At the Academy’s annual Governors Awards in Hollywood on Saturday night, filmmaker Spike Lee, actress and philanthropist Debbie Reynolds, and actress Gena Rowlands all received Honorary Oscars for their contributions to cinema.
Lee has never won an Oscar despite previous nominations for Best Original Screenplay for Do the Right Thing (1990) and Best Documentary Feature for 4 Little Girls (1998). Rowlands, who with her late husband John Cassavetes is widely credited with creating the model for American indie cinema, is a two-time Best Actress nominee for her and Cassevetes’s monumental film A Woman Under the Influence (1974), and again for her turn in his film Gloria (1980). Reynolds, who was too ill attend the ceremony, was celebrated for decades of performances in such iconic films as Singing in the Rain (1952) and her Oscar-nominated turn in 1964’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
The glitzy event — an annual kiss-the-ring campaign stop for Oscar-hopefuls — drew hoards of A-listers including Johnny Depp, Will Smith, Steve Carell, Rachel Weisz, Jane Fonda, Michael Caine, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, and Mark Ruffalo. But the highlight of the evening came when Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, and Wesley Snipes introduced their friend and collaborator, Lee, on the occasion of what many consider his long-overdue Academy trophy.
Below is an edited but mostly complete transcript of Lee’s speech, during which he both celebrated and criticized Hollywood for how the business, and its inclusion of diverse artists, has changed since his 1986 breakout film She’s Gotta Have It. (Below that is a video of the speech.) It’s a topic from which Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs didn’t shy away during her welcome speech, in which she announced a new initiative called A2020, which will seek to promote a greater diversity in terms of age, gender, race, national origin and point-of-view among filmmakers over the next five years.
“Thank you, thank you. Look at this! Denzel … Sam Jackson. Wesley Snipes … shit! You know, you guys, when you chose that song [performed earlier], “Change is Going to Come” … it’s been a long time coming. So I want to thank [Academy president] Cheryl Boone Isaacs for trying to bring some flavor up here. Some flavor up in here!
When you look at my work … I call it “BT” and “AT”: Before [my wife] Tonya and After Tonya. You see my work, before and after, you can tell when I got married. Thank you for that.
I’m going take my time, as they say in church, take your time. How did I get here? I was born in Atlanta and moved to Brooklyn and my late mother, who died when I was in film school — she was the one who intro me to film. My father, a great jazz musician, hated movies. So I was my mother’s date, drag me to movies. She introduced me to Scorsese when she took to me to see Mean Streets.
Then I went away to college, Morehouse College. I was third generation; my grandfather and father went there, too. He was a freshman when Martin Luther King was a senior. And my mother and grandmother went to Spellman College. They were two historic black schools across the street from each other in ATL. So I went to college. My first two years I was lost in the wilderness. I was D+, C- student. It wasn’t that I wasn’t smart. I wasn’t motivated.
At the end of my sophomore year, it was time to back to New York City, I had to choose a major because I’d exhausted all my electives. I came back to New York the summer of 1977. I thought up to that point, I could always get a job in New York. But that summer, there were no jobs. I made a film about that summer, The Summer of Sam.
I was on my stoop — we call them stoops, not porches, in Brooklyn — and thought, let me go see my friend, who was very smart. Let me see what’s she doing, I got to her house, I’m sitting in the living room, and in the corner is a box. I asked her, “What’s in the box?” She says “A Super 8 camera. I’m going to be a doctor so you can have it.” I asked “What’s in the other box?” She says, “That’s film for the Super 8 camera. I’m going to be a doctor, so you can have it.” So now I had something to do for the summer!
It was a great summer to shoot. A couple days later, there was a blackout. My friend and I drove around in a yellow station wagon. My Brooklyn brothers and sisters, my fellow Puerto Rican brothers and sisters, started to loot. I filmed it — the looting. Color TVs, Pampers. I filmed that. That summer was also the summer of disco … I filmed that. It was also the summer where a guy named David Berkowitz … it was the Summer of Sam. He had most of New York terrified. This was before gentrification. 1977. If the Summer of Sam had to come Harlem or Bed-Stuy, they would have killed him!
So I had all this footage and I go back to school. A teacher there … encouraged me to make a documentary out of all this footage. From there, my junior and senior year, I was an A+ student. I didn’t get smarter, I was just interested. I didn’t find film — film found me.
So I graduate. And I knew that story about working your way up from the middle doesn’t work for black people. So I said, “I’m going to try and got o film school.” I applied to USC and AFI and I don’t get in there because I didn’t have an astronomical score on the GRE. Fortunately for me, they had more forward-thinking people at NYU who said, whether you get into film school shouldn’t be determined by a standardized test.
So I got into NYU and that’s where I met Ernest Dickerson. A great great DP. We were the only two [black] people in the program. Our parents had told us from an early age, we had to be 10 times smarter than our white classmates. Just being the same wasn’t going to be enough. That was instilled in me from the beginning. You have to better.. you have to excel.
So, three years of film school, my thesis film was called Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop. I won the Student Academy Award. Man, I thought Spielberg was going to call! Fox Universal … too. I had a little apartment at the time on Myrtle Ave in Fort Green, before gentrification. The Student Academy Award is not like not this [Oscar]. It’ s a wooden box with a circle … I’m going to be take over Hollywood! But a funny thing happens when you don’t pay Ma Bell, Con Edison and Brooklyn Union Gas, The phone gets turned off, the heat gets turned off, the power gets turned off. I was in the dark, but I had my Student Academy Award!
Then I woke up. That’s when I learned the tough lesson: nothing happens overnight. There is no such thing as an overnight success. That’s the biggest thing I try to tell young people. You have to bust your ass, roll up your sleeves, and attack attack attack attack.
So at this point, I’m very happy. But it hasn’t been easy, I’m just as proud about this award as I am with the people in this industry [like me] who are now behind the camera. That was always the goal. If I got in, I was going to try and bring as many motherfuckers with me as possible!
We’re getting ready to shoot Malcolm X and we’re meeting with the teamsters and I say, Sir, do you have any black teamsters?” He says, “No.” I say, “That’s a problem. Until we get some black teamsters, we’re going to have the Fruit of Islam drive trucks. Do you want to come to set and fuck with the Fruit of Islam? Come on!” The next day, five black teamsters showed up! I had to make change like that or we wouldn’t be where we are today.
In closing, if this is redundant, please forgive me. I want to thank my grandmother. Her grandmother was a slave. And for 50 years, she taught art. Van Gogh was her favorite painter. She taught in the state of Georgia and in 50 years she never had one white student because of Jim Crow laws. For 50 years, she saved her social security checks for her grandchildren’s education. And since I was first born, I had first dibs! My grandmother, 50 years of saving her checks, put me through Morehouse, put me through NYU Film School, gave me the money for my thesis film, then gave me the money for She’s Gotta Have It.
I want to commend Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs because she is trying to do something that needs to be done. Not sure if you now this, but the US Census Bureau says by the year 2043, white Americans are going to be the minority in this country. People in positions of hiring, you better get smart. Your workforce should reflect what this country looks like.
Everybody here probably voted for Obama! But in [Hollywood] offices, I see no black folks except for the man who’s the security guard who checks my name off the list as I got into the studio. So we can talk “Yabba yabba yabba,” but we need to have a serious conversation about diversity and get some flavor up in this! It’s easier to be president of the United States as a black person than be the head of the studio or head of a network.
So President [Isaacs], keep it going, I know it’s tough … peace and love to the people in France. And the last thing: Is Brooklyn in the house? Thank you very much.