Truly, there is not enough space even in the digital world to get down to the nitty-gritty of what Spike Lee has done for cinema, Black cinema, Black people and Black storytellers. To call him a legend, it’s cute, but he’s much, much more.
I’m in awe every time I see “Professor Spike,” and in my mind’s eye, each time I throw my arms around him, in tears, whisper to truth that I wore his “Do The Right Thing” t-shirt until it literally fell apart in the washing machine (not kidding) and confess that as a young person, I saved my money to watch his films (in the theater) attending more than once and dragging and adding friends each time. Even at a young age, I knew that by giving my money at the box office it was a call to action and I answered with passion and purpose and now—hindsight being 20/20—he paved the road for my own creative future in film and television.
According to the Academy historians, who were onsite to answer facts, Lee has received five nominations, earned one competitive win and received an Honorary Oscar in 2015.
In the press room after his win for Best Adapted Screenplay for “BlacKkKlansman,” which he shares with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, Lee was light-hearted. A champagne flute in hand, the gifted director/producer/screenwriter/professor fielded questions from the assembled global media.
It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words; to that end, let me add that Lee’s body language spoke volumes, and I absorbed every “no-word” the masterful director displayed.
Before he answered questions, holding his champagne flute high, he quipped, “This is my sixth glass. And you know why.” Indeed. Lee didn’t know this, but when the Best Picture was announced the assembled press room let out an audible grumble so loud, so genuine, it brought tears to my eyes. I wondered looking around the room, did my colleagues feel the hit in the gut? Did they, too, feel that awful sinking feeling, you know it, when sitting on a roller coaster, waiting for the final drop? I guess what I’m trying to say is that it felt like the loss of Best Picture happened to me. While interviewing the legendary casting agent Robi Reed, one of Lee’s self-anointed “A team” members, she said, “A win for Spike is a win for us all,” and he did win—but did he, really?
Here’s what Oscar winner Spike Lee shared in the press room. This is lightly edited. The questions were asked by a handful of reporters.
Amsterdam News: How are you feeling?
Spike Lee: This is my sixth glass. And you know why.
AN: I want to say the Academy did the right thing by giving you this award.
SL: Thank you very much.
AN: What would you say to Ron now that you have this award for writing this film?
SL: Well, first of all, he lived that life. He infiltrated the Klan. He talked to David Duke on the phone. He was David Duke’s bodyguard, and he lived to write a book to tell about it. Next.
An: You’ve mentioned “Do the Right Thing” in your speech and with your accessories today, so does this make up for “Do the Right Thing” not winning the Oscar for you right now?
SL: I’m a snake pit. I mean, everytime somebody is driving somebody, I lose. But they changed the seating arrangement. But in ’89 I didn’t get nominated, so this one we did. For Best Picture.
AN: I just wanted to ask you, we saw a little bit of a reaction to the “Green Book” win. Can you give us your thoughts on that Best Picture win?
SL: Let me take another sip. Next question. Oh, wait a minute. What reaction did you see? What did I do?
AN: A little bit of maybe a little [inaudible] reaction.
SL: No. I thought I was courtside at the Garden. The ref made a bad call. The world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. Knicks are coming back next year.
AN: You’ve been a critic of the Academy for some years. How do you feel about the progression of Black filmmakers after this year?
SL: Here’s the thing. Without April Green…April Reign, excuse me, without April Reign, #OscarsSoWhite, and the former president of the Academy Award of Motion Picture Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, I wouldn’t be here tonight. They opened up the Academy to make the Academy look more like America. It’s more diverse. So that’s why three Black women, if I’m counting correctly, won Oscars. That would not have happened without #OscarsSoWhite and Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Facts. As my brother, Jay Z says, facts.
AN: That reaction we saw of you and Samuel L. Jackson, walk us through that just a little bit. Talk about that moment.
SL: Well, first of all, Samuel Jackson and I went to the same college. We went to Morehouse College, so I’ve known Sam from way, way, way back. These were my school “School Daze.” We were very close, our families, and for him, my brother Samuel Jackson, to open up the envelope and say my name, it was a great thing. And did I jump up on him?
AN: You did. Yes, you did.
SL: Let me take another sip. That was a genuine, genuine reaction. And my co-writers all look, it’s not just for me, the people in front of the camera and behind the camera, and I was just…here’s the thing though. I had two speeches. Now, I’m going to call this “I’m keeping it 100.” That means I’m keeping it real, for those that don’t live in Brooklyn, New York, 100. Had two speeches: one with a list of the people I was going to thank and the other one was what you heard me say. So I said to myself, “Self, your Black ass may not be up here again, so let me go with the speech.” And I did not get to read the one with the thanks. So I apologize for the people I didn’t get a chance to thank.
AN: So a lot of us have been with you since [the beginning], yeah, it feels good today.
SL: I’m back in the day.
AN: He’s back in the day. But I have a different kind of question. You mentioned David Duke, the whole thing. Do you think he’s watched the movie? And if he has or if he hasn’t, what’s your message to him?
SL: No. David Duke told Ron Stallworth he saw the film.
AN: What do you have to say to him?
Here’s where the body language spoke volumes…moving on
AN: I’m in this room because of Cheryl Boone Isaacs, FYI. So I was interviewing Robi Reed, and she helped me compose this question. She told me that she was part of your A team, and she told me—it was a really beautiful interview, what it was like in the early days. And so the question is, Spike, what keeps you motivated after all this work?
SL: Amsterdam News, that’s historic. Well, I’m one of the blessed people in the world who gets to make a living doing what they love. It’s simple. Most people who go to their grave have worked a job they hated. That’s it.
AN: I love your Prince outfit tonight.
SL: It’s an homage.
AN: Obviously, a lot was said about “Do the Right Thing” in ’89. How have you changed, do you think, as a filmmaker? If you made that film today, how might it be different?
SL: I do not answer hypothetical questions. The film was made when it was made, but the thing is, the film, I wrote that in ’88, and in ’88 I was talking about gentrification, ’88 I was talking about global warming and that stuff. June 30 this year will be the 30th anniversary of “Do the Right Thing,” and all the stuff we talked in that film is still relevant today.
AN: So how has this film changed society? Because a lot of people did not realize that the Klan was still around. They didn’t know when this film came out. They sort of know now after last week and the week before, but how has this changed society?
SL: Well, that’s a hard question for me to answer, but I do know that the coda of this film where we saw homegrown red, white and blue terrorism. Heather Heyer, her murder was an American terrorist act. When that car drove down that crowded street in Charleston (sic), Virginia and the president of the United States did not refute, did not denounce the Klan, the alt-right and neo-Nazis. And this film, whether we won Best Picture or not, this film, this film will stand the test of time being on the right side of history. Thank you.