Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Lee says “it’s going to be a long, hard process” to increase diversity on a substantial level at the Academy Awards.
The illustrious writer-director-producer will receive a lifetime achievement award from the Toronto Black Film Festival on Thursday, just days after an Oscars show in which all four acting awards went to white actors.
In fact, there was only one person of colour nominated in an acting category at Sunday’s show – Cynthia Erivo, who played the lead in the Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet.
Meanwhile, no female filmmakers were nominated for best director.
“It’s not going to turn around until there’s more diversity amongst the gatekeepers,” Lee said in a phone interview conducted a few days before Sunday’s show, in which the South Korean black comedy Parasite won four Oscars and became the first non-English language film to get best picture.
“These are the people that have a green-light vote. That’s when a fundamental change will happen and we get rid of the feast or famine thing.”
Lee said he feels the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has “done a great job of getting more people in as voting members.”
But he “knew there was no way in hell people of colour” would get the same amount of Oscar nominations in the acting categories this year that they did 2017, when Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Naomie Harris, Ruth Negga, Mahershala Ali, and Dev Patel were all up for trophies.
“That wasn’t happening,” Lee said, noting such situations usually run in cycles.
Those 2017 nominations came after two years in which no actors of colour were nominated, prompting the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag movement aimed at increasing diversity at the Academy, which responded by making changes to its membership.
“It’s not gonna happen overnight,” Lee said. “It’s feast or famine.”
The prolific auteur – whose other acclaimed films include She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever and Malcolm X – got an honorary Oscar in 2016 but didn’t attend the ceremony because of the lack of diversity amongst nominees.
But until BlacKkKlansman, which was up for six Oscars in total, he’d never been nominated for an Academy Award for best director. He ended up winning the golden statuette for best adapted screenplay for the film’s biographical story of a black police detective who infiltrated a Ku Klux Klan cell in Colorado in the 1970s.
“It’s a fight, and you’ve got to keep at it,” Lee said.
“I’ve never thought that because I won an Oscar that means that the fight was over and we’ve arrived where we need to be. No way in hell.”
Lee will discuss his career and views on current events at Thursday’s Toronto Black Film Festival, which will also feature a restored version of his 2000 film Bamboozled. The satire centres around a modern minstrel TV show in which black actors don blackface makeup.
“All this stuff is happening in culture. It’s still relevant,” Lee said of the film’s themes of racism.
The Toronto Black Film Festival kicks off Feb. 12 with Van Maximilian Carlson’s Princess of the Row and closes Feb. 16 with Bernard Attal’s Restless.
Lee has also appeared at the Montreal Black Film Festival and praised the efforts of Fabienne Colas, who founded and is president of both festivals.
“She works very hard,” Lee said. “I’m telling you, it’s not easy what she’s doing. It’s not easy but she’s dedicated and she’s doing her thing.”
Lee’s upcoming projects include the film Da 5 Bloods, about black soldiers in the Vietnam War.
He’s also a professor of film at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts.
He said his advice to his students and others who want to break into the industry and make a change is to “keep pushing” and “keep working on your craft.”
“Just do the best where we can make it,” Lee said. “Let the world see it.”