee, who has made no secret in the past about his frustration with the film industry establishment, also called out the hypocrisy of Hollywood liberals, who he argued may politically align themselves with diversity, but don’t embrace it professionally.
“Everybody in here probably voted for Obama, but when I go to offices, I see no black folks except for brother man, the security guard, who checks my name off the list as I go into the studio,” he told the audience. “So we can talk, ‘yada yada yada,’ but we need to have some serious discussion about diversity and get some flavor up in this.”
Lee’s remarks arrive in the shadow of the Academy Award ceremony held earlier this year, when the African-American-themed drama “Selma” was snubbed in most of the major categories, and no actor of color was nominated for a performance Oscar. The lack of diversity in the academy’s voting bloc — which is overwhelmingly white, male and elderly — became a source of consternation, and viewers trolled the Academy Awards on social media with an #OscarsSoWhite hashtag.
Meanwhile, a report from earlier this year from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism revealed that the LGBT community, minorities and women were wildly underrepresented both in front of and behind cameras when looking at the top grossing films of the past year.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the academy’s current president and the first African-American to fill the role, claims to have made strides in increasing the number of women and minorities within the elite Hollywood establishment, but she acknowledged at the awards on Saturday that the industry still has a long way to go.
“You, the people in this room, the true movers and shakers in our industry, you understand that when it comes to fair and equal representation in our industry, words are not enough. We also have a responsibility to take action, and we have a unique opportunity to do so now. Interest in the motion picture arts and sciences has never been as strong as it is today. The world is watching to see how we respond to this critical issue,” Isaacs said during her introductory remarks.
Isaacs has spearheaded the creation of a new initiative to promote diversity called A2020, which she says will take “concrete measures” to continue broadening the demographic base of the academy, but she said, in order to affect real change, their needs to be an “industry-wide commitment” to change. Besides Lee, the Governors Awards honored two women on Saturday, legendary actresses Gena Rowlands and Debbie Reynolds.
Lee has always been an outspoken critic of Hollywood and, in recent years, he has returned to his roots, financing smaller films independently and through Kickstarter. He hasn’t had much commercial success since the box office hit “Inside Man” in 2006, but he has high hopes for his upcoming film “Chiraq,” which appears to take a slightly satirical look at the plague of gun violence in Chicago.
That film, which was met with opposition from city officials like Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is due in theaters on Dec. 4.