Debbie Allen Recalls '98 Oscar Shutout of 'Amistad,' Talks Current Boycott (Q&A)

Debbie Allen

The Emmy-winning choreographer talks about diversity, Donald Trump and Denzel Washington directing the upcoming Feb. 11 episode of 'Grey's Anatomy.'

Debbie Allen won't be at the Oscars this year. It’s not that she’s boycotting, but she’s too busy readying her latest dance piece, Freeze Frame, for its world premiere in Beverly Hills next month. Besides, when you’ve choreographed the Oscars for 10 telecasts, there’s bound to be a feeling of "been there, done that."

Best know for her demanding-but-caring Lydia Grant in the 1980s film and TV series, Fame, Allen blazed a noteworthy career behind the camera as well, producing the '90s sitcom A Different World and the current ABC drama Grey's Anatomy. She also produced Amistad, a 1997 slave drama that garnered four Oscar nods but no wins.

“We did a movie that would stand the test of time. And my director, Steven Spielberg, was not nominated. My movie was not nominated best picture. It won the PGA and it won other places, but where were we? What was that about? I will never forget my publicists calling me that morning and saying, 'Baby, you were shut out,'” Allen told The Hollywood Reporter in a wide-ranging conversation.

“Let me just say this, Oscar is a fickle bird. I was there when Barbra Streisand’s Prince of Tides was nominated for best picture but she wasn’t nominated for best director, which is a call for: Where are the women?”

So you see it as all tied together?

In the history, there have only been four women who have been nominated, including Kathryn [Bigelow], who finally won [for The Hurt Locker]. That’s a long time. I was there when Whoopi Goldberg was the first African-American woman after 50 years and Hattie McDaniel. Oscar is a bird that I think needs a dance class, honey, 'cause it needs to learn how to kick, go left and right, and jump up and down. And sometimes, it goes in the same path and the only way that can change is inside.

Like the shakeup Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs is talking about?

It’s a long time in the making, but I think the shakeup that’s happening right now, it’s a good thing. I think it’s a good thing that people are emotional and expressing themselves. This will sensitize members, voters, everyone about this issue. We’ve had some banner years. I won’t forget when Halle [Berry] and Denzel [Washington] both won on the same night.

How do you explain it when it’s now two years in a row that people of color are shut out of acting categories?

It’s basically unconscious bias. It’s not intentional, sometimes. I remember when I was working on Amistad with Steven Spielberg, I said, "Steven, we don’t have very many black people on the crew." And then the next day there were people. It wasn’t intentional. You get a group of people you’re used to working with and you use them all the time.

Do you agree with Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith on the issue of boycotting the Oscars?

Everybody should do what they feel. That’s what I think. I think everyone needs to just look in that mirror and know who’s looking back and you make up your own mind. But I think Jada’s actions, I respect it so strongly and I applaud her standing up and it’s going to be interesting to see. Last year’s Oscars was one of the lowest-rated Oscars that we’ve had in history.

Presumably you saw Straight Outta Compton?

I don’t know how Straight Outta Compton didn’t get something else. That movie was riveting. But the good news is those young men are working now in other movies.

Do you think the public sees this issue as a Hollywood story, or as part of a greater discussion regarding race relations? Is enough attention being paid?

I’m paying attention to violence in America. I’m paying attention to young people who need to be able to grow up in this country with some education and some hope. I’m paying attention to where we are with our police. What happens when we have some police acting like they’re on the shooting range on the Serengeti. What is that? That’s what I’m paying attention to. I’m paying attention to what can make the difference.

And you see film and TV as part of that?

And that’s why I’m loving what I’m doing at Shondaland. Everything [Shonda Rhimes] puts her hand on is opening peoples' thinking, opening how they look at people.

Will we see some of that in the next season on Grey’s Anatomy?

Denzel Washington just directed our season opening for the second part of the season and I’m telling you, this episode will blow people’s minds. The world doesn’t know this yet. I hired him as a director. Talked him into it. It airs Feb. 11, "The Sound of Silence." It’s almost like another Grey’s Anatomy altogether.

You find greater diversity in producing for television?

It’s a different world. C’mon, Shonda Rhimes, the land that she lives in is diversity. Grey’s Anatomy, from the head of the hospital, interracial relationships, the lesbian relationship, every aspect of real human life is represented in the work that she does and that is real power. Lee Daniels shook up the world with Empire. There’s an audience that needs to be served. Young people are speaking. That’s why I think Oscar needs a dance class. Shonda Rhimes, I will never forget when she won the diversity award from the [Directors Guild of America] a few years ago. It was amazing, she didn’t understand why this award needs to exist.

By focusing on immigration, does someone like Donald Trump do a service by encouraging intolerant voices to reveal themselves?

Yes, Donald Trump is saying a lot of things. I met Donald Trump many years ago and he’s always been his own person. Donald Trump is a real wake-up call for the Republican party, I can tell you that. Look at him. He may be their nominee. They'd better get ready. He’s coming out and he’s saying what he really thinks. He’s being just blatantly truthful. If he changes his mind, he’ll say that, too; "I thought that last week, but this is what I think now." Donald is such a character.