Spike Lee. Photo: Shelly Provost–Flickr
This is how film director Spike Lee once put it: “People of color have a constant frustration of not being represented, or being misrepresented, and these images go around the world … I do not think there is going to be any substantial movement until people of color get into those gatekeeper positions of people who have a green-light vote. That is what it comes down to. We do not have a vote, and we are not at that table when it is decided what gets made and what does not get made.”
In 2015 and 2016, we in the Urban League Movement joined a movement against the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences embodied in the hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite. At the time, the voting membership of the Academy was reported to be 94% White and and 77% male.
As a result of the movement, the Academy pledged to double minority and women membership by 2020 and limited terms to 10 years for members who have not been active in the film industry. Whether a direct result of these changes or not, Spike Lee’s long-awaited first-time nomination for Best Director is a welcome development, as is the nomination of his film,BlacKkKlansman, for Best Picture.
For his part, Lee believes his nomination would not have come about without #OscarsSoWhite. “What that campaign did, it made the Academy understand that they had to diversify their membership,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “The diversity of the voting members makes a difference.”
Lee previously was nominated for Best Screenplay for Do The Right Thing, and 4 Little Girls received a Best Documentary Feature nomination, but this is the first time in his 30-year career he’s been acknowledged for his main contribution to American culture as a director of provocative and artistic feature films.
I had the honor to participate in two of Lee’s documentary films: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, a 2006 HBO production about Hurricane Katrina and the destruction it wrought on my hometown of New Orleans, and its 2010 sequel, If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise. The series serves as a powerful and thought-provoking analysis of the issues of class and race in national disaster response.
When the Levees Broke won three Emmy Awards, an NAACP Image Award and the Peabody Award from the University of Georgia for being an “epic document of destruction and broken promises and a profound work of art” and “an uncompromising analysis of the events that precede and follow Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans” that “tells the story with an unparalleled diversity of voices and sources.”
In appreciation of his achievement, the National Urban League presented Lee with a Special Recognition Award at our 50th Equal Opportunity Dinner in 2006.
It can be argued that many of the 30 films Lee has directed are as deserving of an Oscar as BlacKkKlansman, and many of them are destined to occupy their places in the canon of American cinema. But even though BlacKkKlansman is set in the early 1970s it is very much a film of our time – perhaps the film of our time. David Duke, the main villain of the story, is still very much a force in American politics today. He is shown to use the resurrected phrase “America First!” popularized during the 2016 presidential campaign, and speaks of making America “great again.” The film’s central question of whether social change must be effected within the system or outside it resonates today.
The recognition of Lee’s talent by the Academy is long overdue, and we congratulate him on his achievement.
Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League