Spike Lee.
Spike Lee.
Image: Getty Images / Nathan Congleton / NBC

“That was some shenanigans, subterfuge, straight skulduggery. He got robbed of that Academy Award. He was too black, too strong.”

The words are spoken by two characters in the Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It and refer to Denzel Washington, but they come from the pen of Spike Lee and they carry more than a whiff of autobiography.

When Lee ascends the Oscars carpet on February 25 it will be for the first time as a best picture or best director nominee. In 35 years of filmmaking, he has been nominated only twice (in less prominent categories) and both times left empty-handed. Most painful of all, his 1989 hard-hitting study of racial tensions Do the Right Thing lost out the same year that the cosier interethnic drama Driving Miss Daisy rode off with a clutch of statuettes. In 2015 he was given an honorary Oscar but now BlacKkKlansman, his truth-based movie about an African-American cop who infiltrates the KKK, has been nominated in six categories, including the top ones.

So what took so long?

“Well, it’s not like I was holding my breath,” sighs the 61-year-old New Yorker with a wry smirk as we settle into an absurdly plush suite in London’s Dorchester hotel. Cocooned in a black Marvin Gaye hoodie, silver Louis Vuitton bomber jacket and BlacKkKlansman beanie, it looks like he has yet to acclimatise to the wet and windy English winter. But by Sunday the gloom has lifted and Lee has hoisted his first Bafta award, for best adapted screenplay, festively clad in purple and high-fiving fellow winners. It’s not one of the top prizes, but there is all to play for at next Sunday’s Oscars.

Much has changed since April Reign started the #OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2015 and even more since Do the Right Thing was roundly snubbed 30 years ago.

“The voting membership who did not see fit that Do the Right Thing was worthy was not as diverse as the one currently, and that one became diverse because of two black women, April Reign and [former academy president] Cheryl Boone Isaacs,” Lee says.

“Any time a person of colour gets a nomination, they should be thanking those two ladies. I publicly thanked April, and when I saw Ms Isaacs in LA recently I gave her a big hug and said: ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ Because she changed everything.”

It took more than 60 years for an African-American to be nominated for best director (John Singleton in 1991) but since 2010 there have been a further five. Two years ago Moonlight became the first film by a black director to win best picture and since then there have been Oscar wins for Jordan Peele’s Get Out and, this year, nominations for Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther

“There’s definite improvement, but I personally won’t be satisfied until there’s diversity among the gatekeepers,” says Lee.

“There’s a green-light committee, and it’s not diverse. Until that happens, this could be a trend. In three or four years [they might say] ‘We’re tired of black folks, let’s go somewhere else.’ So to avoid that we need to be in the room.”

This is a favourite refrain of Lee’s and applied not only to the movie business. He gives a pungent example of what can happen if you’re not in the room, drawing on two recent fashion fauxes pas.

“When you’re considered to be in the Oscar race, companies come forward that want to dress you,” explains Lee.

“One company was Prada, so I was wearing Prada. Then that shit came out [Monkey figures in Prada’s New York store widely condemned as racist]. So I was wearing Gucci. Now [after the brand’s blackface balaclava sweater], can’t wear Gucci anymore!”

For him the recurrence of such scandals is baffling, but the solution is obvious.

“They do this shit and then they have some bullshit apology: ‘We’re sorry if ... ’, ‘We didn’t mean to ... ’. Why don’t you hire somebody black, so it doesn’t happen again?”

Lee’s tone of exasperated indignation is familiar to anyone who knows his work. He made savagely satirical use of blackface in 2000’s Bamboozled, in which a modern minstrel TV show becomes a hit, and even in the more gently humorous BlacKkKlansman there is palpable anger simmering throughout that finally explodes into a full-blown howl of rage. In a horrifying coda, Lee inserts real-life footage from the 2017 neo-Nazi car attack on protesters in Charlottesville.

WATCH | BlacKkKlansman trailer:

Even though he mocks the Klan mercilessly throughout the film to great comic effect, he clearly did not want to leave audiences chuckling complacently.

“It may look like they’re doofuses and stupid, ignorant, but they’re still dangerous too,” Lee says.

“I don’t want people to forget that the Ku Klux Klan is an American terrorist group. So are neo-Nazis. These are examples of homegrown, apple-pie, cherry-pie, hot-dog, red-white-and-blue terrorist groups.”

Nor does he regard them as a lunatic fringe that has temporarily been allowed to slip back into the mainstream.

“They were always there. That’s part of American society.”

Lee has made his views about President Donald Trump plainer than most, refusing to use his name and referring to him in a Cannes press conference last year only as “that muthafucka” (he stresses the spelling). Does he lay the blame for the recent rise of rightwing hate groups firmly at the door of the White House?

“I think that he’s put out the signals: come out into the open. Let’s just examine this. If you’re a member of the KKK, of the alt-right or neo-Nazis, and after Charlottesville the president has an opportunity to condemn you and he doesn’t do it? That’s the green light. He stood there before the whole world and would not condemn hate.”

Even Hollywood, which “likes to think of itself as liberal” continues to make films that are racially insensitive, he says.

“They’re still making films like that ... I’m just not going to name them.” I try to cajole him but he’s not biting.

“Years ago I’d have blurted out: ‘That film and that film and that film’s some bullshit!’ But I got smarter. I’m not going for the okey-dokey!” he laughs. In the past he was no stranger to controversy; is he more careful about what he says these days?

“Yes. I’m married now, and my wife is sometimes right. It’s not my job to be the culture police.”

Strong women, he says, have long been a guiding influence on him.

“My mother introduced me to cinema. My grandma put me through college and NYU [New York University] Graduate Film school.” (He is now himself a tenured professor at the same school.)

Lee has often foregrounded female characters in his films — from the sophisticated and sexually liberated Nola Darling in his 1986 feature debut She’s Gotta Have It, to the indelible image of Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy in the opening credits of Do the Right Thing, to the Chicago women mobilising against gang violence in 2015’s Chi-raq — even if the portrayals have sometimes incited anger. 

WATCH | Do the Right Thing trailer:

“Well, it depends who you ask. There was a contingent of African-American women who did not like the portrayal of Nola, who felt that she was another oversexual being. Also, there were women who felt that she was a positive portrayal. It was split. So what that goes to show you is that black people are not one monolithic group that think alike, act alike or look alike.”

Lee is staying tight-lipped about his next feature but talks about making a Broadway musical of his sophomore film School Daze and about realising a project he conceived with the late screenwriter Budd Schulberg of On the Waterfront fame.

“We wrote a script together called Save Us, Joe Louis, about the relationship between [boxers] Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. Hitler’s in it, Goebbels, FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Sugar Ray Robinson, Lena Horne … everyone.”

With BlacKkKlansman a hit at the box office, Lee is now a contender like never before. “I think I’m in a better position with the success of this film, and with the success of Get Out and of Black Panther,” he says.

“One reason why budgets have been low for me is that historically studios have said that black films don’t make money overseas. They can’t say that anymore.”

But the rewards of success are not merely monetary; he is also enjoying a new sense of artistic vindication.

“One of the great joys is that there’s become a reassessment of my body of work. People are going back to revisit Bamboozled now, because of what’s happened in Virginia [Another blackface scandal involving several US politicians]. They’re like: ‘Damn, Spike was talking about this in the year 2000.’ So, if you hang around long enough,” he laughs.

The subject of belated recognition brings us back to awards. In an impassioned monologue in the Netflix She’s Gotta Have It, Nola explains why Al Pacino was given the Oscar over Denzel Washington using a basketball metaphor.

“It was an Academy make-up call. Pacino got f***ed four times ... so they gave him his long overdue Oscar and then Denzel gets his make-up-call Oscar for Training Day.”

Could it be that Lee himself is finally due his Oscars make-up call?

“Well …” he ponders this for a moment before breaking into a broad grin. “Would need more than one!”

- Copyright The Financial Times 2019.

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