Spike Lee: Getting a Black President Is Easier Than a Black Studio Head

Courtesy of Michael Yada/A.M.P.A.S
Spike Lee and Cheryl Boone Isaacs at the Governors Awards

Earlier at the event on Saturday, the Academy's president launched a new initiative, A2020, that aims to promote more diversity in Hollywood over the next five years.

Accepting an honorary Oscar at the 7th annual Governors Awards, Spike Lee said, "It's easier to be the president of the United States as a black person than to be the head of a studio."

The director told the industry audience gathered at the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland, "We need to have some serious discussion about diversity" and he thanked Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, saying "she's trying to do something that needs to be done" for raising the issue and making it part of the Academy's current consciousness.

Earlier at the event, Boone Isaacs launched a new initiative, A2020, that aims to promote more diversity of age, gender, race, national origin and point-of-view, in Hollywood over the next five years. 

"When it comes to fair and equal representation in our industry, words are are not enough," the Academy president said. "We also have a responsibility to take action and we have an unique opportunity to do so now."

Boone Isaacs noted that the Academy invited its most diverse group ever of new members this year and that 17 of the 51 members of the board of governors are now women.

"This must truly be an industry-wide commitment," she said. "We ask you to partner with us again in this critically important initiative."

The new Academy initiative is a five-year plan to study practices at the Academy with the aim of improving the diversity of its own staff and governance while also bringing new voices into the organization. It is also intended to encourage and to push the industry to examine its hiring practices and to begin to make changes.

Also on Saturday, the awards, voted by the Academy's board of governors, recognized Gena Rowlands, who received an honorary Oscar and Debbie Reynolds (who wasn't able to attend the proceedings), who was honored with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. And, since diversity was the theme of the evening, Boone Isaacs commented that she was "pleased that this year two of our honorees happen to be women and one an African-American man."

Zooey Deschanel kicked off the evening's series of tributes by singing the song "Tammy," which became a popular hit in 1957 when it was introduced in Reynolds' film Tammy and the Bachelor. Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep were on hand to testify to Reynolds' achievements as a philanthropist, whose work with the charity organization The Thalians raised millions of dollars for mental health care, beginning in the '50s, when that was hardly a popular cause, and whose personal efforts in amassing a collection of Hollywood memorabilia saved hundreds of costumes now considered classic examples of Hollywood history.

Said Fonda, "The award we are giving Debbie tonight, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, is presented not for her body of work as a performer, although we all recognize and cherish Debbie as the vibrant movie star who brought so much life and energy to her classic film roles, but for the outstanding work she has done outside her day job to improve our city, our country and the world. Debbie' philanthropy is both wide and deep." Reynolds was so devoted to the issue of mental health, Fonda joked, that "she persuaded her daughter Carrie to pretend that she suffered from mental illness." Carrie Fisher herself appeared in a video account of her mother's career and causes, saying, "I have no idea how she did all the things she did." Streep praised Reynolds' "passion to preserve the iconic costumes that we associate with Hollywood's golden age."

Although Reynolds, who is suffering from poor health, was not present to accept in person, she provided a brief audio acceptance in which she said, "I'm thrilled beyond words, shocked, and you couldn't be more amazed that a little girl from Burbank even came near this sort of accolade." In her absence, her granddaughter Billie Lourd accepted the award, saying, "It honestly feels super-weird to be up here without her," adding, "I've never seen her miss a show in her life."

Cate Blanchett led off the testimonials for Rowlands, a two-time Oscar nominee for her performances in A Woman Under the Influence and Gloria, both directed by her late husband John Cassavetes. "When I see the work of Gena Rowlands, the intense authenticity, the immediacy of her acting, seems to me to be as close as anyone has ever come to capturing on film that special quality, that presence of live stage performance. There is, quite simply, no membrane between Gena and her audience." Laura Linney spoke of working with Rowlands on the 2001 TV movie Wild Iris. "She invites you to jump in and splash about and discover what you didn't know existed," Linney said, continuing, without Rowlands "the work of actresses like Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Lawrence and many others worldwide would not exist."

Nick Cassavetes, who presented the award to his mother, underscored that sentiment. After recounting how his mother and father took over the family home for their pioneering indie features, he testified, "There are a lot of great actresses in this room, but she's the best one on the planet."

Accepting the honor, Rowlands confessed, "You know what's wonderful about being an actress? You don't live just one life — yours — you live many lives." She regaled the crowd with an anecdote about working with her idol Bette Davis, who, after deciding that Rowlands wasn't paying enough attention to how she appeared in dailies, cut her down to size by saying, "I'm telling you, you're no spring chicken yourself." And she saluted her husband, saying, "He wrote me the most magnificent parts."

The portion of the evening devoted to Lee's career began with Aloe Black singing Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," which Lee used in his 1992 biopic Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington. Washington appeared on stage alongside Wesley Snipes and Samuel L. Jackson, all veterans of Lee's movies. Riffing without any need for a teleprompter, the trio proved to be something of a modern-day Rat Pack, feeding each other good-natured jokes and even aiming a few barbs Lee's way. Snipes claimed he and Lee were once turned away from a post-Oscars Governors Ball because they didn't have the right ticket. And as Jackson was explaining, "Spike makes film that are very personal," Washington got a laugh by butting in to say, "He don't pay nobody, either." On a more serious note, Washington pointed out, "Spike Lee has put more African-Americans to work in this business than anyone else in the history of the business."

For his part, Lee, after showing off a special Oscar-gold pair of Air Jordans that he was wearing, used the occasion to relate his own journey to become a filmmaker. Admitting that he was a poor student during his days at Morehouse College, he found his calling when he began studying film at New York University — after being turned down, he said, by USC and the AFI. "I don't say I found film," he said. "Film found me."

As part of her welcoming remarks, Boone Isaacs also referenced the attacks in Paris, saying, "All of us here stand in solidarity and support of France and the French people." She observed, "Our connection with the film-loving French is especially deep."

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